The expectations for the Chicago Blackhawks coming into this season were not terribly high for one of the best teams in recent memory—their loss in the first round of the play-offs to archrival St. Louis, and the annual retooling due to salary cap constraints saw a lot of rookies make the opening roster. Their division opponents looked pretty good, too, with the Blues, Predators, and Wild all looking like dangerous threats to win the conference.
As the season drew on, though, hopes for a Stanley Cup began to rise in earnest. Two of the team’s rookies, Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman, stepped up big time on the offensive end. Veterans Marian Hossa and Artem Anisimov both exceeded expectations. After slows starts, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane found their grooves. Corey Crawford was his usual steady self. Bowman even managed to bring back Johnny Oduya in a trade with Dallas. All of this led to the team overtaking in Minnesota, who led the conference for most of the year, to take the top spot from their division nemesis and go into their play-off series with Nashville flying high.
As quickly as the team rose, though, they fell apart just as fast against Nashville.
There were warning signs going into the post-season; Anisimov was expected to jump right back into his spot as the number 2 center despite not having played in almost a month with a lower body injury. Crawford looked a little shaky to close the season. Coach Joel Quenneville hadn’t been able to figure out good defensive pairings after the addition of Oduya.
That being said, nobody expected the team to get outplayed as thoroughly as they did over the past week. Corey Crawford stood on his head to try to keep his team in it, but he might’ve been the only real positive. The Predators, who came into the seasons expecting to be the class of the West after adding PK Subban to their already loaded blue line, were inconsistent throughout the year, but put it together quickly in this series, handing Chicago their first play-off sweep since 1993. The Preds’ top line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson were incredible on both sides of the ice. The team’s defenseman, especially Roman Josi, shut down the Blackhawks’ offense and provided some solid offensive contributions as well. Pekka Rinne allowed only 2 goals in the entire series. Nashville certainly played well enough to win this series, but it wouldn’t have been as easy as it was if it weren’t for some problems that the Blackhawks had. Here are just a few of those issues:
Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith played terribly
It would be harsh to say that these two were the worst players on the team in this post-season—those honors would go to a (still clearly hobbled) Anisimov and Ryan Hartman, respectively—but they certainly did not play at a level anywhere near what they are capable of. The captain isn’t known for being a scorer, but he is typically a good possession center, a creator with the puck and a solid defender without it. None of the positives manifested themselves in any of the four games, though, as he was thoroughly dominated by Johansen in almost every facet of the game, including face-offs (more on those later), and the only point he put up all series came late in the 3rd period in tonight’s game when Nashville’s victory was all but assured. Keith, too, had little impact on the offensive end, a theme that he’s had throughout this season, and his poor decisions with the puck in his defensive end led to many preventable chances for the Predators, who managed to convert on at least one of Keith’s misplays into an important goal.
Winning face-offs isn’t necessarily a marker of success—the teams that ranked in the bottom three for face-off percentage this regular season, the Edmonton Oilers, the Blackhawks, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, all were phenomenal teams—but the hole that Chicago put themselves in at the dot this series was not helpful. They won 120 out of 254 face-offs overall, a clip that was very similar to their regular season numbers, but those numbers were inflated in their Game 1 loss in which their entire game outside of face-offs was anemic. They were especially poor in their defensive zone, as many of Nashville’s goals came off of a win in the face-off circle.
Similar to the return of Andrew Ladd last year, the acquisition of Johnny Oduya was supposed to solidify an area of weakness (a lock-down defenseman to play alongside Niklas Hjalmarsson) with an old Blackhawk in an effort to boost the team to another Stanley Cup. If anything, though, the veteran’s presence only served to destabilize the pairings the team had worked to establish all season. The Hjalmarsson-Oduya pairing didn’t work out; neither did the Keith-Seabrook pairing. Both Oduya and Brian Campbell played so poorly in the series that Quenneville had 7 defenseman suit up for the final game, and they ended up allowing 4 goals regardless. The team’s best blue liner was almost certainly the much-maligned Trevor van Riemsdyk, who was smart with the puck and made a couple of poke checks that saved goals that made have made Blackhawks defeats look even worse, and he could be gone next season with the expansion draft coming up. Acquiring Oduya was a good idea in theory, but it didn’t end up looking like a good move for Stan Bowman.
The team’s role players couldn’t maintain their regular season pace
The reason that the team was able to win the regular season conference title was because of the big plays they got from their lesser known players. Ryan Hartman was among the best rookies not named Auston Matthews or Patrick Laine. The same could be said for Nick Schmaltz. Richard Panik had a career year, and Tanner Kero was a revelation after being called up from Rockford. Outside of Kero’s performance in the face-off circle, these players, and the other non-elite Blackhawks, were unable to keep up their high levels of performance in the post-season. Panik and Schmaltz were so easily dominated that they were both demoted from the top line. Hartman’s biggest contribution may have been getting a ten-minute misconduct penalty in Game 2, and Kero was a zero when his team had the puck. It’s a lot to ask of these guys to be as good as supporting casts of old, but their play as a group wasn’t anywhere near being up to scratch for the team to be successful.
It’s clear, then, that the team has a lot to work on for next season. So where should Bowman, Quenneville and company look to improve? Check back here on Sunday to see my thoughts on how the team can recover from this brutal series loss.
Have your own thoughts on why the Blackhawks lost this series, or on how they can work to get better next year? Comment on this post below, or contact me here.