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Five reasons Hawks ousted in first round again

by Brian Hedger /

The Chicago Blackhawks made it their stated goal to not only get back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a fourth straight year, but return to the form that helped them win a championship in 2010.

They accomplished the first part of it by adding some veteran "grit" through free agency and then picking up puck-moving defenseman Johnny Oduya at the trade deadline, but the Blackhawks' season ended in the first round, just like a year ago.

The Phoenix Coyotes snuffed out Chicago's bid for a run at the Stanley Cup in six games of a Western Conference Quarterfinal series that saw the first five decided in overtime and every game closely contested.

Here are the five biggest reasons the Blackhawks couldn't finish as champions:

1. "Madhouse" goose egg was maddening

They didn't set the NHL record for consecutive home wins like the rival Detroit Red Wings, but the Blackhawks still went 27-8-6 at United Center and were great there against most opponents. However, they dropped both regular-season contests to the Coyotes and that trend continued in the playoffs.

Phoenix won all three games played at the "Madhouse on Madison" in this series, including Games 3 and 4 in overtime before clinching in Game 6 on Monday night. Chicago can look back at each game and pick out a play or two -- or more -- that could've swung it their way.

Defenseman, depth up front among needs

The biggest question facing the Chicago Blackhawks heading into the offseason after another loss in the Western Conference Quarterfinal round is both simple and complex.

Now what?

After Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman added a handful of gritty veterans to the roster via free agency last summer, the Hawks find themselves out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the same round they exited a year ago -- only one game sooner.

Bowman also added veteran puck-moving defenseman Johhny Oduya to the mix at the trade deadline, and the move worked out pretty well over the stretch run of the regular season -- helping the Hawks solidify a playoff spot despite not having injured captain Jonathan Toews for the last 22 games.

Oduya, however, is set to become an unrestricted free agent and could find himself elsewhere if his agent and Bowman can't find the right salary figure -- like what happened with restricted free agent Chris Campoli last summer.

As far as other offseason needs, the Hawks are still looking to address their depth up front with a true second-line center -- something Bowman searched for, but couldn't find for the right asking price in a trade this season.

Bowman could have around $7 million in space under the salary cap to work with -- and he also showed in trading the pricey Brian Campbell last summer that he's not afraid to wheel and deal to get even more.

-- Brian Hedger

Monday's game was a perfect example, as the Hawks dominated the first 40 minutes and trailed 1-0 starting the third period. Chicago outshot Phoenix 39-20 in that game and still got shut out for a stinging defeat.

"That was a key factor, definitely," Hawks forward Patrick Sharp said. "We were good on home ice all year, the fans were great and we play good in this building. Not winning a game … it’s tough to win a series like that."

2. No answer for special-teams issues

Chicago finished the regular season ranked close to the bottom of the League in both power play and penalty kill, which also became an issue in the playoffs. The Blackhawks scored just one power-play goal on 19 attempts in the six-game series, and they allowed four man-advantage goals by Phoenix on 19 attempts.

That included two power-play markers by the Coyotes on Monday night, including the eventual game-winner scored by Oliver Ekman-Larsson at 13:14 of the second period with Hawks captain -- and skilled penalty killer -- Jonathan Toews sitting in the box for interference.

Considering the amount of highly-skilled forwards plus star defensemen in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the special-teams issues were baffling once again.

"It wasn’t very good tonight, whether it was the power play or breaks around the net," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said of his team's play on the man-advantage after Game 6. "We didn’t find those loose pucks. We didn’t find those loose rebounds. They eluded us."

3. Hossa injury/lack of star production

Coyotes forward Raffi Torres earned a 25-game suspension that he's currently serving, but when his illegal hit in Game 3 put Chicago star Marian Hossa on a stretcher it was bad news for the Blackhawks.

Hossa walked out of the hospital that night under his own power, but the Blackhawks' leader in points this season was unable to return for the rest of the series. At the point Hossa was taken out, the series was still knotted at one apiece with Chicago playing its first game inside United Center.

"I always look back at series," Quenneville said. "If there’s a point or situation you could say was the turning point, I think that was probably the one."

Still, it's not like Hossa was red hot at the time. He'd failed to record a single point in the first two games at Arena and wasn't the only Chicago star player to struggle in the series. Toews played well with two goals and two assists, but Sharp scored just one goal while Patrick Kane and Viktor Stalberg didn't find the back of the net at all.

4. 'Rope-a-Dope' by Coyotes worked

The Hawks controlled much of the action in each of the last three games of the series, and only came out of it with an overtime win in Game 5 out in Arizona to cut the Coyotes' series lead to 3-2 and force Monday night's game.

Chicago actually outshot the 'Yotes in all six games for an eye-popping 241-159 margin, including 32-19 in Game 4, 38-19 in Game 5 and 39-20 in Game 6. The chances were there in each game, but the Phoenix defense and goalie Mike Smith's amazing performance in goal thwarted almost all of them.

The Coyotes also threw their bodies into shooting lanes repeatedly and took some bumps and bruises because of it. They also took the series, however, and are the team advancing to play Nashville in the Western Conference Semifinals.

“[Smith] played well, obviously," Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford said. "That happens in the playoffs sometimes. You run into a goalie who gets into a zone. It’s more frustrating for us, I think. We felt really confident with this group and it’s just frustrating."

5. Inconsistent goaltending didn't help

After an impressive rookie season, Crawford had his share of struggles this season. He also had his share of personal highs in a roller-coaster campaign that saw neither he nor veteran backup Ray Emery take full control of the starting position and run with it.

Crawford heated up toward the end of the season and got all six starts in the playoffs. He made a number of big saves to keep the Hawks in some tight games, but also allowed some goals he probably should've saved that could've potentially helped his team outlast the feisty, opportunistic Coyotes.

"Obviously, a disappointing series," Crawford said. "I’d have liked to played better in this series, but there’s lot of things I can learn from, [and] try and get better from. I’ll try and get quicker, stronger and try to keep working on flexibility."

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