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Hawks must improve over second half to defend title

by Brian Hedger /
CHICAGO -- It was always going to be a struggle for the Chicago Blackhawks this season, regardless of what challenges they faced along the way.
Before the defending champions even hit the ice, they were faced with overcoming the so-called "Stanley Cup Hangover" without almost half the roster that brought home Chicago's first championship in 49 years. They could thank the NHL's hard salary cap and a bunch of inflated salaries for that hurdle.
Then, as the season wore on, they were hit with a rash of injuries to key players among the "core group" brought back from the title team. From that aspect, it shouldn't come as a huge surprise to see the Hawks in 12th place in the Western Conference with 45 points after 42 games before Friday's action.
If the season ended right now, the defending Cup champs wouldn't even be in the playoffs -- which is unfathomable for Hawks captain Jonathan Toews and the rest of those who returned. Toews, it should be noted, is one of the Hawks' walking wounded. He just returned from a recent shoulder injury early after missing two games instead of two weeks.
Toews' early return and the 40 games still left in the regular season are the two biggest bright spots right now for the reeling Hawks (21-18-3), who watched their home record drop to a pedestrian 12-11-0 on Wednesday after a 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars at the United Center.
"Everything is right there in front of us," Toews said before that game. "We know what we've got to do. We've just got to go out there and do it. Sometimes it's easier said than done. Sometimes a little emotion helps. I know I go over the top a little bit sometimes, and maybe that's counterproductive in certain situations, but I think we can all do that and bring a little bit more of that in some of these games that are about to start mattering more and more."
Indeed, the conference race is still so tight in the West that just two points separate the Hawks from the fourth-place San Jose Sharks (47 points). Of course, Chicago has also played the second-most games in the conference behind only the Anaheim Ducks and just two points also separate them from the 13th-place Columbus Blue Jackets.
It might not be time to hit the panic button in the Windy City, but the Hawks do need to start winning more consistently. Not only do they have more regulation losses at home than all of last season, but they've also struggled mightily in the third period. One stat drives that point home best -- in 12 of Chicago's 18 regulation losses, the game was tied at some point in the third.
That's a mind-boggling statistic for a team sitting just a point out of a playoff spot while trying to defend a Stanley Cup title. It would probably drive most coaches batty, and Chicago's Joel Quenneville is no exception. One of his most common analogies so far is saying the Hawks have "left meat on the table" -- which cuts right to the meat of the situation.
"We want to make sure that our consistency is in order, finding ways to be better at the right times in games," Quenneville said before Wednesday's loss, which was also decided in the third. "In third periods, we should be getting points out of games. That's two areas where, if we can progress along the lines we're showing, we can get to where we want to get to. (But) certainly, the consistency in our team game is an area we want to nail."
That's because it just hasn't been there.
They've had two four-game winning streaks and one three-game win streak, but have also gone through a three-game losing skid and lost two consecutive games four times. Factor in the 61 man-games lost to 13 injuries, and there is a rollercoaster feel to this season.
One day the Hawks are flying high. The next day, they fall flat. If there is a bright side, it's again that ultra-tight playoff chase in the Western Conference.
"We're not the only ones," said star forward Patrick Sharp, who's 12th in the League in scoring and leads Chicago with 23 goals and 41 points. "You look across our conference, (and) a couple points separate a lot of positions in the standings. A bad week or a bad couple games, it's going to affect it quite a bit."
It would also make the task of securing a playoff spot much tougher. Sharp said that shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody. Just because the Hawks won it all last season doesn't mean they didn't have challenges.
"I'm sure it looked easy last year, but it's never easy to win games and have a winning team in this League," he said. "Just like last year, we've had to battle through some adversity and we're in a good position to move forward. It's nice to get everybody back finally. It's been awhile."
The next trick will be finding that elusive consistency. That includes individual seasons for several key players.
Star forward Marian Hossa, for instance, started the season with a bang by scoring 7 goals and 11 points in the first seven games. After two separate injuries kept him out a total of 15 games, he's scored just 2 goals and 9 points in 19 games after the torrid start.
Then there are top defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who've both had their ice times reduced a bit after playing extended minutes last season and to start this season. Their offensive production is fine, with Keith scoring 24 points and Seabrook 22, but they have a combined minus-11 rating and are committing more uncharacteristic mistakes that lead directly to scoring chances.

"It's not the end of the world. There's still some time to make up for it and we've just got to be confident that we're going to -- and we're going to work hard to get back to where we deserve to be. There's nothing to over-react about here." -- Hawks' captain Jonathan Toews

Patrick Kane, who missed eight games with an ankle injury, is also finding himself on the ice more for goals allowed. His 11 goals and 29 points in just 32 games are good, but his minus-9 rating isn't. Even Sharp has ridden the rollercoaster statistically -- and he's in the conversation for Hawks' MVP at the halfway point.
Despite having a career-best year offensively, Sharp carries a minus-11 into Friday's home game against the Ottawa Senators. Only Sharp and Carolina Hurricanes forward Eric Staal (minus-5) have negative ratings among the League's top-20 scorers.
Not surprisingly, Toews is the most consistent Hawks skater with 16 goals, 35 points and a plus-8. Another bright spot is found between the pipes, where rookie Corey Crawford has supplanted veteran free-agent acquisition Marty Turco as the starter. Like Antti Niemi did last season, Crawford is fast becoming a fan favorite with his 12-7-1 record, 2.33 goals-against average and .914 save percentage.
So there are some positives to take from the season's first half. Not all is lost yet, but "yet" is the operative word.
The Hawks are saying all the right things, but they're also starting to sound a little like Kevin Bacon in "Animal House" -- loudly proclaiming, "There's nothing to see here! All is well!" as the parade devolves into chaos.
"Things haven't gone our way," Toews said before Wednesday's stinging loss. "It's not the end of the world. There's still some time to make up for it and we've just got to be confident that we're going to -- and we're going to work hard to get back to where we deserve to be. There's nothing to over-react about here."
All is well?

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