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How to get the punchless Blackhawks back on the offensive

Before we plunge too deeply into what’s ailing the Blackhawks, it’s worth noting that, despite sputtering their way through two losses in their last three games, they’re a healthy 7-2-1 in March, and still very much in contention for the Central Division title. They’re five points back of St. Louis, yes, but with a game in hand and two head-to-head meetings in the final week of the season.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate concerns with barely two weeks left in the regular season. The Hawks, to put it bluntly, can’t score. Granted, scoring is down significantly throughout the league. But excluding an empty-netter at Carolina, the Hawks have just four goals in their last four games, and have scored two or fewer goals in seven of their last nine (a testament to just how good Corey Crawford has been lately).

How and why are the Hawks struggling? Let us count the ways.

1. The missing link
Obviously, the biggest difference for the Hawks over the last few weeks has been the absence of Patrick Kane. Kane drives the Hawks’ puck-possession game, and without him, the Hawks have tried to adopt a more straight-forward, simplistic style. Well, most of them have, at least.

Kris Versteeg appears to be feeling the loss of Kane the most. Versteeg was at his best this season when on a line with Kane, where his own natural creativity with the puck could mesh with Kane’s. That patient, creative style doesn’t fit the way the Hawks are trying to play now, and his reluctance to dump and chase, or simply move the puck ahead with speed and directness, has been frustrating Joel Quenneville, earning Versteeg a benching in New York last Wednesday.

In 11 games without Kane, Versteeg has no goals and one assist. The Hawks did not make Versteeg available to reporters after each of the last two morning skates.

“[We’re] trying to get the delay out of the game — it slows him down and slows us down,” said Quenneville, who said Versteeg had been better this year about playing more direct. “It’s not really the style we want to play.”

2. On the defensive
Much of the Hawks offense is generated on the back end by their puck-moving blue-liners, either by quick stretch passes from the defensive zone, or by pinching in the offensive zone. But the current pairings haven’t been conducive to that. Duncan Keith has had to be more conservative and defensive-minded with the slower Michal Rozsival as his partner, and Brent Seabrook has had to do the same as Kimmo Timonen gets his legs back following a 10-month layoff.

When Keith and Seabrook are together, they often get favorable offensive matchups and zone starts while Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson handle the toughest defensive assignments. Without them activating off the blue line, the Hawks are struggling to generate sustained offense in the attack zone. Pairing Timonen with Rozsival is a dicey proposition, but getting Keith and Seabrook back together would be worth it.

3. Get greasy
It’s a familiar refrain, but the Hawks aren’t doing enough of the dirty work to create second-chance goals and tip-ins. They’ve had 30 shots on goal in six of their last seven games, but it’s been mostly one-and-dones, with easily cleared rebounds or easily smothered saves. Opponents are keeping the Hawks to the outside, and keeping the crease clear of traffic, making life easy on goaltenders.

“You’ve got to get to the front of the net, you’ve got to get greasy goals,” Quenneville said after Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to the Flyers. “They got a couple of those tips that went their way because they got inside, and we were too much on the outside.”

4. Stay the course
Quenneville didn’t do himself any favors by benching Bryan Bickell and Teuvo Teravainen for Daniel Carcillo and Andrew Desjardins in Philadelphia, or by splitting up Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, who bring out the best in each other. The Hawks need goals and possession-drivers, and they also need consistency in the lines. With nine games left in the season, it’s too late for tinkering.

You know Toews, Hossa and Patrick Sharp work like gangbusters together. You saw flashes of what Teravainen, Brandon Saad and Antoine Vermette could do. You saw Andrew Shaw’s game awaken in a scrappier role as a fourth-line winger. And you know this is the time of year when Bickell traditionally gets going.

If the Hawks are going to make any kind of run this postseason — and despite an unimpressive road trip, they very much still can in a good but not overwhelming Western Conference — that’s the lineup that’s going to do it.

And if they can do it long enough to get Kane back in the lineup this spring, that might be the best solution of all.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus