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Defense falters again as Blackhawks drop another one

The question was simple, and the answer was simple. But the long, uncomfortable, contemplative pause before Sunday’s game between Joel Quenneville being asked about his team’s defensive consistency lately and his terse, “Our D’s been fine” response spoke volumes.

There’s been nothing fine about it.

In the wake of their 6-3 loss to the Dallas Stars on Sunday night, the Hawks, the league’s stingiest team entering the game (but no longer), have given up at least four goals in three of their last four games, and six of their last 11. As a result, they have lost two straight, three of four, and five of eight. 

Quenneville called Sunday’s loss a “carbon copy” of Friday’s loss to Winnipeg — a surging division rival playing for the second straight night on the road, scoring a power-play goal in the third period and pulling away for a victory. 

“We’re not happy,” Quenneville said. “Home games. Games that we’re expected to win, teams that played the night before, points you’ve got to have. … We saw two opponents in the past two nights that are trying to move ahead. And that’s what we’re going to face every night. We’ve got to be more competitive than we saw.”

Following the game, Jonathan Toews was sitting at his locker stall, waiting for the oncoming media horde, knowing it falls on him as captain to answer for the team’s struggles at times like this. But while he pinpointed all the things going wrong — too many odd-man rushes against, too many defensive lapses, too many squandered chances — he didn’t sound terribly concerned. The Hawks have shown a knack for flipping the switch when needed over the years, and seem to be leaning on that belief now.

“You’re going to have tough moments throughout the season,” he said. “We’re not going to overreact and make a huge deal and panic about anything. Just the same way we don’t get overconfident when things are going our way.”

Marian Hossa echoed Toews, lamenting all the “criss-cross passing going through us” but saying there’s nothing to worry about. At some point, though, a blip becomes a trend, and a lull becomes a concern. 

Brandon Saad, who scored twice — and has eight goals in his last 10 games — wasn’t quite so blasé about it.

“I think it’s already a concern,” he said. 

Most alarming have been the defensive lapses. Throughout January, it’s been a parade of 2-on-1s against — at even strength, on the power play, even shorthanded. It seems to happen several times a game — a defenseman pinches offensively, a teammate fails to cover for him, the Hawks put the puck in the wrong spot and the other team is off to the races. 

“The way we play the game, we’ve got to help each other out,” Saad said. “We’ve got to play five-man packs around the ice, and it seems like our details are slipping and we’re letting each other down.”

The Hawks rallied from an early 2-0 deficit (that included a Cody Eakin shorthanded goal on a 2-on-1) with rebound goals by Patrick Kane and Saad. After Vernon Fiddler made it 3-2 Dallas late in the first, Saad scored again in the second to tie it back up. But a Johnny Oduya penalty led to Eakin’s second goal — the seventh power-play goal the Hawks’ top-ranked penalty-killing unit has surrendered in 11 games — was the backbreaker. Erik Cole added an insurance goal on yet another 2-on-1, and Shawn Horcoff scored an empty-netter in the final minute. 

It looked a lot like Friday’s loss. And a lot like the others that have started to pile up since New Year’s as the Nashville Predators pull further ahead, the St. Louis Blues pass them up and the Jets close in. 

But the Hawks insist they’re not worried. Not yet, at least.

“We’ve had great stretches, and we’re going to lose some games,” Hossa said. “We just have to learn from it and tighten up.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus