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Blackhawks Tue Mar 16 2010

It's gut-check time for Blackhawks

This past weekend could be a game-changer for the Blackhawks, and not in a good way for the team's Stanley Cup aspirations. The Hawks lost two heartbreaking games in Philadelphia and at home to Washington, giving up third period leads in both. On top of that, the Hawks lost defenseman Brian Campbell for at least the rest of the regular season with a broken clavicle and ribs in a controversial play in Sunday's matinee. All in all, a tough weekend for a Blackhawks team that's already been struggling since the Olympic break.

First things first, in the biggest story to emerge from the St. Patrick's weekend haze, the push that nearly broke Campbell's back. After playing the puck alongside the net, Campbell was on the receiving end of a 2-handed shove from Capitals superstar Alexander Ovehckin, crashing awkwardly and violently into the end boards. Ovie received a 5 minute major and a game misconduct for the play (ending his day), and a 2-game suspension was handed down Monday from the NHL, all worthy penalties for what was a dangerous, stupid play. Ovechkin plays a frenetic, to the limit style of hockey, but sometimes doesn't know when to let up and not cross that line. Do I think he intended to injure Campbell? No, but the push was borderline late, from behind, and when Campbell's skate caught and he started to fall, was a clear case of a skater being in a vulnerable position. Yet Ovechkin fully extended his arms rather than try and pull back or slow Campbell up, and the result is a reckless, unsafe play and an injured player.

Below is video of the play in question, feel free to comment on your thoughts as well.

After the cut, what Campbell's injury means for the Hawks going forward, and why this weekend should leave a bitter taste in all Hawks fans' mouths.

With Campbell out for the regular season, and possibly the playoffs, depending on how quickly he recovers, the Hawks blueline becomes even more of an issue than it already has been the past two months. Though Campbell's defense can sometimes be frustrating to watch, he's one of the team's best skaters and his ability to quickly transition and break out is what the Blackhawks offense is built around.

The February trade for Kim Johnsson is a key move now, as Johnsson plays a similar style, though not at Campbell's level, and is a veteran who has played major crucial minutes in the past. The trade of Cam Barker for Johnsson was seen as something that could help the Blackhawks this season while freeing up money for the future. With Campbell out, it looms even larger, but Johnsson is a better player right now than Barker, and will now have a greater chance to contribute.

The under the radar deal for defenseman Nick Boynton, another vet, also helps provide some extra depth on the blue line, and Boynton was called up from Rockford to help plug the gap. One thing the Hawks D lacks is some physicality, which Boynton can help provide, but what will really matter come April is how the rest of the Hawks main D-men play. Brent Seabrook has been looking terrible for nearly two months now, and Chicago is missing his physical presence. Linemate Duncan Keith has had his struggles as well, and both of them played the maximum possible games in the Olympics with little to no rest. The tandem were a major factor in last season's conference final run, and if the two are still off their game come playoff time, the Hawks could be in for a crushing upset.

Looking at the past two games, it wasn't the losses that hurt, but how the Blackhawks ended up on the wrong side of the scoresheet. Coming into the March 3 trade deadline, the big question was whether the Hawks would make a move to address the goaltending problem some people see. With the Hawks standing pat, neither Cristobal Huet or Antti Niemi has claimed the number 1 spot, but with each getting a start on a tough back-to-back, both played well. In both games, the Hawks controlled play for large stretches, and held third period leads. And in both games, some costly decisions left them with the L.

In Philly. after Marian Hossa scored to give the Hawks a 2-1 lead, a long pass sprung the Flyers Scott Hartnell, who battled past Brent Sopel and flicked a shot off the post to tie the game at 2 with 2:04 left. Then, with time winding down, forward Troy Brouwer got caught reaching on the forecheck and allowed a 3-on-2 break, which Philadelphia executed to perfection to score with 2.1 seconds left on a play Huet could do nothing about. In trying to lay back and protect a lead, a few poor decisions saw the Hawks give up odd-man rushes that cost them the victory.

Sunday, following Ovechkin's ejection, the Hawks staked themselves to a 3-0 lead entering the third period, with captain Jonathon Toews collecting two goals. But again, a couple of careless plays, this time in the form of high sticking penalties, let the Caps back in the contest. The double minor on Jordan Hendry gave the Capitals a 4-minute powerplay and Colin Fraser's penalty provided a 2 minute 5-on-3, and the top ranked Washington powerplay netted a pair of goals, the second as the penalties expired, to make it 3-2, then tied it up 13 seconds later, leaving the Hawks shell-shocked. Though they were able to hold on til overtime to earn 1 point before Washington's Nicklas Backstrom walked through the entire Blackhawks team for the game winner, the 3rd period was a disappearing act for Chicago. The Hawks managed only 1 total shot in the period, a glancing one in the final seconds at that, and was clearly rattled and grasping at straws, trying to hold on. Granted, along with Campbell, the Blackhawks were also missing Johnsson and Hossa, who were nursing injuries of their own.

Two games the Hawks were in position to win, but couldn't close the door. On top of that, undisciplined penalties and poor decision making let both the Flyers and Capitals back into the games, and the two Eastern Conference playoff contenders took advantage. On the flip side, despite a powerplay goal in each game, the Hawks special teams have struggled to generate chances, a trend that's crossed the line from being a slump to a major problem. While detractors have focused on the lack of a clear number one goalie, the way the Hawks have been playing as of late, it doesn't much matter who's in net if he's continually hung out to dry.

Maybe the glut of the condensed schedule is causing a lack of focus for a young distracted team. Or maybe the 6 Hawks Olympians are starting to tire, unaccustomed to the high number of games played. Whatever the case, following a tough 3-game West Coast swing against the Anaheim Ducks, L.A. Kings and Phoenix Coyotes this week, the Hawks close the season with only 4 of their final 11 games against playoff-bound teams, a chance to rest some key players, work on shoring up the defense and rebuilding the power play, and give one goalie a chance to claim the top spot and build some confidence.

As much as the last two games were painful losses to swallow, what matters is how the Blackhawks build from them. After all, last season the team had a similar slump, going 6-7-2 in March before rounding into form in April and launching that unexpected postseason run.

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