By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Blackhawks panic is in full flight.
Normally, we associate panic with some kind of overreaction. In sports, you panic when your team goes through a losing streak. In the back of your mind you know that all teams go through slumps and they eventually end. “This, too, shall pass,” and so it goes.
But in some cases, the panic is warranted. This Blackhawks’ slump is serious business and while the team will eventually come out of it, the scars being raised will likely have an impact come playoff time.
Here are the facts. The Blackhawks have not won a game since Jan. 20, when the Panthers came to the United Center and were sent home with a 3-1 defeat. Who would have thought that the Blackhawks would lose their next six games, including the first four of a nine-game road trip?
A team that won the Stanley Cup just two years ago should not be this homesick. The Blackhawks haven’t won a road game since recording a 4-3 win at Minnesota Dec. 14.
The offense has been a bit uneven, but the big problem has been the overall play of the defense. Simply put, the goaltending has been bad and the defensive play has been slow and lazy.
In the 5-2 loss to the Avalanche on Tuesday, the Blackhawks made the Colorado forwards look like they were playing Stanley Cup contending Avalanche from a decade ago or perhaps even the scintillating Montreal Canadiens from a generation ago. Colorado is not that kind of team. They came into the game on a five-game losing streak and had been unable to find the net consistently. All they needed to get well was a visit from the Blackhawks.
But it was the loss to the Flames last week that the weakness in the defense became crystallized. Going into that game, they had given up eight goals to the lowly Edmonton Oilers. They turned Sam Gagner into a household name in Canada because he had a hand in all eight goals, scoring four and assisting on four more.
Disgusted by that performance, head coach Joel Quenneville demanded a better showing against the Flames. They held Calgary to a goal in the first period and the teams were tied after one. They gave up the lead by allowing a single goal in the second, but they were still in the game and had every chance of registering the tying goal against a Calgary team that is on the critical list for earning a playoff spot.
In the third period, the Blackhawks had a few offensive forays but could not tie the game. Then, with less than eight minutes to play, Jarome Iginla got behind the Hawks defense, made a predictable move to his backhand and beat Ray Emery with a goal that salted away the game. All shoulders on the Blackhawks’ bench slumped after that goal and there has been no bounce back since then.
Iginla positioned himself near the Chicago blue line hoping a teammate would see him before Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith. Alex Tanguay saw him and simply fired a pass up ice. If Keith saw Iginla, he never reacted until the Calgary forward started in on Emery. Keith didn’t get close enough to even alter Iginla’s shot.
Emery was unable to stay with Iginla’s simple forehand-to-backhand maneuver. Iginla has one of the best wrist shots in the game, but he is not known for his stellar moves when in alone on the goalie.
That put-away goal should serve as notice to Stan Bowman that his team’s defensive issues are great and need to be addressed. Emery was playing because Corey Crawford was shell shocked. The goaltending overall is abominable and the Hawks are not going to win even a first-round series with such mediocre puck stopping.
Even more troubling is a defense that has given up so many glorious scoring opportunities to the opponents. Quenneville acknowledged his team’s poor defensive play as it practiced in Denver yesterday.
“It’s more of our defending,” Quenneville told the assembled. “I think if we defended better, we’d have the puck more.”
That’s a message to Stan Bowman. Quenneville needs defensemen who can take the puck away and carry it out of trouble. These defensemen are hard to find as the trade deadline approaches, but teams like Montreal, Buffalo and Edmonton that are seemingly out of playoff contention may be willing to deal.
That’s not enough. The Blackhawks won’t publicly talk about their goaltending deficiencies, but they exist in a big way. Neither Crawford nor Emery are good enough.
It’s time for Bowman to get busy if this team is going to rescue its once promising season.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.