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Western Canada struggles highlight Hawks problems

Tuesday, 02.07.2012 / 12:25 PM / NHL Insider

By Brian Hedger - NHL.com Correspondent

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Western Canada struggles highlight Hawks problems
Chicago has dipped to the sixth spot in the Western Conference, and Western Canadian teams are at the root of the problem.
CHICAGO -- The natural beauty of Western Canada might be quite the tourist attraction, but it is safe to say that the Chicago Blackhawks aren't looking forward to their next visit there.

Chicago has dipped to the sixth spot in the Western Conference and fourth in the Central Division after going five straight games without a win. And, for the second time this season, Western Canadian teams are at the root of the problem.

The Hawks have gone just 1-4-1 in two three-game road trips to play the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames and were blown out twice by the sub-.500 Oilers at Rexall Place. The most recent undressing came in an 8-4 loss there last week, with Edmonton's Sam Gagner adding salt to the wound by making a name for himself with 4 goals and 4 assists for a jaw-dropping 8-point night.

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The Hawks then followed it up with a lackluster 3-1 loss at Calgary before flying home for a couple of practices and some rest prior to leaving Monday evening for the second of three straight three-game road segments.

"I think it just happens," defenseman Sean O'Donnell said of the current winless skid. "You don't like to do it and when you're in the middle of it, it seems like you're drowning or swimming upstream. But most teams go through this. I'd rather go through this now than in April or potentially May, so I really think we're going to be better for [going through] this."

He could be right, seeing as the League's top team -- the Detroit Red Wings -- also went winless for a stretch of six straight games in the first month of the season before getting back on track.

The big difference between the struggles of the two Central Division rivals, however, is how those losses occurred.

Detroit's offense shot blanks for six games while its defense did an adequate to very good job of keeping pucks out of the net. In Chicago's case, the offense has come sporadically and the defense has been, for lack of a better term, torched.

It was a similar story during the first trip to Western Canada back in November, when a 9-2 loss to the Oilers at Rexall forced the Hawks to reevaluate and get things back in order for the first time.

Can the Hawks again look to the earlier struggles of the Red Wings or the current rough patch the Boston Bruins are going through for their own inspiration?

"Of course," said Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, who sat out Sunday's practice sick but returned to the ice Monday. "The problem with that, though, is it's not our first losing streak like this. We can't just brush it off and say it's OK that other good teams do it and they survive. We don't want to put any more pressure on ourselves than we already have.

"We're staying positive, but we're not making any excuses for ourselves and looking at ways to kind of bail ourselves out of
this situation. We know we've got to be better and we will be."

Otherwise, they could potentially slip back to the situation of a year ago -- when they fought hard down the stretch just to get a Stanley Cup Playoff spot. There's still a five-point cushion between Chicago and seventh-place Los Angeles before that becomes a genuine concern, so it's more important to keep looking up in the standings.

The Hawks have gone just 1-4-1 in two three-game road trips against the Canucks, Oilers and Flames. (Photo: Jeff Vinnick/NHLI)
Chicago is seven points behind Detroit, but just two behind fifth-place St,. Louis and three behind fourth-place Nashville. All four teams are in the ultra-competitive Central division.

It'd also be good for Chicago to log a win on the road after going winless in seven straight games away from the United Center -- a stretch that dates back to Chicago's last road win on Dec. 14 in Minnesota, which happened in a shootout.

"We've just got to look at it in a way that going through this tough stretch here is going to make us better in the end," Toews said.
"We've got to look at the big picture sometimes and realize that tough moments like this are what makes a team come together and obviously appreciate the good moments when those come, as well."

Tuesday night in Colorado will be Chicago's next chance to right their ship against the Avs -- who are currently three points out of the West's eighth playoff spot.

That game will be followed by trips to San Jose and Phoenix before the Hawks again fly back to prepare at home for the third and final three-game leg of this monstrous road swing -- which will conclude with trips to play the Nashville Predators, New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets.

Lowering the number of goals allowed tops the list of priorities for Chicago. The Hawks have allowed 158 goals, which is second only to the League-high total of 174 turned in by Columbus.

The problem is multi-faceted, according to Chicago coach Joel Quenneville.

"Defensively you've got to start with how we play in our own end and how we go through the neutral zone," he said after Monday's practice in Chicago. "I think we get ourselves in trouble by maybe trying to score too much. Even in the offensive zone, with our third guy high and giving up odd-man breaks and breakaways in situations where it looks like we have the advantage offensively. Tightening it up is what we're talking about ... and not necessarily in our own end."

One change will occur in their own end, as Quenneville said veteran Ray Emery will start in net Tuesday against Colorado and might get a chance to wrest the starting role away from second-year goalie Corey Crawford -- who's having an unsettled season.

"He's played very well, basically every time he's been in the net for us this year," Quenneville said of Emery, who made the team on a tryout contract out of training camp. "He's been consistent. He's been solid ... predictable ... dependable. Guys played well in front of him the other night [in Calgary] to give us a chance to get a point or two.

Unfortunately we didn't, but he earned another start."

Meanwhile, the Hawks need to earn their way back into the discussion about serious Stanley Cup contenders. At one point this season, they were a shoe-in to be included among the NHL's top teams. Now, the Hawks have their share of doubters and the ranks are growing with every goal that gets into their net.

Don't, however, count O'Donnell among the dissenters.

"It's obviously concerning, but you have to look at the big picture," he said. "It's 82 games. It's been five games. Before [these] five games, I think we were tied for first in the NHL, so you look at the big picture. Teams are going to have bumps like this. I think if you'd asked the [New York Giants] Week 10 or 12 how their season was looking, it wasn't looking too good. That turned out OK.

"You've got to keep your eye on the big (picture) here. Obviously we need to fix some things, but the personnel's in this room and we know we can play with elite teams."
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