Saturday, 15 April 2017

Scoreless, Winless, Hopeless?

It's hard to understand how a team that has had as much success as the Blackhawks have had this season suddenly find themselves as major underdogs when it comes to winning their series against the Nashville Predators. This is a team that was ninth-overall in goal-scoring this season, but has yet to puck a single puck behind Pekka Rinne in two straight games. This is a team that boasts all-stars on multiple lines, yet can't seem to execute in the offensive zone. This is a team who, for two games, has looked lost, dazed, and confused at times in trying to solve the system that Nashville is playing. Suddenly, the top team in the Western Conference looks more like the Wild Card team while Nashville looks like they dominated the league.

In Game Two tonight, head coach Joel Quenneville shuffled his lines as he looked for a little more offence, putting rookie Vinnie Hinostroza and Dennis Rasmussen into the lineup while giving veteran Jordin Tootoo and John Hayden a seat in the press box. It was a bit of a surprising move, in my opinion, having lost a 1-0 game in Game One, but more offensively-gifted players should help, right?

Not really. Instead, the Nashville Predators played their game perfectly in laying a 5-0 beating on the Blackhawks tonight. It was the polar opposite of what the changes were supposed to do, and now the Blackhawks go to Nashville in a 2-0 hole where they'll be given zero slack when it comes to surviving this series. This team is in turmoil, having lost six-straight games including the final four of the regular season, and the tailspin they're currently in has them in big trouble as they were booed off the ice at the end of both the second and third periods in front of their home fans at the United Center.

"We've been in some tough spots before," captain Jonathan Toews told Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times. "Didn't think after two games at home that we'd be talking about this already, that it's do-or-die, but we're going to go into that next game with that mentality."

This is the first time the Blackhawks have trailed 2-0 while having home-ice advantage, but history is against them in the Quenneville era. They have only rallied once in three attempts under Quenneville after trailing 2-0 in a series, and that happened in 2014 against St. Louis. Making this worse is that the last fifteen teams who have trailed 2-0 while holding home-ice advantage have lost those series. And it appears that Chicago could be Team #16.

Where are the stars? What happened to the vaunted scoring and amazing talent? Kane and Toews accounted for just one goal in their seven-game series against the Blues last season. In fact, Toews, known for clutch playoff performances, hasn't scored a playoff goal since Game Four of the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Duncan Keith looks like a ghost of his Conn Smythe-winning self, and handles the puck like it's a live grenade. To an eye, the Blackhawks look slower than the Predators on every play, and seem unable to solve both Rinne and the Predators' defensive system as a whole.

But let's not pin this deficit entirely on the Blackhawks because Nashville has done everything it has needed to do to earn wins in the first two games. Clutch scoring from all lines, blocking a ton of shots, keeping offensive chances to the outside, playing physical, getting to the front of the net, forechecking like demons, and activating their defence are all factors in the Predators' attack. And rather than sitting back and defending a lead, the Predators continued to push the Blackhawks around in posting a 5-0 victory to demoralize the Blackhawks and win the psychological battle.

Don't believe me? Here's Patrick Kane's comments post-game: "We all thought the series would be in a different place right now. That's the way hockey goes, I guess. You put forth that effort and don't get the outcome you want. Nothing we can do about it now."

That line wasn't delivered with the passion and resolve of, say, Mark Messier when he found his Rangers down in the series against the Devils in 1994. That didn't sound like the leadership of Phil Esposito when he delivered a passionate speech after losing to the USSR in Vancouver. Kane's comments sound like a defeated foe who is out of answers when it comes to how soundly and thoroughly he was beaten. There's no "we're still alive" passion in his comments. There's no "we'll show them" resolve in his delivery. If Chicago goes on to lose this series and Kane doesn't play a big role in keeping the Blackhawks alive, I'm not sure he deserves to wear a letter on his jersey.

"That was frustration to a different level," Quenneville told reporters. "That wasn't fun to watch. We dug ourselves a tremendous hole. Across the board, not too many positives came out of this game. Everybody was responsible, from the coaches down to every single player. We need to get out of this mess and hole."

The digging to escape the proverbial hole starts on Monday night in Nashville if the Blackhawks hope to make any noise this postseason. If the Blackhawks are summarily dismissed by the Predators in this series, I'd expect that this high-priced core of players who have carried them to overwhelming success in the past will start being dismantled in this off-season. Hockey is a "what have you done for me lately" profession where teams that fail to live up to expectations are subject to changes, sometimes dramatically. Chicago stands on the precipice of that reality right now.

Like it or not, the Blackhawks have five-or-less games to prevent that dismantling from happening.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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