By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) So it ends for the Blackhawks. A first-round defeat to the Phoenix Coyotes while losing all three playoff games at the United Center.
The Blackhawks piled up a huge shots-on-goal advantage in Game 6, but that doesn’t always indicate the dominance of one team over the other. Sometimes, as the shots mount up, the opponent starts to gain confidence.
That’s what seemed to occur in Game 6. Once Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored on a power play shortly after the midway point of the second period, the Blackhawks were in a familiar position. They were down a goal that they would surely chase down – perhaps in the final minute with the goalie pulled – and the game would be decided in overtime. But when Kyle Chipchura deftly threw the puck in front of the net to the alert and sniping Gilbert Brule early in the third period, the Coyotes had a 2-0 lead that looked insurmountable.
The Blackhawks would have needed their best effort of the playoffs to get back in the game. The 2-0 lead grew to 4-0 and the string of consecutive overtime games had concluded. So had the Blackhawks’ season.
Putting the puck in the net was a huge issue in this series and the Blackhawks had too many near misses in this series. The shot total was there, but how many were quality chances? Mike Smith may have been one of the dominant factors, but did he have to stop any shot in Game 6 as perfectly placed as the one Brule put in the net that created the 2-0 mountain? He did not.
The timing was just a bit off on the offensive end. The Blackhawks held a 16-2 shot on goal advantage in the first period but could not dent. They need more finishers if they are going to repeat the success they had in the spring/summer of 2010. A player like Rick Nash comes to mind. The Columbus Blue Jackets were willing to move their big goal scorer prior to the trade deadline, but their price was not met. Perhaps they will be more reasonable during the offseason. His size and speed in the offensive zone would do wonders for an offense that too often went into hibernation this year.
There are several other personnel issues that will need to be addressed, but the biggest problem may be the philosophy in the front office that goaltending does not have to be stellar to win the Stanley Cup. Stan Bowman and his Hall of Fame father Scotty Bowman may be of a mind that as long as the goaltenders can stop all the shots they SHOULD stop, that’s good enough. They point to their own 2010 Stanley Cup run and several championships that the Red Wings have won. But that’s really not appropriate. Perhaps Antti Niemi was just good enough two years ago, but the Blackhawks had top-end and complementary talent that season. They don’t have that complementary talent any longer and that means they have to make upgrades elsewhere.
When the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup –1997, ’98, ’02 and ’08 – they had overwhelming physical talent. They were able to storm past teams like the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes. The last of those four titles saw them edge another sensationally talented team in the Pittsburgh Penguins. When they met Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Finals the following year, Pittsburgh had the better goaltending with Marc-Andre Fleury and won the title.
They have to find a great goaltender to anchor the defense. Good enough is not good enough when you are talking about the NHL playoffs. You need a stellar goaltender unless the talent level is overwhelming.
Physical play is also an issue. The Blackhawks got out-hit night after night and they need to add size up front and on the blue line so they can impose their will on the opposition. That didn’t happen this year and the Hawks are out after one playoff round for the second straight year.
Last year, they lost to the hated Vancouver Canucks who made it all the way to the Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins before their title dreams dissolved into salty tears. The Coyotes do not appear to be championship timber. They are likely to fall to the Nashville Predators in the second round or to the winner of the St. Louis Blues-Los Angeles Kings matchup in the second round. The point is, the Blackhawks should not go patting themselves on the back or giving themselves any points because they lost to a formidable opponent.
It was a lost and ho-hum season. That’s not acceptable after the bar was set at such a high level two years ago.
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.