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Blackhawks Mon Jan 27 2014
The Winnipeg Jets flew into Chicago Sunday night, which was to be the Blackhawks' last home game until Tuesday, March 4, when they host the Colorado Avalanche (Winter Classic against the Penguins on Saturday, March 1, not included). With a west-coast swing upcoming and 10 players heading to Sochi afterwards, Blackhawks fans will be relegated to watching their team from afar.
A win against the worst team in the division would be a great sendoff, especially coming off of back-to-back losses -- a 5-4 shootout loss to the Red Wings and a 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild -- and just before collecting thousands of air miles between O'Hare and just off the coast of the Black Sea. As it would turn out, a few old and familiar faces decided to spoil the going-away party.
Recently, the Blackhawks have looked a little sluggish on defense late in games and that has created second-chance shots on Corey Crawford who has let through difficult goals (Brent Seabrook once screened him), as well as goals as soft as ice cream. For a goalie that receives as much criticism as Crawford does, this recent stretch certainly can't do much to sway the naysayers.
Take last night's 3-1 loss to the Jets as an example. The Blackhawks started out very strong in the first period, outshooting the Jets 18-2 and getting a goal from fourth-liner and tough guy Brandon Bollig. His wrapper got past local product Al Montoya a mere 1 minute, 21 seconds into the game.
It was beginning to look like the Blackhawks were going to make good from the previous two losses and crush the Jets while bidding farewell to its fans until just before spring. That's when Montoya decided to stand on his head and allow the Blackhawks to make their own mistakes and collapse on themselves.
You know your team is in a funk when Marian Hossa creates a turnover in his own team's zone, which set up an Andrew Ladd laser, which ended up being the game winner. Call it the winter blahs; call it running on near empty after flooring the pedal; call it the expected odds catching up with every team at some point in every season. Regardless of what it is, this is the time coach Joel Quenneville and company need to dissect the team's incessant desire for no-look passes in their own zone and second-gear speeds from halfway through the second period until the game is tied.
Yes, things could be worse, such as fielding a team that is the Winnipeg Jets. The win Sunday night vaulted the Jets out of the basement and only a point behind the Dallas Stars for fifth in the division (the Jets actually have won six of their last 10 and have stepped up their game since hiring new coach Paul Maurice).
So while things have looked about as warm as the recent weather forecast around here, the only spinning vortex of note in this town is that of the polar variety and not an uncontrollable descent into hockey depression. It's only the tenth regulation loss of the season for the Blackhawks, the last team in the league to suffer its double-digit loss, and still lead the Central, albeit by one point over the Blues.
A win to send the fans home happy before a long break would have been nice, but coming back home healthy and recharged is even more important. More losses are on their way between now and the end of the regular season, just as those five-goal games are sure to return.
Back in 2010, the last time the NHL sent players to the Olympics, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, and did so as a two seed with 112 total points. They remain on that same pace, but with even more talent to boot. It's a marathon and not a race, and while adjustments certainly can be made, the warm light of the playoffs at the end of the long, cold tunnel that is the middle of the regular season isn't far away.
So fare thee well, defending champs. Stay safe on the west coast and represent your respective countries in Sochi (and please try not to explore the beaten path. Seriously, just play your games and go to bed). We'll be here waiting for your return from the long and winding road that lies ahead.