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Fireside Chat – Dead Man Walking Edition

Before I unload all my thoughts and observations from this series, I wanted to take a look back at perhaps one of the more traumatic series losses the Blackhawks suffered in my youth that has been forgotten more than others.

The year was 1992-1993. The Blackhawks were coming off a Campbell Conference Championship and were once again the class of the conference. Mike Keenan got kicked upstairs into the general manager’s office (albeit briefly as he simply could not handle screaming at people in the press box as opposed to the ice level) and former assistant coach Darryl Sutter was given the task of head coach.

The Hawks were rejuvenated under Sutter as they matched their 1990-91 President’s Trophy output of 106 points (Good for second highest in franchise history up until that point). Roenick set a new career high in points with 107 (50 goals, 57 assists); Chris Chelios won his second Norris Trophy and first of two with the Hawks and also tied a career best with 73 points (15 goals, 58 assists). Ed Belfour, clearly before coaches gave a crap about resting goalies, played a whooping 71 games in net for the Hawks.

As the playoffs opened, the Hawks were the favorites to win the Conference and opened the post-season by facing a dog-ass St. Louis team who barely finished over .500 that consisted of one line (Hull-Janney-Shanahan) and a young, inconsistent goalie (Curtis Joseph).  Not to mention, the Hawks had already beaten this Blues core in their last three playoff meetings (’88-89, ’89-90, ’91-92).

In Game 1, local fans were treated to the rare nationally televised home game and all 145 of us witnessed a Brian Noonan hat trick that went for naught as the Blues edged the Hawks 4-3. If memory serves (I was 11, folks), the Blues scored a goal late in the third period to avoid overtime and steal home-ice advantage.

Game 2 was the first of back-to-back shutouts for Cujo (sound familiar?) and my only memory of this game is reading about it via Tim Sassone’s game wrap. Apparently, Steve Smith hit the post during a power play and then the Blues came down and scored and that was that – Blues won 2-0.

Game 3, the Hawks were once again stymied by Cujo as he stopped all 34 shots.

The Hawks were mercifully put away in Game 4 despite giving it their best effort. They had their first lead in the series since Game 1. The Blues, of course, retook the lead and Shanahan’s one-timer off the rush in the third looked to sink the Hawks. Larmer and Roenick teamed up late, though, in the third to force overtime.

Then, in overtime, well…you’ve probably seen the GIF after Belfour was clearly interfered with behind the net leading to an empty net tap-in for St. Louis. If not, why not relive the whole game’s highlights. Come for Belfour smashing his stick over the cross-bar, stay for a vintage Roenick clothesline.

The reason I bring this all up is because, as I mentioned, this Hawks series loss scarred me the most in my impressionable years. Despite having a more talented roster top-to-bottom and a tremendous regular season, it seemed like the Hawks simply forgot how to play hockey over the course of 4 games. Every single thing they did seemed like an impossible task; whether it was making a simple cross-ice pass, evading a check or heaven forbid – scoring a goal and holding on to a lead.

This series has always been the ghost in the back of my mind every time the Hawks have opened a round as the favorite. “What if they get Cujo’d?” “What if one line catches fire and it’s not the Hawks?” “What if the Hawks collectively wet themselves and can’t win one damn playoff game?”

That last one really is the worst part. You spend a whole regular season worth of 82 games enjoying how a team plays and believing there might be something more memorable down the line only to seet it completely washed away in four games. Even one tiny win would soften the blow of the black abyss of the off-season (albeit briefly).

So here we stand, 24 years later with history sort of repeating itself. A Predators team that couldn’t get past the Hawks in previous years, one line doing all the scoring with a goalie pitching consecutive shutouts, a Hawks team that looks completely befuddled and 0 postseason wins to show for it.

How can the Hawks avoid the fate of their ’92-93 squad? Glad you asked. Let’s go to the bullets.

–First of all, the Hawks are getting killed by the Predators transition game. When Joel Quenneville said in the post-game that he was most disappointed in the Hawks lack of puck management in Game 3 – here’s what he means:

The line of Kruger-Rasmussen-Panik was the really the only line generating consistent pressure against Nashville on Monday because they were the only line getting pucks past the Nashville defensemen standing at the blue line.

The Toews line was the most guilty line of mismanaging the puck. I counted 4 times that Nick Schmaltz was unable to get the puck past the Nashville defensemen on his side in Game 3. The Predators were able to knock the soft dump-in out of the air and come steaming back into the Hawks end almost as if the ice was tilted downwards. This is also pretty much the only way Ryan Johansen is going to create offensively and why he looked like the second coming of Christ in the first period.

Another play that jumps to mind was in the third where Ryan Hartman got the puck on his own blue line and tried to make a drag move past PK Subban before completing a breakout pass. A simple backhand chip on the boards, and Tanner Kero is off to the races on an odd man rush as Subban was committed to Hartman. Instead, Subban stole the puck and the Predators set up camp in the Hawks end for an extended shooting gallery at Crawford.

Did you notice in the second period when the Johansen line went invisible, it also coincided with the Hawks not coughing the puck up in the neutral zone? Funny how that worked.

Getting the puck behind the Nashville defense forces them to turn their back, worry about who’s coming to hit them and then decide what to do with the puck. It also forces Nashville to go the full 200 feet, which by the way, is still not one of their strengths. What is one of their strengths, however, is the ability to come roaring back into the offensive zone when the Hawks are careless with the puck in the neutral zone.

–The other mismanaging of the puck came on the defensive end. If there was an Olympic sport where two people aimed to put passes in the other’s feet, Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson would be the reigning gold medalists year after year. Keith and Hjalmarsson took turns giving each other god awful passes that forced the other to look down at the puck, corral it and then pick their head up. In the meanwhile, two Predator forecheckers on their top line are coming down full bore.

It’s been said over and over that these two just don’t pair up well together. Monday night was probably the gold standard example.

–Since we’re all about teaching and education at the Fireside Chat, here’s another thing to bring up which I also mentioned on Twitter yesterday:

 

This has been a criticism of Kero I’ve had for awhile now. If you watch the clip, you notice Kero gets himself back in the defensive zone (which is good). However, that’s only half of his responsibility. Once he gets back, he sort of just floats in front of Corey Crawford. Meanwhile, this allows a passing lane that Robert “Tractor” Traylor could drive down (which is bad) for Kevin Fiala to get off a wicked one-timer.

When he was moonlighting with the Good Time Boys, Kero would consistently skate himself too far close to the crease in the offensive zone that he had absolutely zero room to adjust if the puck didn’t come right to him. There were several opportunities where the puck just floated past him as he was too busy getting tied up by a defender while standing next to the goalie.

Contrast that with how Marian Hossa sets up shop in the slot. Hossa (at least in his prime) is like a damn jungle tiger staying out of the fray, floating around the high slot and constantly creating passing lanes by staying out of the muck. When the puck heads in his direction, he’s able to adjust in time and pounce on any loose puck like a lost gazelle.

–Sam mentioned in the wrap, Kane could be counted on in Game 3. Crawford too, obviously. I thought Seabrook also had a strong game and Campbell was still able to get the Hawks out of trouble with his skating ability. The aforementioned Kruger line was strong in all three areas. Other than that…you got me. I’m willing to give Artem Anisimov a break seeing as though he’s probably playing on one leg and totally gutting it out.

(Have we talked about how the Hawks said Anisimov wasn’t healthy enough to play in the final two regular season games but somehow magically recovered in those precious few days before the post-season started? Does that not make any sense to anyone else?)

Artemi Panarin looks dazed and confused. Hossa against top line talent is straight-up depressing. Toews, well you know.

It’s obvious we overestimated the children’s ability to adapt to the post-season (and that’s really my bad on that) but there’s no excuse for the veteran core not carrying the load while they get their feet wet.

As bad as it all looks right now, the fix is rather simple and shouldn’t be ‘that’ difficult.

Don’t cough up the puck in the neutral zone, get pucks behind the Nashville defense and let them start turning it over or make them go the full 200 feet (which really only Forsberg can do on their side). This simple yet very difficult to execute discipline will effectively neutralize any of those extended Predators offensive zone times where they tee off on Crawford. Unfortunately, this has been one of those series for the Hawks where skating and stick handling at the same time looks like a completely foreign skill.

This Predators team was inconsistent all year long and as unbeatable as they look now, the pendulum will most definitely swing in the opposite direction at some point. For the Hawks, they just have to hope it happens in this round and not the next.

 

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