Chicago Blackhawks' Struggles Hitting Critical Mass as Season Winds Down

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Chicago Blackhawks' Struggles Hitting Critical Mass as Season Winds Down
Andre Ringuette/Getty Images
Chicago dropped its second straight road game in Ottawa Friday night.

  The Chicago Blackhawks have hit the nadir of the 2013-14 campaign following a 5-3 defeat at the hands of the Ottawa Senators. If you haven't admitted to yourself that the 'Hawks are slumping in a big way, it might be time to re-evaluate what you're seeing on the ice.

The Blackhawks, badly in need of a road win and playing a struggling Senators club, laid an egg Friday night. Falling behind 3-0 early in the second period, Chicago went down despite the efforts of Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.

The goalie who allowed five goals, 'Hawks backup netminder Antti Raanta, hasn't won a game in over two months.

Niklas Hjalmarsson, who has been arguably Chicago's best defender this season, had a knee-to-knee collision with Ottawa's Chris Neil late in the second period. Hjalmarsson spent most of the third period on the bench.

Andrew Shaw speared Zack Smith late in the game and could possibly be facing league discipline.

Jeremy Morin, who has been doing everything short of driving the team bus in Rockford to earn some NHL minutes, sat Friday so recently signed Matt Carey could skate 7:53.

Oh, and Patrick Kane is still hurt.

Other than the above issues, everything's looking rosy for the Blackhawks as the playoffs loom.

Friday's loss was the third in Chicago's last four games. They are an unimpressive 7-6-1 in the month of March. The Pittsburgh Penguins host the 'Hawks Sunday, looking to avenge Chicago's 5-1 Stadium Series win on March 1.

The Blackhawks are still in decent position for the postseason and could well find their playoff groove next month; this is still an impressive collection of talent in Chicago.

However, right now the 'Hawks are scuffling. That starts right at the top, according to captain Jonathan Toews. Here's what Toews told Wayne Scanlan after the game, per ESPNChicago.com:

It's not one or two guys. It's throughout our whole lineup. Everybody seems to a (sic) part of the bad habits that are running contagiously through our lineup.

That was the case Friday. Chicago outshot the Senators 49-29 and dominated Ottawa at the dot to the tune of 44-21. It was for naught. The home team got a good performance out of former Blackhawks goalie Craig Anderson in contrast to Raanta, who let in three of the first 14 shots he faced.

Raanta did an exemplary job when Corey Crawford was hurt, but has not been effective in the limited role of backup. As I said back in January, Raanta would have been better off in Rockford, where veteran backup Jason LaBarbera has experience with sporadic appearances.

Back in January when Crawford was set to return, it appeared that Raanta's success would lead to coach Joel Quenneville using his goalies in a tandem similar to last season with Crawford and Ray Emery.  That hasn't been the case. Crawford has started nearly 80 percent of Chicago's games since coming back.

Raanta has been used in seven starts in 2014. He is 2-3-1 in those starts and was pulled after 4 goals midway through his start in Calgary on Jan. 28. In this stretch, Raanta has a 3.38 GAA and a .875 save percentage.

Quenneville is not above scrutiny for scratching Morin as well as Teuvo Teravainen in favor of Carey. In his NHL debut, Carey had the misfortune of deflecting Cody Ceci's shot into his own net at the end of the first period. He was also whistled for a faceoff violation that led to the fourth Ottawa goal in the third period.

Nights like that happen to the best of them. However, Morin has been effective in his limited recent outings and has scoring ability. The fact that he isn't being given the chance to work his way into a place in the lineup is ridiculous.

Bryan Bickell and Michal Rozsival are nearing returns from injury. Hopefully Hjalmarsson was held out as a precaution and won't be hampered with a knee injury with the postseason coming up.

Kane seems to be progressing on schedule. Perhaps an injection of healthy players will do the 'Hawks some good when the playoffs begin.

Toews remains confident that the Blackhawks can turn this recent funk around.

We know how good a team we can be. We haven't shown it in the last couple of games. We're not going to make any excuses for why that is, but we have to address the small parts of our game that aren't going so well right now and are sneaking into our power play and different parts of our game. We'll address and get better at it and not let it snowball on us. 

The time is now to play our best hockey. We're going to battle through this. It's not fun to play hockey when things aren't clicking for you, but once we do get on the same page, we'll be re-energized as a team.

Chicago has risen to the occasion in several big games this season. We could see such energy Sunday in Pittsburgh as the 'Hawks try to avoid losing three in a row.

The fact remains the Blackhawks are in no great shakes as the regular season winds down. There is still time to snap back to form, but for the moment Chicago is in the middle of a frustrating stretch of play.

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