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Chicago Blackhawks Playing Down to Their Competition is Troubling Trend

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2015

Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom makes a save on a shot by Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews (19) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

The Chicago Blackhawks are hoping to take the ice Friday night against the Winnipeg Jets without the inconsistency that has dogged their play in recent weeks.

While the Blackhawks rolled to a convincing 4-1 victory over the plunging Minnesota Wild Sunday night in their last game, they were just 4-4-0 in their previous eight games and were struggling quite a bit against opponents outside the playoff picture.

That type of inconsistency gnaws at head coach Joel Quenneville's psyche. While the Blackhawks can't hope to play their best hockey every night during an 82-game regular season, it's hard for any coach to stomach losses to teams like the Edmonton Oilers and the Colorado Avalanche.

Another issue is the team's margin of defeat over that span. It's one thing if the four losses in the previous eight games prior to the win over Minnesota were one-goal games, but three of those defeats were by multiple goals. They dropped a 5-1 decision at home to the Jets, were blanked 2-0 at Colorado and were the victims of a 5-2 defeat to the lowly Edmonton Oilers.

The only one-goal loss was their hard-luck 3-2 decision to the Capitals in the Winter Classic, when former Blackhawk Troy Brouwer scored the game-winning goal with 13 seconds remaining in the third period.

In addition to struggling against teams that they would normally beat with ease, the Blackhawks had problems with their even-strength play and their inability to get off to good starts.

They were outscored 19-13 in even-strength situations, and that's normally an area where the Blackhawks dominate. According to NHL.com, Chicago is scoring 1.27 goals for every goal their opponents score in five-on-five situations, ranking fifth in the league. However, during that cold spell, they were scoring just 0.68 goals to each goal their opponents scored when both teams were at full strength.

High-level teams like the Blackhawks can normally overcome the occasional slow start because they have so much firepower with superstars such as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith in the lineup. However, even the best teams have problems when they get outscored consistently in the first period.

EDMONTON, AB - JANUARY 9: Players of the Edmonton Oilers salute the fans after winning the game against the Chicago Blackhawks on January 9, 2015 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Andy Devlin/Getty Images

The Blackhawks were outscored 16-7 in the first periods during that eight-game stretch, and it explains why they had so much trouble against the likes of the Avs and Oilers. Those teams are used to falling behind, and when they face deficits in the second and third periods, it's difficult for them to maintain a winning attitude and compete for 60 minutes.

However, when the Oilers came out of the first period in their Jan. 9 meeting with a 2-1 lead over the Hawks, despite giving up the first goal, they came out for the second period with renewed vigor and a confidence that they have rarely shown. When they retained a one-goal lead (3-2) at the start of the third period, the Oilers competed as if they were in a playoff game in the final 20 minutes and added two more goals to close out a 5-2 victory.

''We're starting to gel a lot as a team,'' Edmonton's Taylor Hall told the media after the game. ''When we get down, we come together. We don't try to do too much individually. We're starting to play like that and it's helping out a lot. It's a nice little stretch for us. A win is a win, no matter where it is in the season.

''And when you're winning against a team like Chicago, it's even better.''

The Blackhawks responded in the following contest by outscoring Minnesota 2-0 in the opening frame and cruising to their 28th victory of the season.Β 

They have had a mini-break in their schedule by being off since then but are hoping they can get off to sharper starts from this point forward.Β 

''With the four days off here, at least we're going away feeling better about ourselves than our recent couple of games,'' Quenneville told the media after the win over the Wild. ''I think we had such a busy stretch, it will be nice to get a breather here and get excited about our nice, busy stretch going into the All-Star break.''

The Blackhawks' next three games against the Jets, Dallas Stars and Arizona Coyotes are all at home and are all winnable.Β 

A demanding seven-game road trip follows, and the Blackhawks will want to have their even-strength and first-period issues cleared up by then.

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