By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) — If there’s anything to be optimistic about now that the Blackhawks are down 3-1 to the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Final, it’s that they managed to sustain some puck possession in the third period of Monday’s 5-2 loss.
That’s at least a sign that they can win Game 5 at home Wednesday, the first step — and the only step that matters right now — in putting together a comeback.
To me, the Kings’ dominance from the third period of Game 2 through the first period of Game 4 was shocking. But let me be clear: The shocking part is not that the Kings played so well for so long — they’re an extremely good hockey team. No, the shocking part is how poorly the Blackhawks played and how far away they got from their usual puck-possessing game.
When you’re not winning faceoffs, when you’re not carrying the puck into the offensive zone and when you’re not getting shots on goal, you’re not going to win games, especially when you’re facing a goaltender like Jonathan Quick.
To compound matters, the Blackhawks have also fallen apart on the back end — especially on the penalty kill. Somehow the Kings are getting clean shots through the slot, with unmarked men standing right in front of Corey Crawford. That’s a bad combination.
One of the most impressive parts of the Blackhawks’ run this postseason has been their ability to block shots. Well, if you haven’t noticed, the blocked shots have fallen off dramatically in the last three games.
In Game 1 against the Kings — a 3-1 Chicago victory — the Blackhawks blocked 25 shots. In the last three games combined, they’ve blocked a total of 35 shots (13 in Game 2, 10 in Game 3, 12 in Game 4).
I went back and looked at the blocked shots in every postseason game the Blackhawks have played this year and found this: When they block at least 20 shots in a game, they are 6-1. When they don’t, they are 3-6.
Of course, that’s not the only correlation between winning and losing for the Hawks. Not winning faceoffs has also been a problem. After winning 50 percent of their draws against the Kings in Game 1, the Blackhawks only won 39 percent in Game 2, 47 percent in Game 3 and 42 percent in Game 4.
Jonathan Toews especially struggled in Game 4, winning just 7-of-21 faceoffs and only 1-of-6 against Anze Kopitar.
Rule No. 1 for a team that likes to possess the puck is this: start by getting the puck.
Not surprisingly, the Blackhawks are 6-2 this postseason when they win at least 50 percent of their faceoffs and 3-5 when they win less than 50 percent.
Obviously, the Kings deserve a lot of credit for what they are doing to the Blackhawks, but there are certainly things within Chicago’s control that it can do better.
That starts on the penalty kill, where Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith can’t let Jeff Carter park his rear end right in Crawford’s face. That’s also where the Blackhawks need to get back to blocking more shots. Last week, Niklas Hjalmarsson — who had five of the Hawks’ 12 blocked shots Monday night — said he didn’t think blocking shots in a “special skill.” He’s right. Blocking shots takes a certain attitude and a mental willingness to stand in front of a screaming puck.
Easy for me to say, as I sure as hell won’t get in front of a Jake Muzzin shot anytime soon. But I’m also not paid to do so.
If the Blackhawks are going to complete their second 3-1 series comeback in two years, they’re going to have do a lot more than win faceoffs and block shots, but that would be a good place to start. The good news is that they finally started to sustain some possession in the third period Monday night, which is why Kings coach Darryl Sutter wasn’t very happy with how his team played in Game 4, despite the 5-2 win.
“We’ll have to play a hell of a lot better than we did tonight,” Sutter said when asked what it will take to close out the Blackhawks.
In my mind, there’s a good chance the series will return to Los Angeles for Game 6 Friday night. At that point, if the Blackhawks can steal a game on the road, all the sudden it’s a toss-up in Game 7 Sunday.
It won’t be easy — especially against a team as good as the Kings — but by now you should know not to rule out the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears and Blackhawks for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.