There are few times in sports where things fall into place the way we think they will.
The Bears defense stumbled down the stretch, as did Rex Grossman, yet they're in the Super Bowl. The Colts gave up more rushing yards per game than any other team in the league, but defied those stats and are in the big game as well.
The Blackhawks had a hectic, road weary December, played great, and then stumbled in a home-filled month of January. It makes no sense. But let's try anyway.
There were 16 games in December, including seven on the road and four sets of back-to-backs, and while that meant nine home games, four were single games before returning to the road. There was really just one homestand, which lasted three games. They lived at O'Hare. That's my definition of hectic. The Hawks were 8-5-3 in those games and made up considerable ground in the playoff race and got back to .500.
In January, the Hawks played 12 games with eight coming at home and three sets of back-to-backs with the All-Star break in there as well. So plenty of home cooking and rest to boot, yet the Hawks went 2-8-2 in those 12, winning only in the first game of the month and the last. Why the strange and unfortunate turnaround in January? Ironically, the success and hectic schedule of December could have contributed to the demise of January.
Now let me preface this by saying this is in hindsight. I don't think anyone would have seen such a bad month at home coming, but looking back some things stick out. First, Nikolai Khabibulin. There's no doubt in my mind he became fatigued. He played in every game in December save one. And in that one he was sick, so not much of a real rest there.
Anybody that saw him play in January (before the All-Star break) could tell he just wasn't as sharp. When Denis Savard took over, he said he would ride Khabibulin, but I'm sure if he had to do it over again, there may have been a game or two where Bulin sat and Boucher played. It's a much easier call in hindsight and maybe its a lesson for the next really busy stretch.
OK, so there's where the hectic schedule of December had an effect. But why didn't the success of December carry over to January in other ways? The best and shortest answer is human nature. Wayne Gretzky said this about his Phoenix team as they approached .500. He said sometimes when you work so hard to get there, once you do, you have a letdown thinking we've "arrived" when actually all you've done is even your record.
Combine that thinking with a slew of home games and I truly believe that combination "relaxed" the Hawks. Now this is a very subtle idea. I'm sure no one thought, "OK, this is going to be an easy month ... we're .500 and back at home." But as we know in this league especially, the slightest of letdowns (combined with average goaltendning) can lead to a stretch like the Hawks just went through.
We also know they don't have much of a margin for error, so even a few players not playing at a high level can have a major negative effect. To sum it up, they didn't "bring it" as much in January like they did in December.
Now there may be more simple explanations. If the team simply isn't good enough, then things may have just caught up to them after the inital boost they got from the coaching change. That certainly is possible, but it still seems like there was more at work for such an awful home stretch. Maybe it was a combination of all these concepts.
Whatever the reasons, the past can't be changed, but maybe the future can be as unpredictable. We wouldn't think a seven game road trip from coast to coast would produce a great record, but hopefully the opposite of what happened in January can happen in February. That little voice might be saying, "OK, this is not going to be easy. We need to dig deep and bring it every night."
Let's hope that voice is talking to each and every Hawk. Loudly.
Email Blackhawks pre- and post-game radio host Jesse Rogers at: firstname.lastname@example.org.