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Faceoffs, puck movement concerns for Blackhawks

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks put 40 shots on goal, played much better overall and still lost 3-1 to the Detroit Red Wings on Monday night at Joe Louis Arena.

The loss put Detroit up 2-1 in what's become a heated Original Six Western Conference Semifinal, but Chicago isn't showing signs of panic.

The core group of stars that powers the Blackhawks also was down 2-1 in the conference quarterfinals against the Nashville Predators at one point in 2010 before coming back to win that series and eventually the Stanley Cup.

"I think we played well [Monday night]," said Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who was on the 2010 championship team. "There were a lot of chances that we could've scored on. We battled really hard and I think it was a pretty good effort overall. They just scored more goals than we did. As long as the battle effort is there, you can't really be too upset with the loss."

Game 4 of the best-of-7 series is Thursday night at Detroit (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS2) and each side knows how pivotal it could be.

"We all know the importance of the next game there in [Joe Louis Arena]," Hjalmarsson said. "We’re all focused on that task and looking forward to it."

Chicago didn't practice Tuesday, the first of two off days between games, but each of the four players who spoke to the media, and coach Joel Quenneville, sounded similar to Hjalmarsson. They're happier with the way they played Game 3 -- compared to a 4-1 loss at home in Game 2 -- but they also know there are things to address at practice Wednesday.

The first is faceoffs, which they've been beaten at pretty handily in the first three games. Detroit has won an average of 55 percent of the draws taken in the first three contests.

Even captain Jonathan Toews is struggling, and he won 59.9 percent of his draws in the regular season to again be one of the NHL's toughest in the faceoff circle. Toews won 41 percent and 47 percent of faceoffs in the past two losses, but Quenneville was quick to point out it's not all on the centers.

He’d like to see a little more battle from other Blackhawks after the puck is dropped.

"It's definitely a factor," the coach said. "We've got to get better in that area. That's definitely an area that's a point of emphasis going forward. All zones, all critical ones. Special teams, [penalty kill], offensive-zone faceoffs we've given up a couple goals the last two games. There's more work we can do and not just counting on our centermen coming up with the win [or] just laying the onus on them."

The other area that still needs an answer is bringing the puck up the ice. Detroit has done a better job the past two games of clogging the middle of the ice from the neutral zone all the way back to the Red Wings' net, making it difficult for the Blackhawks to get a head of steam coming up ice with the puck.

Detroit is forechecking hard, which is a disruption, and pressuring Chicago's outlet-pass targets -- the wings on each side of the ice -- near the Blackhawks' blue line. Typically that pressure doesn't start until closer to center ice, referred to as the "gap," but Detroit is starting its gap play sooner -- trying to create havoc and disallow skill play through the neutral zone.

"I think they have a really good gap in the neutral zone and they don't give our forwards a lot of time with the puck," Hjamarsson said. "Maybe we can do a better job as defensemen of giving pucks to them in a better spot too. It's not only the forwards. The [defensemen] can do a little better job following the puck up and joining the rush and start creating a little more chaos in their end."

Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa concurred.

"We have to find a way to get a first pass from our zone to the [forwards] with the speed," Hossa said. "We have to get open for our [defensemen] and the [defensemen] have to find the puck to give us. We [were] a puck-control team the whole season, and right now it seems like we just try to fire pucks away from our zone."

Another thing that can be done is simply putting the puck on the stick of guys who can skate it through traffic without turning it over. Hossa is one of those guys. Forward Patrick Kane and speedy defensemen Nick Leddy and Duncan Keith also have that skill.

"We have to go back to, I think, our game," Hossa said. "Even pick up the puck [in] our zone and skate with it and make the space, make the distance from the defender."

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