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It’s early, but where are the Blackhawks’ panic areas?

Brent Seabrook Corey Crawford

Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford

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Is some panic justified with the Blackhawks?




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Updated: October 27, 2013 10:23PM



There are two ways to look at the Blackhawks’ first 11 games. On one hand, they look little like the unstoppable juggernaut they were last season. On the other hand, their clunker Saturday against the Minnesota Wild was only their second regulation loss of the season and snapped a seven-game points streak.

So either the Hawks are suffering from the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover and doomed to a season of scuffling, or they’re due to break out and dominate again any day now. It’s still early, but with the Central Division looking strong so far, it’s a good time to check the Panic Meter (on a scale of 1 to 10).

Offense

The Hawks finally broke through for five goals Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Of course, the Lightning scored one of those goals themselves. Aside from that game and the opener, the Hawks have failed to score more than three goals and have scored only two six times. It’s not for a lack of chances, though. The Hawks are third in the league in shots on goal at 34.7 per game; they’re just not going in.

Patrick Sharp seems
especially snakebitten, with only one goal on 45 shots, including six breakaways. He had seven quality shots against the Wild, but Niklas Backstrom made every stop.

With Bryan Bickell back on the third line and back in his comfort zone (four goals in four games) and Marcus Kruger giving Sharp and Patrick Kane some more speed to work with than
injured Michal Handzus, the pucks are bound to start
going in sooner than later.

Panic Meter: 2.

Defense/goaltending

The Hawks allowed only 18 goals (excluding shootouts) through their first nine games, right on par with their Jennings Trophy-winning pace of last season. But in the last two games, the Hawks have yielded a whopping 11 goals.

Nikolai Khabibulin struggled mightily against the Lightning, and Corey Crawford was largely a victim of his sloppy teammates against the Wild. The hope is Khabibulin will fare better when he plays more regularly (two starts in four weeks).

Third in shots on goal, the Hawks are also third in shots on goal against, allowing only 25.8 per game. The last two games were bad, but they were the exception, not the rule.

Panic Meter: 3.

Special teams

Here’s where things get a little hairy. One of the biggest reasons for the Hawks’ success last season was their penalty kill, which was third-best in the league at 87.2 percent. The kill has been an unmitigated disaster this season, allowing 10 goals on 36 power plays (72.2 percent). Michael Frolik’s absence looms very large, as Joakim Nordstrom, Hand-
zus, Ben Smith and Brad Mills all have been used in his role alongside Kruger. And none has had the combination of fearlessness and speed that Frolik brought.

The power play has been marginally better than it was last season, scoring 20 percent of the time (up from 16.6). But it has been wildly inconsistent — aggressive, structured, skate-moving power plays followed by
lethargic, sloppy, standing-still efforts.

Games are won or lost on special teams. At least one of these units has to find its groove.

Panic Meter: 8.

Depth

Hawks fans had been clamoring for the next generation to come up from Rockford, and they got their wish. But there’s a difference between American Hockey League-dominant and NHL-ready. Frolik, Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg, Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo gave the Hawks talent on their bottom two lines and veteran savvy. They were all underrated pieces of the Hawks’ championship puzzle.

Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin, Nordstrom, Smith and Jimmy Hayes have loads of talent and potential, but they are just beginning the growing pains nearly every player not named Brandon Saad goes through.

The good news is, it’s a long season. The bad news is, it’s a long process.

Panic Meter: 6.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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