|Denis Savard joined the Blackhawks organization as an assistant coach in 1997 and was named head coach Nov. 27, 2006.|
The Blackhawks are much improved from a year ago, but they were badly bitten by the injury bug in midseason. Key players Jonathan Toews, Martin Havlat, Jason Williams and Kevyn Adams all missed chunks of time with injuries.
Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin missed eight games early in the season with a broken finger that might have affected him for longer than that. Then he had a knee problem in February and is struggling now with back spasms.
The Blackhawks have lost 314 man-games to injury this season. Historically, anything greater than 300 is enough to seriously compromise a team's season. It's been frustrating for head coach Denis Savard, and the injuries have called on all of Savard's teaching skills in his first full season as an NHL coach.
This is the third straight season Havlat has been hampered by shoulder problems, which this year have limited him to 35 games. Faceoff specialist Yanic Perreault has been out since early February with a wrist injury. Ben Eager has played only nine games since coming over in a Dec. 18 trade and is hurt again. Tuomo Ruutu fought through knee problems before his Feb. 26 trade to Carolina for Andrew Ladd. Andrei Zyuzin has played in only 30 games.
The Blackhawks appeared to be a serious contender for a playoff spot before they lost contact with the field in January, going 4-9-1. But now they are on a 6-3-1 run, reviving hopes for a stretch run.
Savard fashioned a Hockey Hall of Fame career with the Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning from 1980-97. He retired that year to become a Blackhawks assistant coach, and was named head coach Nov. 27, 2006. The club appears to be playing a coordinated game under his leadership.
Savard was asked what the Blackhawks must to do to qualify for a playoff position when they are seven points out with 13 games to play.
"We can't look too far ahead. There are still 13 games to play and a lot of points are available," Savard said. "We've been in every game and our goaltending is solid.
"We've lost a lot of one-goal games (nine in regulation and seven more in overtime. The Blackhawks are tied for last with 11 two-goal losses). We have to find a way to win one-goal games. Our power-play has to be better (it ranks 27th). We're working on it and we'll continue to work on it."
Savard said January's heavy travel schedule, when the Blackhawks played nine of 14 games on the road, combined with the injuries they had, interfered with practicing the power play.
Savard said he's been frustrated by the team's inconsistency this season. Some nights the Blackhawks can play with any team in the NHL. Other nights, no.
"Our power-play units were stabilized before the injuries and then we had to put new guys in there," Savard explained. "It takes time. Our group hasn't been together a long time. We won four in a row a couple of times but also had an eight-game losing streak. We are maturing and we battle most every night."
Nine of the team's final 13 games are against Central Division rivals. If the Blackhawks are to make up ground, the schedule is in their favor. Seven games are at home, and five of them are against Central Division rivals. The other six on the road. The schedule includes three games against the Detroit Red Wings. They host Detroit on Tuesday and play them twice in the last week of the season.
"There's no question division games are the most important," Savard said. "If you can go six or seven games above .500, you can get to 90 points and a playoff spot. You can make up a lot of ground by beating division rivals while they're beating up on each other."
The Blackhawks are merging several young talents –- Jonathan Toews, Kane, Dave Bolland and Dustin Byfuglien –- in with a solid mix of veterans like Khabibulin, Robert Lang and Patrick Sharp. They've had some success but they haven't had a breakthrough and injuries may keep it from happening this year. But Savard's job is to get every point with whomever he has available. He realizes the impact injuries have had.
"Our penalty killing was good early in the year and then we lost the key players who were killing penalties," Savard said. "We lost eight guys in two weeks. You have to go back to Square 1 when that happens. We needed to practice and weren't able to do that with so many guys out of the lineup. We took steps back but we're still a good team and can compete against everybody.
"But your best players can make a difference in one-goal games. Injuries have given people an opportunity to step up and get a job done."
Savard was asked about a comment Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau made when he took over that coaching job in November. Boudreau walked into the dressing room of a last-place club and started talking about what needed to be done to win this year's Stanley Cup. You could have forgiven his players for asking what he was talking about, but Boudreau said any lower goal would provide room for alibis and lowered expectations.
Chicago head coach Denis Savard hasn't given up hope on making the playoffs.
"I agree 100 percent," Savard said. "The players have to have high expectations. It's not a matter of how young they are, they have to shoot for the stars. I strongly believe we are there (in terms of personnel). We're going to have our ups and downs. Every team has to go through tough times because of parity. If you are not at your best, you won't win.
"Our message to the players, from (owner) Rocky Wirtz, (president) John McDonough, (GM) Dale Tallon and me is that we want to win the Stanley Cup and it might be this year. We have good character kids and most of them have won championships somewhere, whether it be juniors, the NCAA, the World Juniors, World Championships or the Stanley Cup. Our players have been winners and they know what it takes to win. This group hasn't been together that long and we still need to be patient."
Savard was asked if a taste of early-season success may have conditioned the fan base to expect more too soon.
"Not really, and if it did, I don't blame them," he said. "We haven't been in the playoffs since 2001. The good start that we had began drawing back the crowds. This is the best team since I've been on the coaching staff. The buzz was fantastic when Rocky took over and hired John. Their message is clear –- they want to win. The fans jumped on with us and they believe. They saw the product. Our expectations have to be high."
No one was quite sure what the expectations were for Savard when he became a coach. Superstars don't always become good coaches. He spent eight years apprenticing and then took over a team in disarray. Today, the team appears better focused -– on and off the ice.
"Like any business, you have to know all the stops," Savard said. "I could have taken over four years ago but I was not ready for it. In my first two years, my job was to get the game plan ready and make a five-minute presentation of a three-game recap. Then I went on to special teams. We got better in my second year of doing that. Under Brian Sutter, I had the power play but I also had Phil Housley running it, one of the best ever.
"There's a lot to learn, especially how to deal with players. I have a to-do list and a not-to-do list. I plan practices at least two days in advance and I have to emphasize the important points, no more than five. Five can be too much. Sometimes, I cut it down to three. I make sure they see it on film and talk about it.
"We've been working on special teams and will continue to work on it. If special teams get better, who knows where it will take us?"