By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) When the season ended with a handshake line against the Phoenix Coyotes last month, it was the familiar feeling of Stanley Cup disappointment for the Blackhawks.
While nobody expected the Blackhawks to reprise their 2010 success and defend their title a year ago – too many salary-cap moves eliminated that possibility– there was hope that the Blackhawks could at least make a decent run and get to the second or third round this year, if not further.
Goaltending is one of the key issues that derailed the Blackhawks this year. Once again, the playoffs have shown that the teams with the best goaltending are the teams that usually have the best chance of surviving and advancing.
While the Hawks did not have brilliant goaltending with Antti Niemi in 2010, it was the way the Boston Bruins wrote the script last year when they won their first cup in 39 years with Tim Thomas in goal and it is the same route the Los Angeles Kings are following this year with Jonathan Quick between the pipes.
The Kings are not a fancy team by any stretch. You won’t find Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar or Mike Richards among the league’s leading scorers during the regular season. But they skate like wild dogs going after raw meat. They know that Quick is not going to give up soft goals.
Quick is aggressive in net and his game is all about positioning and vision. When Quick is in the net, he looks like a contortionist because he often gets down low to the ice so he can follow the flight of the puck. He is often peering between legs and around bodies so he will not be screened out.
It’s somewhat surprising that more goalies don’t play it that way. You can’t stop what you can’t see and all Quick is doing is making sure he has vision of the puck as it travels towards the net. That’s something that Hawks’ goalie Corey Crawford needs to change. His penchant for giving up soft goals at the worst possible moments had as much to do with the Hawks demise as any other factor. He does not follow the puck like Quick.
Crawford is an earnest, hard-trying goalie who takes every goal he gives up to heart. He can’t seem to shake off a mistake and go on to the next shot with an unimpeded conscience. It seems like Crawford is always thinking about the one that got away. That’s no way for a competent goalie to play in the NHL. General manager Stan Bowman has to know that and needs to be thinking about finding a better goaltender.
That thought may be in the back of Bowman’s mind or it may not. Bowman is the author of the theory that all a team needs is a competent goalie if the defense and the forwards are good enough. That’s a foolish idea and it needs to be changed immediately. If Bowman holds on to that thought process, there will be more first-round defeats for the Hawks.
But what the Hawks really need to learn from the Kings is that aggressive forechecking and taking a straight line to the puck will go a long way towards being successful.
When Darryl Sutter took over as the Kings’ head coach, the Kings were wrapped up in former coach Andy Murray’s defense-first system. Under Sutter, the thought process has been to preach aggressiveness no matter where the puck is on the ice. You have to take your opponent’s body at every opportunity and get speed through the neutral zone.
The result has been dramatic for the Kings. They have gotten through the first three rounds of the playoffs by winning all but two games and they are undefeated in eight road playoff games. There is nothing fancy about the gameplan. They simply run over whoever has the puck and get it to the front of the net quickly.
That’s the kind of mentality that championship teams need. If you have a team with the skill level of 2008 Detroit Red Wings or 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins, you can play a fancier game. The 2010 Hawks were a cross between the skill of those teams and the aggressiveness of the Bruins and Kings. Head coach Joel Quenneville needs to realize that his team doesn’t have a lot of the skill level that it did in 2010 and must change its approach.
If Bowman can reel in a free agent like New Jersey’s Zach Parise, it will go a long way toward making the Hawks a big-time postseason factor once again.
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.