An adjustment in puck management led to a team-wide breakthrough performance Sunday for the Chicago Blackhawks in Buffalo
Saturday evening, the Chicago Blackhawks played their first game after a week off, returning from what has become the notorious NHL bye week. Teams have played abysmally poor throughout the season in their first game back from the extended break, and the Blackhawks looked to find the pace and flow of play they sported throughout their previous five games.
All things considered, it really didn’t feel like the ’Hawks played bad at home Saturday night. Although their efforts were only good enough to earn a 3-1 loss at the hands of the Oilers, they dictated play for most of the game, thoroughly outshot the Oilers and showed up with an intensity that will be good enough to win on most nights.
Coach Joel Quenneville mentioned in his postgame comments that he did not feel the outcome was reflective of the team’s play.
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Realistically, if there was one resounding criticism of the ’Hawks’ play Saturday, it was that they were a little too picky with their shot selection. There were a number of plays, particularly late in the third period, in which the ’Hawks set up an opportunity to shoot from a high-percentage area of the slot, only to try to force the selfless, unnecessary extra pass.
That one simple adjustment proved to be the key to what I would label a breakout victory in Buffalo on Sunday.
Closer look at Blackhawks’ adjustments
The ’Hawks peppered Robin Lehner with 37 shots on goal, while only surrendering 26. They possessed the puck for an overwhelming amount of the game, and went 53 percent at the dot, despite Jonathan Toews only breaking even at 50 percent on the night. Marcus Kruger was 67 percent in the faceoff circle.
The ’Hawks’ willingness to shoot the puck from tough angles (see the Ryan Hartman and Marian Hossa goals) caught the Sabres off guard, and the inevitable defensive adjustment that followed open up the slot for players like Patrick Kane and Toews, who both found themselves all but completely alone in front of the net before scoring.
The Blackhawks looked excellent on both sides of the ice in Buffalo, and I think real positive performances from the likes of Nick Schmaltz and Hartman are super encouraging.
Schmaltz won crucial battles in dirty areas of the ice, and his situational awareness on the Toews goal set the captain for a tap-in. Schmaltz is clearly becoming more confident in his ability to produce at the NHL level, and it’s translating into a willingness to go to war in the corners and free up pucks for the captain, who has been lights-out of late.
Perhaps even more exiting is that Hartman has turned out to be one hell of an asset for this team. There were stretches Sunday in Buffalo in which his line with Tanner Kero and Vinnie Hinostroza cycled the puck for entire shifts at a time.
The secondary scoring and general puck possession does wonders for the big names on the ’Hawks, who won’t be forced to log obscene amounts of minutes come playoff time.
Going beyond the win
And finally, while Sunday was a very encouraging bounceback victory for a ’Hawks team which is steadily looking closer to being playoff-ready, there are still a few subplots to watch for as we approach March 1st.
I don’t think the hole appears as gaping as it did mid-January, but the reality is that the Blackhawks have a hole at the top-line left wing position next to Toews. While Richard Panik has had a very commendable season thus far (15 goals, 29 points), he simply isn’t a top-six forward on a championship team.
Da Windy City
I think this was a little more evident Sunday in the first period and early in the second, during which there were a number of plays where Panik’s inability to cash in on top-quality opportunities could have cost the team (one of which came in the form of a one-timer that rang off the pipe).
For that reason, I see the Hawks making some noise before March 1st. The acquisition of a legitimate left wing to play with No. 19 would, in my own opinion, complete this lineup.
Finally, and I know it’s being discussed an awful lot by fans and analysts alike, Trevor van Riemsdyk is simply not deserving of the minutes he’s being allowed.
TVR logged almost 20 minutes of ice time Sunday in Buffalo. Meanwhile Michal Kempny barely managed 13, but sported an assist in his limited role.
I counted on two hands the amount of times Brian Campbell was forced to lay out on the backcheck to break up an odd-man rush caused by a TVR miscue. For a puck-moving defenseman like Campbell who earns his paycheck with his speed, being paired with a player like TVR is essentially handcuffing the speedy D-man.
Overall, Sunday had the feel of a playoff-caliber Blackhawks team, and this is promising news as April looms closer. I’ll have more to come soon as all aforementioned subplots continue to play out.