When the dust settled on Tuesday night at the United Center, the Blackhawks had lost to the Nashville Predators again. But this time, there were some positives fans could take away from the game.
Excuses are for losers, but the Blackhawks could certainly make a couple on Tuesday.
Consider that Nashville was arguably the hottest team in the NHL coming into the game (9-2-0 in January before last night’s victory), and had the hottest netminder in the league between the pipes. The Blackhawks countered that momentum by having two of the better scorers in the NHL, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp, on IR and skated five rookie forwards who have combined to post 30 points in 96 NHL games.
The Predators put on a defensive clinic through the first two periods, and the Hawks struggled to maintain puck possession (or, in many cases, even get the puck deep). Certainly both of the goals allowed in the first period left a lot to be desired from a number of players, and the Hawks weren’t able to put together any momentum through the first 40 minutes.
For the first time since Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were rookies, the Blackhawks looked like a young team trying to fight a “big brother” team that was out-playing them with fundamentally superior hockey. But not everything was was negative.
Dave Bolland had perhaps the best night of his career at the dot, winning 17 of 20 faceoffs. He also scored his 15th goal of the season, Chicago’s only tally of the night, on the power play in the third period.
The Blackhawks played perhaps their most physical game of the season. Only four skaters on the Hawks roster weren’t credited with a hit in the game, and the team-high of three was reached by Steve Montador and three of the rookies: Jimmy Hayes, Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger.
While the penalty kill has been a struggle throughout the first half of the season, it was very good on Tuesday night. If not for an empty net goal with an advantage by Colin Wilson with just 13 seconds left in regulation, the Hawks would have killed all three Nashville penalties on the night. Chicago was as good as they have been all season on the Preds’ first two advantages, and those were with primary penalty killers Niklas Hjalmarsson and Duncan Keith in the box.
The toughest part of the loss was the performance of Corey Crawford in net. He was bad on Saturday night, and needed to be better on Tuesday night. He didn’t get much help in the first period, but needed to make a save on one (or both) of Nashville’s goals in the first period.
But to Crawford’s credit, and in spite of rebound control that continued to be mediocre, he was much better in the final 40 minutes. He stopped all 16 of the Preds’ shots in the second and third periods, and made a couple big saves when the Hawks’ defensemen left him hanging.
In total, Crawford numbers weren’t bad (two goals allowed against 25 shots, .920 save percentage), but this is a great example of how stats without context fail; with how well Pekka Rinne was playing on the other end of the rink, two goals was likely going to win the game and Crawford allowed that in the first 20 minutes.
Without the empty net goal, the handicapped, rookie-heavy Blackhawks played to a 2-1 loss against one of the hottest teams in the NHL. While the league doesn’t award points in the standings for moral victories, and the Blackhawks aren’t looking for a pat on the back these days, that isn’t an overwhelming loss; indeed, the result on Tuesday night was a significant upgrade from the debacle in Nashville on Saturday night.
On Wednesday morning, Ben Smith and Brandon Pirri were sent back to Rockford. The organization keeping Hayes and Shaw on the NHL roster over the Break is a strong indication that they’re in Chicago to stay.