Blackhawks Offense, Like Toews, Stays in Chicago

Cristobal Huet played exceptionally well in goal but took the loss on Thursday night.
Cristobal Huet played exceptionally well in goal but took the loss on Thursday night.

I guess if you play the same team three times in 15 days, they have a pretty good chance to figure out an effective game plan.

The Blackhawks and Predators faced off in Nashville in their third game against one another already this season, and Nashville was finally able to put together a winning formula. In fact, the Predators thoroughly dominated the Blackhawks in every part of the game.

On what appeared to be mediocre ice in Music City, the Hawks never got their act together and they squandered a fantastic effort from Cristobal Huet. Bouncing pucks, sloppy skating and bad penalties plagued the Hawks, who weren’t able to take advantage of the few opportunities they were afforded by the Preds.

Pekka Rinne was marvelous, earning a well-deserved shut out against a team that had scored three goals against him on October 15. The Blackhawks only put 22 shots on net, well below their season average, and did not display the shoot-and-follow offense that has been so effective for them to start the year. Rinne didn’t allow many rebounds, and when there were loose pucks the Hawks didn’t capitalize.

Nashville topped the Blackhawks in every statistical category except two: faceoff wins and penalty minutes. They out shot the Hawks 28-22, out hit the Hawks 21-15, and had 11 takeaways to the Blackhawks’ 6 on the night.

The Hawks’ 24 penalty minutes did include a 10-minute misconduct penalty on Dustin Byfuglien with just four seconds left, taken after it appeared a Predator interfered with Patrick Kane’s stick as he attempted a one-timer in front of the net. The Hawks on the ice collectively lost their composure and argued with officials as Jerred Smithson took the puck the other direction for a short-handed empty net goal.

Apparently Byfuglien’s language was a bit more colorful than the other Hawks on the ice, as he earned both the 10-minutes misconduct and a four-minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

The effort from Huet was consistent with his last three outings, though. He made big saves in tough situations from every angle and looked every bit the $5 million goalie the Hawks hoped they had signed last summer. Over his last three games, Huet has allowed two goals on 75 shots.

The Hawks have had small breakdowns in each of the last three games on the ice between players that aren’t used to playing with each other. The offense was noticeably off it’s game on Thursday, playing without captain Jonathan Toews for a third consecutive game.

As coach Joel Quenneville tries to put the pieces together in Toews’ absence, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Toews means more than his five points indicates on paper to this team. The Hawks’ power play, which was the best road power play in the league coming in (5-13) has struggled to find continuity, and the rotation of available centers has barely broken even in faceoffs.

Toews has been among the best centers in the league in the faceoff circle this year, and is among the best two-way centers in hockey. His value to the team runs deeper than his offensive game, and his absence was painfully obvious on Thursday.

Because of games on back-to-back nights, and the return of Brent Seabrook from a concussion, Quenneville decided to skate Jordan Hendry at forward rather than recall Jake Dowell again from Rockford. The fourth line of Tomas Kopecky, Colin Fraser and Hendry was pretty bad on Thursday, and Hendry only skated a little over five minutes.

Nashville has now won three of their last four, with the one loss being in Chicago last week. Rinne has been in goal for all three of the wins, with Dan Ellis taking the loss in Chicago.

Friday night, the Hawks welcome Montreal to the United Center with red-hot goaltender Jaroslav Halak  . The Canadiens had won four in a row before losing 6-1 in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, and Halak has been in goal for each of their last five contests. The Canadiens (6-6-0) comes in allowing the same goals per game as Nashville (3.18), but are scoring more than half a goal per game (2.50-1.91) more than the Predators.

The Hawks will have their work cut out for them as they try to end a solid first month of the season on a high note at home.

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