There are three main reasons why the Chicago Blackhawks are staggering in their NHL playoff series with the Detroit Red Wings rather than cruising along smoothly as they did in the regular season.
In the order of importance they are:
Their best players, as they love to say in the NHL, are not being their best players, especially captain Jonathan Toews. He is being checked to a standstill by one of the Red Wings’ best players, fellow centre Henrik Zetterberg, and has one measly assist in three games of the Western Conference semi-final. Of the Blackhawks’ top six forwards, only Patrick Sharp (four points in three games) and Patrick Kane (three points in three games) are producing.
In the absence of production from the above stars, the Blackhawks’ secondary players are not taking up the slack like they did in Chicago’s first-round win over the Minnesota Wild. The key goals in the Red Wings’ 3-1 win on Monday, which gave them a 2-1 series lead, came from their third and fourth lines and were scored against the Blackhawks’ third and fourth lines. Collectively, the bottom six forwards for Chicago who played Monday are minus-4 in this series while their Detroit counterparts are plus-7.
Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard outplayed Chicago goalie Corey Crawford in Game 3, although Crawford’s play has generally been good.
In a sense, reason No.2 may be the most important fix facing the Blackhawks as they prepare for Game 4 on Thursday at Joe Louis Arena. It is common for stars to be shut down in the playoffs. After all, opposing teams put way more focus on that than they do in the regular season so it stands to reason it will be accomplished some of the time.
That is why secondary scoring and depth is discussed so often at this time of year. Right now, the Blackhawks’ depth is lacking. Unlike 2010, when the Blackhawks also cruised to first place in the regular season but went on to win the Stanley Cup, this edition of the team does not have same talent level.
In 2010, Toews, Kane, Sharp and Marian Hossa were supported by the likes of Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer and Tomas Kopecky. Dustin Byfuglien also contributed much offence by playing both forward and defence. The fourth line of Adam Burish, Ben Eager and John Madden did not add much scoring but they were a good energy and checking trio.
Dave Bolland was the third-line centre in 2010, a role that seems more suited to him, although he is now the Hawks’ No.2 centre. Andrew Ladd, who is now the captain and leading scorer for the Winnipeg Jets, was one of the top six forwards in 2010.
The Blackhawks defence in 2010 also had Brian Campbell, who was a consistent points producer along with Byfuglien.
Three years later, after the Blackhawks executives were caught with their managerial pants down and forced to unload Byfuglien, Ladd, Versteeg and company because of salary-cap problems, there isn’t much coming from the bottom half of the roster.
In the three games against the Red Wings, the Blackhawks’ third and fourth lines produced a grand total of two points. The Red Wings’ bottom six forwards accounted for nine points in the same period. On defence, Chicago’s third pairing of Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival had a dreadful night on Monday.
Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville has not been happy with everyone on those two lines for some time. He benched third-line winger Viktor Stalberg, who played 47 of 48 regular-season games, for the first two games of the Detroit series in favour of Daniel Carcillo.
When Stalberg replaced Carcillo for Monday’s game, he was the one who scored the disallowed goal early in the third period because linemate Andrew Shaw was in the goal crease. Quenneville, who said it was a bad call, pointed to that as the turning point against his team because it would have tied the score 2-2.
Then again, Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock argued Chicago’s first goal should have been waved off because defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson should have been called for boarding at the start of the play when he blasted Wings forward Johan Franzen.
In any event, Stalberg, Shaw, Michal Handzus, Bryan Bickell, Michael Frolik, Marcus Kruger and perhaps Carcillo if he is put back in there, all need to be better on Thursday. Not by a lot, since this is still a close series, but by enough to make a difference if Toews and the other stars still can’t get going.