Will Lack of Physicality Cause Chicago Blackhawks to Unravel in Postseason?
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They have not clinched the President's Trophy yet because the Pittsburgh Penguins have been nearly as good. Still, with five days to go in the regular season, it seems that the Blackhawks will come away with the league's best regular-season record.
After playing the first 24 games before losing a regular-season game in regulation, the Blackhawks have played solid hockey in the second half of the season. While they have not come close to the scintillating record they put up in the first half of the year, there have been few signs of weakness.
However, as good as the Blackhawks have been, they do appear to have one significant weakness: They do not excel at the physical aspects of the game.
When it comes to hitting the opponents and setting a tone with body checking, the Blackhawks are less likely to do this than any other team in the league. The Blackhawks have been credited with a league-low 779 hits. The Toronto Maple Leafs have a league-high 1,518 hits. They lead the second-place Los Angeles Kings by 140 hits.
The Blackhawks are a finesse team. They have played this kind of hockey since the 2009-10 season, when they won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years.
The core players on their roster have remained the same and head coach Joel Quenneville has remained behind the bench.
When they are at their best, the Blackhawks maintain possession of the puck. Using the body to hit opponents is a tactic that is most often used when trying to take control of the puck. Since the Blackhawks are skating, passing or shooting the puck much of the time, they may have less opportunity to hammer opponents with big hits.
However, while that is one explanation of why the Blackhawks are at the bottom of the hits chart, it doesn't explain it fully.
Getting physical with Chicago is a tactic that a sharp opponent will attempt to employ in the postseason.
The Blackhawks dropped a 3-1 decision to the Vancouver Canucks Monday night. It was one of the Canucks' best games of the season. They came out skating hard in front of their home fans and they also came out hitting. They established a tone early and they were in control of the game throughout.
"I thought our effort level was great, our execution was great, our defensive play was great, physicality, it was the whole package," goalie Cory Schneider told the Vancouver Sun. "If we play that way, and we know we can, we can beat a lot of teams in this league."
A last-week-of-the-season loss does not mean the Blackhawks are going to fall apart. It's natural for teams that build big leads to let up before the postseason.
Quenneville calls that "the worst game of the year." But: "I'm not concerned at all. Throw it in the garbage can. It's over." #Blackhawks
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) April 23, 2013
However, the game was significant because it gives opponents a road map on how to push Chicago to the limit and possibly beat the Blackhawks.
They are a team that relies on speed, skill and skating. But if you hit them hard and do it early and often, you can diminish their level of play.
The Blackhawks are a stellar team that includes superstars like Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane. They have excellent depth and the goaltending has been far better this season than had been anticipated.
They will be clear favorites to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.
However, they are not perfect. Quenneville's team is not destined to run roughshod over everyone.They still have to go out and earn it.
A team that can establish a physical game has a chance to beat them.
Steal a couple of games early in a playoff series, and the best team in the NHL may just start to unravel.
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