Blackhawks News

Chicago Blackhawks Must Learn From Losses

By Nick Heupel
Mar 29, 2016; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild forward Jarret Stoll (19) celebrates his goal with defenseman Mike Reilly (4) during the first period against the Chicago Blackhawks at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 29, 2016; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild forward Jarret Stoll (19) celebrates his goal with defenseman Mike Reilly (4) during the first period against the Chicago Blackhawks at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports /

The Minnesota Wild completed their season sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night, having defeated the Blackhawks in all five of this regular season’s competitions. This most recent performance against the Wild was the worst yet for the Chicago Blackhawks, as they registered one goal on 19 shots and only won 33 percent of the faceoffs. The Minnesota Wild weren’t exactly lighting up the stat sheet with shots (18), but they made theirs count with four goals.

By contrast, in the previous matches between the two teams this season, the Blackhawks racked up at least 30 shots on goal each game. The Wild outshot the Blackhawks in each of those competitions, and they went on to win each game as well. As the Western Conference table currently stands, the Blackhawks are scheduled to face the St. Louis Blues in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but should they advance to Round 2, they may have to face the Minnesota Wild. This playoff scenario might prove too challenging for the Blackhawks.

But regardless of potential playoff matchups, the past two losses to Minnesota exposed several weaknesses in Chicago’s game, and if the Blackhawks hope for any success in the postseason, they will need to focus all of their energy on solving key issues before the regular season is finished.

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In three different games against the Wild this season, the Blackhawks scored only one goal. They scored two goals in another game earlier in March, and they scored four goals in their first match against the Wild back in October. With several highly productive forwards, a low-scoring game for the ‘Hawks seems like an anomaly. And yet, the Wild have consistently shut down this stellar Chicago group.

Minnesota netminder Devan Dubnyk played a huge role in the Wild’s successful campaign against the Blackhawks. He made 30 or more saves in three out of five games, and has generally been a solid wall in net when facing Chicago skaters. The Blackhawks are sure to see more tough goaltenders in the playoffs, so they need to figure out how to find the cracks in a goalie’s game and exploit those weaknesses.

Beyond the stingy goaltending, the Minnesota Wild adjusted their defensive strategy to perfectly counter the Blackhawks’ fast-paced, highly-skilled offensive style. We all know how deadly Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin can be when they have space to handle the puck. The Wild defense pressured Chicago puck carriers relentlessly, closing down the type of individual puck-handling plays that often open up passing or shooting opportunities for ‘Hawks forwards in the offensive zone.

The high-pressure play of the Wild skaters also resulted in more turnovers and less quality chances for the Blackhawks. Minnesota played aggressively along the boards, winning most of the battles for the puck. They were able to disrupt the Blackhawks’ rush attempts in the neutral zone, and they worked to isolate the puck carrier on rushes that broke in on goal. Again, Minnesota’s constant pressure on the puck carrier limited the Blackhawks’ ability to pass and stick handle while on offense. From this defensive foundation, the Wild were able to force errors and punish the Blackhawks for their mistakes.

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Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /

In the two most recent losses to Minnesota, the Chicago defense struggled to neutralize the Wild’s energetic play. In the March 20 matchup, the Wild beat the Blackhawks by keeping the puck in the offensive zone, working a good cycle and catching the defense out of position. Minnesota’s forwards were skating hard in the zone, pressuring defenders, digging pucks out of the corners and firing passes to the front of the net.

On both goals against, the Blackhawks defensemen seemed to be one step behind in play and slow to close down on the puck carrier. In Tuesday night’s game, the Blackhawks skaters were overcommitting to the play on offense and getting caught out of position when the play went the other way. All of the Wild’s goals came on the rush, usually after a good defensive-zone breakout or after a Chicago skater turned over the puck. Sure, the Blackhawks were without core defensemen Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith in the most-recent tilt, and the lack of maturity/speed from the other defensemen really showed on the ice. But this is more or less the defensive group Chicago will bring into the 2016 playoffs, and the guys who aren’t Seabrook and Keith will have to step up and play big minutes in big games. Improvement is necessary.

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Looking at the losses against Minnesota, the Blackhawks need to adjust their defensive play. It’s great to see defensemen jumping into the play on offense and helping create good scoring chances, but the defensemen who take those risks need to be responsible as well. They cannot lose possession at the blue line and let the opposing forwards in beh

ind them on breakaway chances. They cannot get caught pinching and watch the other team go 3-on-1 the other way for an easy goal. Too often in the games against the Wild, the Blackhawks were caught out of position and they were unable to recover.

Going forward, the ‘Hawks might try to play a little more conservatively. With Corey Crawford still out, they will want to spend as little time as possible in their defensive end, and to achieve this they will need to focus on breaking up passing lanes and winning the battles along the boards.

Recently, the Blackhawks have gotten solid offensive contributions from the bottom-six forwards — the less-skilled, harder-working guys. Keeping the pressure on in the offensive zone with a good cycle might be the key to success for the Blackhawks in the coming weeks. Putting skaters in front of the net and shooting more will help to keep the pressure on the opposing team. A conservative look on offense would mean less pinching from the less-experienced blueliners, and more support back towards neutral ice to prevent counter-attacks. Keep it simple. Win faceoffs. Control the puck. Score some dirty goals.