After the positive and optimistic start of the 2007-08 season, the last five weeks for the Chicago Blackhawks could be categorized as “the worst of times.” Since December 30th, the team has lost 12 out of 16 games while battling a litany of injuries. Chicago now finds itself on yet another losing streak, and the team has descended to the cellar of the Central division and second-to-last place overall in the Western Conference standings.
The Blackhawks kicked off the first game of a seven-game road trip this past Wednesday in Colorado. A good effort was expected since, aside from the days off due to the All-Star break, this game was the first following coach Denis Savard’s post-game tirade essentially challenging the effort of his veteran players. In embarrassingly disappointing fashion, the Blackhawks’ effort was nowhere to be found in a 6-3 loss to the Avalanche.
Frustration then boiled over at practice the next day when a scuffle broke out between the team’s lone All-Star representative, Duncan Keith, and winger Patrick Sharp. Both players were on good terms afterwards, but the two quiet leaders sent a message with their actions. Unlike Savard’s verbal shots through the media, this time the message came through clearly and the Blackhawks responded in kind on Saturday afternoon in San Jose.
The effort and intensity were apparent a mere 17 seconds after the opening puck-drop on Saturday. Recently acquired Sharks tough guy Jody Shelley delivered a hard, clean body check on Blackhawks defenseman James Wisniewski. Immediately, Adam Burish of the Hawks came over to Wisniewski’s defense. A scrum ensued, and Burish soon dropped the gloves with tough Sharks defenseman, Douglas Murray. Burish held his own, despite the two-inch, 50-pound disparity between the two players.
The Blackhawks once again were badly outshot in the contest, but goalie Nikolai Khabibulin played the way the Hawks had always hoped, stopping 38 of 40 shots. Two of the team’s young leaders, Sharp and Keith – the same two players who had fought in practice two days prior – scored the two Chicago goals. And lastly, but most importantly, Chicago matched San Jose’s intensity and physicality throughout. Unfortunately, all these factors couldn’t produce a victory in the shootout, but given the team’s recent run of poor outings, a point from a significantly more talented team like the Sharks is a step in the right direction.
The Week Ahead
The Blackhawks will spend this week in Western Canada with back-to-back games in Edmonton and Calgary before traveling to Vancouver on Sunday night. More consistent intensity, leadership, and physicality will need to be on display throughout if the Blackhawks are going to snap their current skid.
Some help should be on its way when Martin Lapointe returns from a bruised kidney on Wednesday night in Edmonton. It’s probably no coincidence the team’s recent troubles have occurred without the gritty Lapointe in the lineup – the first games he’s missed in his two-plus seasons in Chicago.
In addition to Lapointe, young veterans like Sharp need to perform as they did earlier in the season. Since December 30th, Sharp has four goals and one assist in 16 games compared to 19 goals and 13 assists in his first 34 games. Sharp was skating well on Saturday and had numerous opportunities using his excellent speed, so hopefully the “best of times” are yet to come.