Thoughts on the Chicago Blackhawks’ Annual Circus Trip

 

The Hawks wrapped up their annual 6-game Circus Trip with much needed victories over the Anaheim and LA on Friday and Saturday, giving the Hawks a .500 record for the trip. Not bad, not great.

But despite going 3-3, it feels like there was a lot more bad on this trip than good. That just might be the case.

Before we delve into our analysis of the trip and what we can learn from it, lets do a quick recap.

Wed Nov 16, 2011 Blackhawks Canucks FINAL CHI (5) – VAN (1)
Fri Nov 18, 2011 Blackhawks Flames FINAL CHI (2) – CGY (5)
Sat Nov 19, 2011 Blackhawks Oilers FINAL CHI (2) – EDM (9)
Wed Nov 23, 2011 Blackhawks Sharks FINAL CHI (0) – SJS (1)
Fri Nov 25, 2011 Blackhawks Ducks FINAL CHI (6) – ANA (5)
Sat Nov 26, 2011 Blackhawks Kings FINAL CHI (2) – LAK (1)

 

The Blackhawks started the trip off with a decisive victory over their nemesis, the Vancouver Canucks and got some retribution in the process, paying them back for a 6-2 defeat on home ice just 10 days prior to that with a spanking in their own building. Indeed the trip was off to a great start.

And then “the Weekend” happened (as I call it) A weekend that saw the Hawks get outscored 14-4 in humiliating back-to-back losses to teams that probably won’t even get a sniff of the playoffs in the spring. These two losses began to set off alarms that maybe this team isn’t as good as we all believed.

But the Hawks came back after a couple of (probably bleak) nights in Sin City, and gave a much-needed solid defensive effort against the San Jose Sharks, but were stopped by former teammate Antti Niemi.

The opening minutes of Friday nights match against the Anaheim Ducks saw the Hawks come out completely flat and unemotional and go down quickly by a couple of goals. But they kept the game within reach and finally opened the floodgates in the third period. A 5-point night by the Captain and a hat-trick by Patrick Sharp saw the Hawks to victory.

They followed up that effort the next night with a 2-1 victory over the LA Kings, a game that was won by defense and goaltending, an uncommon theme of the Hawks this season.

So can we learn from this year’s Circus Trip?

Positives:

- When the Blackhawks play sound defensive hockey, instead of just trying to outscore opponents, they are very tough to beat, as seen in the Vancouver and LA games. And frankly, had it not been for Niemi and a couple of missed opportunities, the Hawks could have beaten San Jose. The point is: most nights the Hawks offense will break through, even against good teams. The trip showed us that the Hawks are capable of playing great defensive games against tough opponents and don’t just have to score a plethora of goals to win hockey games.

- The Hawks have a core that can carry this team when its needed. We saw this in the Anaheim game, and to a lesser degree the LA game, when Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp decided that enough was enough, went on a rampage and seized victories for their team. Similarly with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. When the team needed better defense, they stepped up and provided it.

- Nick Leddy and Marcus Kruger continue to progress wonderfully. Leddy is currently on pace for 54 points and Kruger is on pace for 24.

Negatives:

- This team is not nearly as good defensively as it needs to be, at least not on a consistent basis. They gave up 22 goals on the trip and have given up 74 goals total, third worst in the Western Conference. That is simply unacceptable for a team with this amount of talent. While we can say that the Hawks were excellent defensively in three of the games (Vancouver, San Jose and LA) they were horrid against the three lesser opponents of the trip (Edmonton, Calgary and Anaheim) If the Hawks wish to stay atop the Central Division and Western Conference, they need to bring better defensive efforts every night, and that includes the penalty kill, which has slipped to dead last in the league (also unacceptable)

- Depth scoring is becoming a problem for this year’s team. Of the 17 goals they scored on the trip, 11 came from the Hawks’ big guns (Toews, Kane, Hossa and Sharp) The players that the Hawks need to step up and contribute more offensively (mainly Bryan Bickell and Michael Frolik) aren’t doing so. And while not much can be expected offensively from the fourth line, they haven’t been contributing at all lately. This spells trouble, because if the Hawks’ top four falls into a slump, no one will be there to pick up the slack.

- Corey Crawford needs to pick up his game. While he hasn’t been terrible, he certainly hasn’t been as good as the Hawks need him to be. His .907 save percentage and 2.77 goals against average are far below what Crawford is capable of.

So are there more negatives than positives to take from the trip? Well that’s a matter of debate. You could certainly argue that the games against Edmonton and Calgary were blips on what was otherwise a very solid road trip, with victories against tough conference opponents like Vancouver and LA, a comeback win against Anaheim and a strong defensive effort against San Jose. The Hawks did manage 17 goals in 6 road games and only allowed 4 goals against 3 of the best teams in the Western Conference (Vancouver, San Jose and LA)

On the other hand, you could argue that the trip is a good parable for the duality of this Hawks team: while they are capable of playing great hockey, they are equally capable of playing like absolute garbage. You could also argue that negative aspects of the trip represent broader trends of the team (inconsistent defensive efforts, lack of depth scoring, shaky and unpredictable goaltending etc.)

I’ll let you decide if there’s more positives than negatives to take from this year’s Circus Trip. One thing we can all agree on though: we need to see more of the positives and less of the negatives going forward. That is critical.

The Hawks take on the Phoenix Coyotes on Wednesday night. I’ll be back tomorrow with another “Hawk Thought”.

Thanks for reading and try to enjoy your Monday (Monday’s suck, I know )

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Topics: Anaheim Ducks, Brent Seabrook, Chicago Blackhawks, Corey Crawford, Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, Nick Leddy, Patrick Sharp, San Jose Sharks

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  • The Noble Square

    Nice job of team accounting after the Circus Trip, Cody. I’d agree with you that after their two wins in SoCal, it would be silly to call the trip a completely negative exercise. But the six games did highlight some of those persistent worries with this team, including: a team defense that seems to operate on a sliding scale according to the level of the opposition; under-performing goalies (at least in Crawford’s case); and a lack of offensive production from third and fourth-line forwards (Frolik was a favorite of mine coming into the season but needs to get a lot more involved with the offensive flow of things in order to even approach the 20 goal, 45 pt. season I envisioned).

    Still, it was great to see Toews in Hulk Mode and Sharp picking up the scraps. They’re already looking like an improved team compared to last year, I just hope they can tighten up in a few areas and compete for home ice in the playoffs.

    Finally, I’m always pleasantly surprised by the number of Hawk sweaters in their California stops. I actually grew up on the Central Coast of California, about 3 hours north of L.A., and don’t recall ever meeting anybody from Chicagoland. Either this Chicago-California immigration thing is a recent phenomenon, or they’re all going to L.A. and the O.C. I guess that’s where the jobs are, or have been.

  • Tamara Bingley

    The win over vancouver makes me shudder.. but then I see 9-2 Oilers and i feel so much better! I had no idea hawks PK was dead last, that’s something I would never have guessed. Like the Canucks they are lacking D, Hard to believe when Chicago has guys like Keith and Seabrook up front. Good job Cody, can’t wait until the next Canucks/Hawks game. Maybe even another playoff series, but that’s still very far away!