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Blackhawks Fri Feb 04 2011

Where Do the Blackhawks Go From Here?

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for blackhawks.gifThe Hawks started their post-break schedule with a 7-4 win Tuesday at Columbus, but things won't get any easier as they face the Canucks, the league's top team and a budding rival, tonight in Vancouver. The game is the second of a six on the road as Disney on Ice takes over the United Center, and the trip comes at a critical time for the Blackhawks.

With only 31 games left, the Hawks are fighting tooth and nail for every point available, and there's not a lot of room for the instability that defined the first few months of the season. Last season's Western Conference No. 8 seed finished with 95 points, and while the tightness of the current race may push that total down a few points this year, the Hawks likely need to win at least 18 more games to have a solid position in the chase. They're tied for ninth right now, one point behind eighth-place Phoenix.

So what do the Hawks need to focus on to achieve this goal? Here are some areas for improvement.

Keith & Seabrook

After winning the Norris Trophy and signing his long-term contract last season, Duncan Keith has had his ups and downs this year, as has his blue line partner Brent Seabrook, to a lesser extent. The hit-or-miss nature of Keith's game is reflected in his plus-minus: He's a +19 in Hawks victories, but a -22 when the team loses. Keith has had a positive plus-minus in only four of those 24 losses. Seabrook has had similar problems, though his game's been a bit steadier, going +13 in wins and -20 in losses.

When Keith has played up to his capabilities, his numbers reflect it, but mistakes and bad positioning have dragged him down far too often. While his offensive numbers are also down and he's found an undiscovered talent for firing shots into opponent's shins, that's not as much of an issue. Keith and Seabrook were lockdown defensemen last season, and it's no stretch to say that Chicago's playoff hopes rest now on their shoulders. The Hawks' top pair simply has to play better.

Penalty kill

A strength last season, Chicago's penalty kill is lagging at a paltry 78.9 percent this year, which ranks 25th among 30 teams. Keith and Seabrook are partly at fault here, as both defensemen have allowed about as many power play goals as anyone in the league. The damage could be much worse, except that the Blackhawks are also the third-least penalized team, limiting opponents' power play opportunities.

There have been signs of life for the PK lately that continued in Tuesday's win against the Blue Jackets, where the Hawks killed off a crucial 5-on-3. In fact, Chicago is an impressive 21-of-24 over the past month, leading to a 6-2-1 record in that time frame. With the Hawks top-ranked power play continuing to excel, continued success while shorthanded will be a necessity.

Kane & Hossa

Up front, the Blackhawks offense still has the capacity to pump in five goals a game and has been getting scoring from many of their secondary players. But two of its biggest stars in Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane have been mired in slumps since returning from injuries in late December. Kane has three goals and Hossa has four in their past 14 games. Both had goals on Tuesday -- Hossa's an empty-net tally -- but they need to score more.

Hossa has battled injuries all year, including a bout of vertigo last week, but he makes too much money to rank 109th in the league with 12 goals. Kane remains on pace for nearly a point per game, but he has tended to drift and get knocked off the puck more easily this year, an indication his ankle and conditioning may not be up to par.

Though the Hawks have seen some unheralded players step up like Fernando Pisani and Bryan Bickell, two other players who've struggled after getting shots earlier in the year are Viktor Stalberg and Jack Skille. Both players have been in coach Joel Quenneville's doghouse at times, but if the Hawks find themselves desperate and in a rut, they're two players who may find themselves heading out of town.

Goalies

Neither goalie has been a focus, though it's clear that so far the Blackhawks have felt more comfortable with Corey Crawford in net, and the stats bear that out. But Marty Turco will start for the second straight game tonight in Vancouver, and Turco getting on a roll is a good thing.

Crawford had a great first half that saw the rookie among the league leaders in goals against, but he looked shaky in his past two starts, both losses. Though Crawford has been groomed and worked hard in the minors to grab the starting role, he still needs to face the pressure of the NHL playoffs and stretch run. Turco's style doesn't always mesh with the Hawks defense, but his years in the league allow him to step up when called upon while helping mentor Crawford.

With the Hawks needing every point, having two goalies who can step between the pipes at any point will allow Quenneville to ride the hot hand as needed. Turco gets only his fourth start of 2011 tonight, and his performance could go a long way toward lifting Crawford and creating a battle in net, something that can only help the Hawks overall.

With Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Dallas and Phoenix left on this road trip, the Hawks' short-term success will help dictate the rest of the season. They will return to the United Center on Feb. 16 against the Minnesota Wild, and their standing at that point may have a lot to do with how the front office and GM Stan Bowman approach the Feb. 28 trade deadline. Another bad week or two could lead to some roster changes.

 
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