The Chicago Blackhawks were flying high until Saturday night, when they got a rude awakening thanks to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 7-3 loss. If I were a Blackhawks fan, I wouldn't be terribly worried about that loss lingering. Sometimes those things happen in a long season, and the fact Chicago came right back and beat the Los Angeles Kings 24 hours later would seem to indicate things are fine, but games like that loss to Toronto are important because they provide a teaching moment to teams that might not think they need them otherwise.
I say it all the time: The time to coach is when a team loses. When you're rolling like Chicago has been most of the season, the players know everything. Everything's great, they're playing great, the system's great. The players just throw the sticks out there and win. When you lose 7-3, though, that's a good opportunity for coach Joel Quenneville to remind his team to stay focused. In the NHL, no matter who you play, you can never take a night off.
As a coach, I'd much rather lose a game like that than a game where you lose 2-1 and play great. When a game like that happens, the coach knows he can use that to his advantage in the future and that the players will be receptive to the lessons he has to teach.
The Blackhawks will be receptive now, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see them go on another hot streak just like the one they had before Saturday night.
A KEY LOSS FOR THE B'S
Shawn Thornton isn't necessarily thought of as a player who makes or breaks a team, but his 15-game suspension will definitely have an impact on the Boston Bruins. This is a guy who's scored goals in the playoffs, who's won the Stanley Cup twice and has been to the Stanley Cup Final three times. He's a good player, and he's a very valuable piece of that tight-knit Boston puzzle.
People will say he's just a fourth-line wing and he fights and doesn't score much, but he's a very important part of that dressing room. That's important. We always talk about chemistry and why certain teams have it and certain ones don't. Boston certainly has chemistry. Those players like each other. They love playing together. They can't wait to get to the rink and play. Thornton is a big part of that and will be missed when he's out. Will it affect their goals scored? Probably not, but they're a better team when he is in the lineup because of the emotion and the physical element that he brings.
I think during a game against a team that is very physical, like Toronto, Thornton will be missed. Somebody has to pick up that role when he's gone, and I don't know who can. You can't put a player like Zdeno Chara in that position because he's too valuable, and Thornton is so good at his role that he does it without taking very many penalties. It's tough to be physical and be a pest without taking penalties. When you play that role, you get put under the microscope and you can't give a ref a reason to send you to the box. Thornton has become a master at that. All of that equals up to a pair of skates that will be tough to fill until he gets back.
THE PENS ARE MIGHTIER
It is truly remarkable what we're seeing in Pittsburgh. This is a team that might lose Evgeni Malkin, one of the top scorers in the League who isn't even having a great season by his standards, and they're already thinned out by a number of other injuries. Rob Scuderi is hurt. Paul Martin is hurt. Brooks Orpik is hurt. Kris Letang is hurt. James Neal is currently suspended. That's an amazing number of good players to have out of the lineup, and yet they continue to win consistently. It's hard not to be impressed.
Part of this just shows you how average much of the Eastern Conference is compared to the West, but there are teams there that are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, and the Penguins are still looking like the cream of the crop after winning eight of their past nine games. What is being overlooked, though, is how much this will help Pittsburgh in the long run. The Penguins might lose some games because they have so many injuries, but they're also finding out who in their organization can play and who can't play. They can see who is going to fill those spots in the lineup effectively and who isn't. If you're in the Pittsburgh organization and you're any good, you're going to get a chance to play in the NHL with the Penguins.
General manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma are really going to find out what the depth they have throughout the minors is like, and the experience of playing in the NHL is going to be a huge benefit to the players that are getting their cups of coffee with the big club.
Pittsburgh is going to find out a lot about its players and its future, and it'll be a huge boon for the Penguins down the stretch and, potentially, for years to come.