Blackhawks plenty good, but there are things they can improve
BY MARK LAZERUS Staff Reporter December 26, 2013 9:38PM
Patrick Kane’s 49 points (22 goals, 27 assists) have the Hawks sitting atop the league in scoring, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things they need to improve during the second half of the season. | Bill Smith Getty Images
The facts: 7 p.m., CSN,
Updated: January 28, 2014 6:25AM
They sit atop the Central Division, one point shy of the best record in the league. They have a legitimate MVP candidate in Patrick Kane, possibly the leading Norris Trophy candidate in Duncan Keith and a roster that’s just starting to get healthy. And, perhaps most impressive, they seem to have avoided the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover, as motivated and energized as ever.
But as the Blackhawks come out of their three-day Christmas break and start what amounts to the second half of the season, they know one thing above all: There’s a lot of work to be done.
‘‘We haven’t done anything yet, so there’s no point in sitting here and being happy about everything,’’ Keith said. ‘‘We’re halfway there. We’re not anywhere yet.’’
And despite their gaudy record and league-leading offense, the Hawks are hardly a perfect team. Here are three areas the Hawks need to improve on in the second half if they expect to make a run at a second consecutive Cup.
Despite killing 14 of 15 power plays in their last four games — ‘‘baby steps,’’ coach Joel Quenneville called it — the Hawks still find themselves 28th in the league on the penalty kill, with opponents scoring 24.4 percent of the time. The Hawks, like the Kings and Bruins before them, proved last spring that you can win the Cup with a bad power play. But a bad penalty kill might prove to be a fatal flaw, especially as the games tighten up and five-on-five goals become harder to come by in the playoffs.
For reasons even the Hawks can’t explain, they’ve been passive and hesitant on the kill, looking nothing like the aggressive, shot-blocking, offense-generating, point-pinching and slot-clogging unit of last season, despite having largely the same personnel and the same scheme.
The good news is, the power play is humming along at a 23.9 percent clip, third-best in the league, in a remarkable turnaround from last season. It’ll have to keep that up to help offset the kill — unless the recent uptick is a sign of things to come.
The Hawks have lost seven games in regulation all season, but six of them have come against Central Division opponents, against whom they’re a pedestrian 8-6-1. With the new divisional playoff format, in which a team has to get out of its division in the first two rounds, that’s disconcerting, especially considering the St. Louis Blues (who are five points behind the Hawks but have three games in hand) are 10-0-1 in the division and the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild are well above .500, too.
A Hawks-Blues second-round matchup feels inevitable, and home-ice advantage will be crucial in that series. The Hawks can’t afford to give up four-point swings against Central Division teams.
They come out of the break with back-to-back games against the Avalanche (at home) and the Blues (on the road). They’re a combined 0-2-1 against those teams this season. That has to change — and soon.
Antti Raanta has shored up the depth in goal and held down the fort while Corey Crawford recovers from a groin injury. And eight defensemen have the back end in good shape. But beyond the 12 forwards the Hawks dress nightly, there’s not much of a safety net up front.
Sheldon Brookbank has played forward as much as he has played defense this season, and rookies such as Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin and Joakim Nordstrom — none of whom has overwhelmed Quenneville with his defensive play — are the next men up should another injury occur. Last season, the Hawks were scratching veterans such as Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo every night. Expect general manager Stan Bowman to be on the lookout for veteran depth — another Michal Handzus-type acquisition — as the March 5 trade deadline approaches.