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Blackhawks Thu Oct 22 2009

Post Toews breakdown?

First things first, the big topic out of last night's 3-2 Blackhawks loss to Vancouver was the devastating hit that knocked Hawks captain Jonathon Toews out of the game, and the subsequent momentum shift that saw the Canucks get a pair of goals and a victory in a game the Hawks already deserved to lose.

It's a brutal blow, but a clean hit where Toews got caught with his head down. As of this writing, no news on his condition, but he did miss practice today. If Toews were to miss any lenghty amount of time, the Hawks could be in real trouble down the middle, as Dave Bolland's back is making him a shadow of last year, and there's little center depth behind him. While John Madden's been off to a great start, his forte is in the defensive zone and can't be expected to shoulder a heavy offensive load at this stage. Here's hoping Toews is able to shake off the cobwebs quickly, or the Hawks will be worrying about a lot more than a fledgling goaltending controversy. (Note, Antti Niemi played well last night, making a number of huge saves in the first two periods, which will only inflame that battle)

Along with a possible center deficiency, last night's game was a prime example of some of the Hawks' main weaknesses despite their strong start this year. In no particular order:

The powerplay, and more specifically the 5-on-3. The Hawks are now 0-for-4 with the two man advantage, and for as much as Coach Joel Quenneville preaches those situations are game changers, the Hawks have looked woeful and undisciplined. The regular power play hasn't fared much better, as the Hawks seem content to just work the perimeter and let loose from the point rather than break down any lanes. Worse, Quenneville has made the curious choice to put Patrick Sharp on the point. Sharp's best when he's moving and finding open seams, and the point locks him into a position where he looks ill at ease and uncomfortable. Get Sharp back on the wing, and start breaking down passing lanes.

The fourth line. One of the biggest factors in last season's playoff battle with Vancouver was the work of Adam Burish and Ben Eager on the fourth line. They hustled, they ground out the puck and put pressure and big hits on the Canucks. With both those players out, the Hawks have lost their sandpaper, and the fourth line so far this season has been nearly invisible. Although last night was the first time the Hawks were outshot in a game, one of the key roles Eager and Burish had was wearing down and distracting opponents with their relentless prodding. While the Hawks offense is strong, it helps on off nights like last night to have a unit that can change the flow.

The defense in its own zone. Hawks blueliners have been pouring in points, with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell all tied for third on the team in scoring, but there play has also been a little risk-reward. The Hawks system has been working, limiting opponents to only 21.8 shots a game, but the team's D-men have been getting exposed in one-on-one situations. Cam Barker in particular was a turnstile last night, but all the blueliners have had too many instances of letting opponents walk by them in the first 9 games. Whether it's poor positioning or just getting outworked, it's creating too many odd-man opportunities.

The Hawks also have trouble battling past an agressive forecheck and a stiff blueline at times, and the Canucks gameplan stymied Chicago for most of the night. The Hawks do their best work when they consistently can carry the zone rather than dump and chase. They succeeded int he playoffs last spring by finding a way to breakdown Vancouver's feistiness, and need to continue to tap into that scheme or else will continue to find themselves frustrated like last night.

And of course, the ongoing goaltending hullabaloo.

Despite all this, this is hardly a time to cry that the sky is falling, as the Hawks still have a wealth of positive factors and the season is young. And truthfully, other than the first half of the Calgary game, last night was the first time the Hawks have just been truly off their game, so all the points above shone a little brighter. But small issues now could have calamitious effects come April.

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