By Steve Silverman
(CBS) — You don’t have to be a hockey savant to know that the Chicago Blackhawks are going to be marked men this season every time they step on the ice.
They won the 2013 Stanley Cup with an epic performance in the finals against the Boston Bruins and they started the season in record fashion by registering at least one point in their first 24 games.
That means that every team that lines up against the Blackhawks has a chance to get the equivalent of a psychological massage. If you can beat them, extend them to extra time or even push them hard in regulation, you have a chance to feel good about yourself when you skate off the ice.
But it’s not really about the opponents, as far as head coach Joel Quenneville is concerned. It’s about a consistent effort in all three zones and bringing it every night. If opponents like the St. Louis Blues and New York Islanders are primed because they are facing the defending Stanley Cup champions, that’s their business. The Blackhawks can’t concern themselves with that.
Through the first four games, the Blackhawks are 2-1-1, and there has been one somewhat disturbing trend in all of those games. They have given up the lead at one point or another.
That cost them against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Blues. Tampa Bay was outplayed for the majority of the game and even went the first 20 minutes without registering a shot on goal, but rallied with two late goals to send the game into extra time, and the Lightning won the game in a shootout.
The Blackhawks and Blues went at it hard in St. Louis, and despite taking an early lead, Chicago could not hold off St. Louis. Alex Steen took advantage of a defensive breakdown by Brent Seabrook and led the Blues on a last-minute 3-on-1 rush and blasted a slap shot through Corey Crawford’s five-hole.
Last night, the Blackhawks jumped to an early 2-0 lead on the New York Islanders, but New York tied the score with two goals in the final minute of the first period. Instead of falling apart after allowing two goals in such a short span at a critical time, the Blackhawks simply buckled up and put on their best defensive showing of the early season.
They got a second-period goal from Michal Handzus to reclaim the lead and didn’t need anything more. The Islanders could not put one more puck past Nikolai Khabibulin, making his first appearance in the Chicago goal since 2009.
Overall, the Blackhawks have been able to play the solid puck possession game that has allowed them to win two of the last four Stanley Cups. However, there are a few blips, and some of it has to do with the personnel moves that came during the short offseason.
Dave Bolland was often maligned in Chicago for not doing more, but he was solid in the faceoff-off circle and he gave the Blackhawks an edge in that department on a regular basis. Bolland is now in Toronto and the Blackhawks’ face-off percentage is a mediocre 50.6 percent. That’s 13th in the league and well behind league-leading Minnesota (60.6 percent) and Pittsburgh (59.3 percent).
That’s not good, but the loss of Michael Frolik on the penalty kill has caused bigger problems. Through the first four games, the Blackhawks have the worst penalty kill of any team in Gary Bettman’s 30-team playground.
This will hardly continue, but the loss of Bolland and Frolik was viewed as an afterthought by the Blackhawks (publicly) and many of their faithful chroniclers. Those were not routine losses, and Stan Bowman and Quenneville are going to have to come up with solutions to those issues.
It is the fine tuning and the details that are often the difference between raising the Stanley Cup and going out in the second round.
The Blackhawks have nothing to worry about with their core players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Seabrook. Keith got off to a bit of a slow start and Sharp has yet to find the back of the net, but both are skating hard and causing problems for opponents.
Additionally, Brandon Saad has been productive with two goals and two assists and looks much improved, while Johnny Oduya (plus-5) continues to be a rock on the blue line.
Early-season returns are promising, but there are issues. They have to improve in the face-off circle and get better on the penalty kill.
There’s plenty of time to fix them, but they must be addressed sooner rather than later. Future playoff glory depends on it.
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.