The 5 Biggest Questions for Chicago Blackhawks in the Home Stretch in 2013-14
The Chicago Blackhawks are in the middle of a crisis. Patrick Kane is out for the rest of the regular season with a lower-body injury. Jonathan Toews was hit hard by Brooks Orpik of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and head coach Joel Quenneville says he will not play in any of the six remaining regular-season games.
The Blackhawks have lost three games in a row and have been playing unimpressive hockey since the team returned from the Olympic break.
While fans are scratching their heads and wondering what's going on, head coach Joel Quenneville has to figure out how to turn this thing around and hopefully do it before the playoffs start.
Here's a look at the five biggest questions the Blackhawks have to answer.
How Do the Blackhawks Find Consistent Scoring?
The Chicago Blackhawks have scored four goals in their last three games, and that's not going to get the job done.
When the Blackhawks are at their best, they have possession of the puck in the offensive zone, and they find a way to launch pucks from the high-scoring areas in the slot or the points with traffic in front of the net. That leads to excellent scoring opportunities, which the Blackhawks regularly exploit.
Since Patrick Kane got hurt against the St. Louis Blues March 19, the number of scoring opportunities appear to have gone down dramatically. Losing Jonathan Toews to an upper-body injury is not going to help in that area either.
Nobody's going to feel sorry for them, and that means that Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp are going to have to pick up the slack. Hossa has scored 27 goals and 29 assists and has a plus-27 rating, while Sharp is the team's leading scorer with 31 goals and 42 assists and a plus-14 rating.
Both are capable of carrying the team for a 10-day stretch, and the Blackhawks need both of them to do even more than they have done to this point.
Where Is the Energy?
The Blackhawks have been going at full speed for the last 15-plus months.
After the lockout ended last January, the Blackhawks have basically been in a dead sprint. Now it appears their legs are dead.
They started in remarkable fashion when they set a league record by recording a point in their first 24 regular-season games and played at an elite level until they they won the Stanley Cup last June.
It was a short offseason and Quenneville's team avoided the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover this year as the Blackhawks continued to play stellar hockey. They were battling the Anaheim Ducks and the St. Louis Blues for the best record in the league for much of the first half of the season.
The team has not been able to play at that level for much of the 2014 portion of the schedule. In recent games, the Blackhawks have played well for 20 minutes at a time or even 40 minutes, but they have not performed at peak level for 60 minutes. That's what it takes to win games in the NHL, and it appears they haven't had the legs for it.
They need to get their energy level back quickly.
Can the Defensemen Reclaim Their Own Zone?
The defensive effort in recent weeks has not been overly impressive.
While the Blackhawks are not a physical team that will bang bodies all over the ice, they would not have won the Stanley Cup last year had they allowed opponents to skate freely in the prime-scoring areas and then shoot the puck with a purpose at goalie Corey Crawford.
The defensive zone coverage has not been good. Instead of staying with their men, there has been a tendency to chase the puck in the corner. That leads to a plethora of scoring opportunities that teams like the Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins have exploited.
While it seems like Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya have been doing their job properly, the rest of the defensive crew has been far more mistake-prone than they have been in the past.
Will the Blackhawks Respond to Adversity?
When the Blackhawks were winning the Stanley Cup last year and playing consistently in the first half of the season, they were widely admired for their high skill level and for playing the game in an artful and pleasing fashion.
They were at a higher level than most of their competition, and it seemed like they could produce hockey masterpieces whenever they wanted.
That's no longer the case. They are third in the Central Division and fifth overall in the Western Conference. They may have clinched a playoff berth, but they are not playing at an elite level.
It's time to recognize that and look that adversity right in the eye and get back to work. They can't keep telling themselves that they will get it back at the start of the playoffs or wonder what happened. It's all about putting in the effort and focusing on the task at hand each game.
They are not doing that right now, and their game looks ordinary. There are injuries to contend with that have caused problems.
Every team has problems. It's time to pull up their collective sleeves and go back to work.
Will Patrick Kane Be on Top of His Game When He Returns?
One of the best parts of Patrick Kane's game has been his quickness and ability to change directions in a heartbeat.
It was one of the reasons he was able to carry the puck in the offensive zone and create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. He was so quick on his skates that opponents could try to go after him and they could not make contact.
Couple that ability with his brilliant stick-handling, and the Blackhawks had a player who could create chances nearly every time he stepped on the ice.
What will Kane be like when he comes back? Will he still have the same quickness in the offensive zone? Will he still skate with the same freedom and elan that makes him such a dangerous weapon?
If there is any caution to his game when he has the puck in the zone, the Blackhawks could leave the ranks of the elite and join the ordinary.
Will he come back at the start of the playoffs, and will his game remain at the high level that the team is used to seeing?