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Blackhawks Wed Oct 23 2013

Losing Late Leads Becoming Dangerous Trend for Blackhawks

Thumbnail image for GB blackhawks icon.png The Blackhawks had to fight its way to get two points after a 3-2 shootout win last night at the BB&T Center against the Florida Panthers, which didn't seem likely back at the end of the second period. But after Tomáš Fleischmann and Dmitri Kulikov fired shots past Corey Crawford within 2 minutes, 47 seconds of each other, with less than 10 minutes left in the game, it marked a running theme of giving up late leads in games that has haunted coach Joel Quenneville's team once again.

For the fifth time out of nine games this season, the Blackhawks have given up a lead either late into the second period or deep into the third, with four of those games being decided by a shootout (the Blackhawks are 2-2 in those shootout games). It's surely an exciting way to go through the regular season, but one that cannot continue if this team has any plans of partying in Grant Park again in June.

"But it's only October," you say? Yes, this is true. It might be too early to get this critical about a team that has allowed a handful of leads slip away late in games. After all, two points is two points and an ugly win still is a win. Completely understood; however, it's still important to look into why this latest trend exists and look for a potential answer.

The first of such late-game slumbers occurred against the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning back on Saturday, October 5. The Blackhawks jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the second period with goals from Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad that got the United Center crowd to its feet. All signs pointed to back-to-back home wins to start the season until Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis gathered a rebound from a Crawford kick and caught Duncan Keith with his pants around his ankles to make it 2-1 Blackhawks.

With all due respect to St. Louis, Keith was uncharacteristically caught with his back to the weak side and by the time St. Louis found the puck on his stick, the back of the net to the left of Crawford was as wide as Lake Michigan. Then, just 1 minute, 43 seconds later, Teddy Purcell received a great pass from St. Louis off a power play and caught Crawford up top to tie things up at 2-2.

Credit this one to a bad penalty from Jonathan Toews off a high-stick to Tyler Johnson that put his team at a one-man disadvantage, along with the talents of St. Louis to find Purcell in front of the net. Keith did his best to block the pass, but ultimately Purcell put it through. Of the two goals scored in the third, the first by St. Louis was one that should have been prevented. The game went to a shootout which is where Valtteri Filppula scored to give the Lightning its two points and the Blackhawks with only one.

The first regulation loss of the year for the Blackhawks came four days after the disappointing shootout loss against the Lightning. They traveled to St. Louis to face the Blues and looked to regroup after letting an extra point slip away. As it would turn out, this night would be even harder to swallow.

In this particular instance, the Blackhawks found themselves trailing halfway through the game, 2-1. With as much tension in this affair, it became apparent that escaping uninjured and with one point would be a good thing. Then, at 9 minutes, 16 seconds into the second period, the Captain knocked in a rebound to tie the game up at 2-2, and seemingly gave the Blackhawks all the momentum they'd need to see this one through to the end. Just as St. Louis would take a lead, the Blackhawks would take it right back.

Then at the end of the third period, a moment in time where everyone watching in the Chicagoland area was thinking to themselves, "OK, one point. I can deal with that. Let's get another in OT," Alexander Steen shocked everyone by scoring a very preventable goal with only 22 seconds remaining in regulation. Blues win, 3-2 -- no points for the Blackhawks.

What happened here was a complete breakdown by Brent Seabrook in trying to defend Alex Pietrangelo. Instead of closing in on Pietrangelo to prevent his pass ahead to Steen, he lumbered ahead and poked out his stick, which accomplished nothing except for an early shower. The play almost was reminiscent to what Keith did against Martin St. Louis in that the defensive play looked tired. Both Keith and Seabrook are world-class defenders in the NHL, but on each of these plays, they both looked exposed.

Jumping ahead to last night's game, the Blackhawks found themselves in familiar territory with its 2-0 lead early in the game. The Panthers came back, which started with Fleischmann's goal that shouldn't have happened. Leading up to it, rookie Aleksander Barkov rushed his way along the nearside board, zipping past Marian Hossa, Seabrook and Toews. He eventually found a wide open Fleischmann, who skated around Keith as though he wasn't even there to cut the lead in half.

Here were Hossa, Keith and Seabrook skating alongside Barkov, waiting for the kid to do something; meanwhile, Keith is alone in front of the net, not looking at the trailer in Fleischmann. Somehow the pass from Barkov gets through and the Lightning score. The game-tying goal by Kulikov was a combination of a complete disregard to clear the zone and bad passing.

Ben Smith, Brandon Pirri and Keith were chasing Jonathan Huberdeau, former Blackhawk Kris Versteeg and Kulikov as though they were defending a power play. As it would turn out, Keith tried to clear the zone to Smith when Kulikov intercepted and scored easily to tie things up at 2-2.

These three examples all have one common theme: no, it's not time to trade away Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook. The issue seems to be tired legs and no sense of urgency to keep the lead.

Another way to prevent this trend is for the Blackhawks to actually score in the third period. After nine games, the Blackhawks have scored a combined three goals in the third period, while allowing 10.

"We're not happy with giving up leads in the third period," Sharp said after last night's game. "We'd like to close teams out by scoring in the third period and get out of here. But when the games get tight we seem to play better, and that's important."

It certainly is, Sharpie. Maybe he has stock in Bismuth subsalicylate. In any rate, one has to have faith in this trend getting fixed. The Blackhawks couldn't hit the broadside of a barn when it came to scoring on the power play late last season, but things already seem better this year. The team looked abysmal on the penalty kill to start this season, but have since rectified that situation (somewhat). One would have to think that a late-scoring drought and lax defense will tighten up along the way.

In the interim, a point is a point (or in this case two) and leaving one-half of the Florida trip unscathed works just fine, especially with their moms coming along for the ride. But a team like the Lightning, who are up next, have shown they can come back from a Blackhawks' lead. Not to mention Nikolai Khabibulin will be in net for this one, which could make for a high-scoring affair. Time to batten down the hatches and score late in regulation to leave the panhandle with their heads up and a minimum of three points.

 
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