Hockey

-We’ve commented in the past year that when the Hawks have played in games against teams that are fighting directly for the playoff spots the Hawks claim to be after, they’ve fallen flat on their face. This can be a big fudge-y to determine, as some teams are in for automatic spots, some teams should be but aren’t, and others definitely are in the wildcard chase.

But this harkens back to last year. And going over the actual records, it’s kind of funny that we thought the Hawks were so in it, and they were, as they were under .500 at the time when this started. That’s more on the Western Conference than the Hawks, but the standings said they had a chance. And here’s what they came up with:

2/22/19 – Colorado: lost 5-3

2/24/19 – Dallas: lost 4-3

3/9/19 – @Dallas: won 2-1

3/11/19 – @Arizona: won 7-1

3/23 – @Colorado: lost 4-2 (this pretty much ended things)

3/24/19 – Colorado: Won 2-1 in OT

3/26/19 – @Arizona: lost 1-0, definitely ended things

So my claims that they’ve never taken a point is an exaggeration, but 3-4-0 with one of those wins in OT isn’t exactly impressive either. And the win in Arizona was before the Coyotes had made their last charge toward the playoffs, and the OT win over Colorado was basically after the horse was out of the barn. Still, you get it.

It could be argued that the win over Calgary on Tuesday was over a fellow playoff competitor, as the Flames are in the wildcard mess at the moment. We can go back and forth on that. My wager would be on the Flames eventually joining Vegas and some other random third team in the automatic spots, and rather easily as well. Time will tell on that one.

It’s hard to know what games that came before have the same meaning, but now that we’re in the second half we’ll definitely get sharper context for some. They’ll have games with the Flames, Predators, and Jets in the next couple weeks (all at home) so that will be a good start. Next month is rife with them as well.

-One thing we know the Hawks simply aren’t equipped to do is protect a lead, and a big one. They might hang on desperately and let their goalies bail them out, but they can’t shut down a game. We saw it last night, we saw it in Calgary, we saw it in St. Louis earlier in the year.

Looking back over the schedule, a lot of wins were the Hawks coming from behind or catching a team cold. The Islanders were clearly out to lunch. Their one authoritative effort of late was against the Jets, and even then they had to survive an utter onslaught in the second period when leading. The win against the Wild saw them take the lead with six minutes left. The Bruins were able to storm back to get to OT. You have to go all the way back to their win at home against the Stars, which was Dallas’s third game in four nights for another “easy” win.

This isn’t much of a surprise, given the state of the Hawks defense. They can basically only toss out Keith and Murphy to keep things “calm,” and even then Keith was a culprit for the winner last night. Keep them separate, and you’re still asking Adam Boqvist and Erik Gustafsson to see things out in later minutes. There’s just no way.

It’s been a constant complaint around here, but the Hawks blue line is the prime example of how there’s just no plan. If they had any idea that Seabrook wouldn’t be part of the every day lineup, and they should have, then the minutes going to Dennis Gilbert right now would be going to Henri Jokiharju (who’s no genius but he’s a hell of a lot better than Gilbert and wouldn’t you look but the Sabres just moved along an overpaid vet to keep him in the lineup. What’s that like?). Instead they have a winger who is deservedly sitting behind Matthew Highmore. After being given literally every chance and boost to succeed.

At this point, there is no downside to letting Phillip Holm or even Nicolas Beaudin take those minutes. They can’t be anymore helpless than Gilbert, who is Brandon Manning bad, and perhaps they would respond better to the NHL game than the AHL one which has happened before. Gilbert is definitely meant for the AHL game. Fuck, you’ve scratched and clawed to keep Fetch on the NHL roster, perhaps it’s time to give him one last stretch of games to see if anything can be salvaged here. The Hawks were so convinced of it earlier.

Or maybe you can just keep throwing things at the wall. It’s going great so far.

-Also it’s time for MY GUY Philipp Kurashev to get a look over John Quenneville, who doesn’t really do anything. The Hawks are still far too infatuated with plugs who “work hard” instead of those with actual skill. Quenneville is never going to be more than a fourth-liner. Again, you have nothing to lose.

-I feel like two or three times a game I marvel that Zack Smith always seems to be in a good spot but then completely undoes that by having no feet or hands.

-John mentioned it last night, but there’s no excuse for coming out of a TV timeout and having Gus, Strome, and Top Cat out for a defensive draw, no matter how much you trust Carpenter to take it. This is base-level NHL coaching, and Colliton gets it wrong far too much.

I have spoken.

 

Everything Else

Carping off Good Sir Pullega’s wrap last night, I’ve basically sat here all morning and thought how last night’s game was the perfect showcase for everything that has gone wrong or afflicts the Hawks this season. And seeing as how it very well could be the final nail in this season’s coffin, it makes it even more poignant. But as you know I love to say, you love last night’s game. It says everything you want to say.

Let’s go through it:

1. Goaltending

We can break down the deficiencies on the Hawks roster from here until the end of the world (currently scheduled for next month), but you’re not going to get past this. Thanks to the CBA and the flattening cap, it’s nearly impossible to get your roster of skaters that much more talented than anyone else. It’s why most teams look the same. Even where you think there are gaps, they’re not as big as you think.

So it’s a goalie league. Look at the top of the standings. Tampa, Boston, Nashville, Winnipeg, Vegas, they’re all getting Vezina-level goaltending or close to it. You cannot base success without it now. It may be a devilish task to find 18 skaters that can separate you from the pack, so it’s a hell of a lot easier to find one goalie.

And the Hawks had it, but now they don’t, and you see the results. You’re tempted to not hang Forsberg completely out to dry as after all the Hawks only scored two goals. But goals change games. If he doesn’t let Pitlick’s blast in, the Hawks go into the third tied. Maybe the Stars are still tempted to lock it down as they did in the third anyway, get their point, and take their chances in the extra frame. But probably not as hard core. Maybe with just a slight loosening or a mistake the Hawks can find another goal. One goal changes the complexion of everything.

Looking back over the schedule since Crow went out, you can find a lot of points that Crow might have gotten them. Upon first glance: new year’s eve against Calgary, Jan. 5th against Vegas, Jan. 10th vs. Minnesota, home to the Leafs, maybe in Vancouver, both games recently against the Flames, and last night. Even conservatively, that’s 7-8 points on the board. How much better would things look? Even boil that down to five and it’s a totally different outlook.

And again, Forsberg is merely a backup. He’s not supposed to save your season. How many teams even have a backup that could? Maybe Saros in Nashville? Do we know that for sure? Khudobin in Boston? We saw what he looked like as a starter in the past. Kuemper is doing a fine impression in LA, but he also remains Darcy Kuemper. Let’s just say it’s rare.

I can’t help but think of Montreal a couple years ago when Carey Price basically missed the whole season. Metrically, and by other measures, the Habs were good that year. But none of it mattered because they didn’t get the saves they were accustomed to getting and needed. Ever. And that was that. Price comes back the next year, they’re basically the same team, and they win the division. When you have a Price-caliber goalie, and that’s what Crawford is despite Pierre McGuire forever muddying the perception of him, there’s simply nothing you can do to make up for the loss of him. It’s pretty simple.

2. The lack of a puck-mover

You saw this last night when the Stars went full-Jabba The Hitch in the 3rd. The Hawks didn’t have any answers. They’re not a team built to dump and chase and rugby their way into chances and goals. And that’s fine if you have a quick and creative blue line. The Hawks do not.

Duncan Keith was never PK Subban or Erik Karlsson. Keith’s springing of the offense in the past was his insane ability to create turnovers just ahead of each blue line with a burst of a first step that simply no one else in the league had. He then immediately got the puck up to the forwards with the other team caught in bad positions. He was not a “wheel it out from behind his own net and carry it 160 feet through three guys” guy. It’s why he’s never been a power play QB either. Well, now he doesn’t have that first step, and is still recalibrating his game to that. At times he’s trying to Roger Federer things and try and force even earlier than he did in the past. But that’s often ending in a mess. And he can’t recover like he could.

Beyond that, there’s just no one else. Gustafsson and Forsling were too busy getting buried in their own end to be that guy. Seabrook… well, if he can’t make the pass from his own circles you know how this goes. Kempy is more in the Oduya model in that he can use his wheels to get out of trouble in his own end but is offensively limited. It’s simply not in Murphy’s job description.

So a team can simply stand up at its line, with no fear of being beaten, and force the Hawks to put it in the corners. Which is where…

3. Lack of a forecheck

Here’s the thing. You don’t have to be a really big team to be a good forechecking one. You just have to be quick and determined. The Hawks were never big but could make this work in the past, though it helped that they had Keith or Oduya or a younger Seabrook and Hammer also ready to force things at the blue line as well and squeezing space. They also had Marian Hossa.

Now? Not so much. And I don’t know that it has to be this way. It’s what Saad was supposed to help with. Hinostroza certainly is willing and fast, though maybe just not strong enough. It’s in Duclair too, and he did cause a couple turnovers last night. It’s still supposed to be a Toews specialty. That’s basically someone on every line.

And yet the Hawks remain remarkable easy to break out against, and the defense behind that much easier to get through once teams do. Granted, this is a Hitchcock team and 1-6 the Stars are as solid on defense as you’ll find. But you still have to find a way to even threaten.

I don’t know if they just don’t want to, or they just gave up on weights in the gym or something, but it really shouldn’t look like this. And it shouldn’t look like them trying to come up with Rembrandts at the blue line trying to avoid this and just giving up the puck there instead. When you have a lead against the Hawks, if you just make them go 200 feet there’s nothing they can do. When they can’t play on the rush, they have no answers.

Sadly, the last two things don’t look like they can be fixed in the coming years either, as they are linked. The Hawks don’t have a puck-moving d-man anywhere near ready, unless they plan to toss Jokiharju into the league at 19 (and maybe he could do that but boy is that an ask). Come next October I’d certainly be more than intrigued at what Top Cat, Schmaltz, Hinostroza, Kampf look like with the experience, along with the addition of Sikura and maybe one or two others. But until the Hawks come up with a definitive answer on their blue line, it’s probably all for naught.