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State Of The Union

Before we pivot for a couple weeks to the international game, it’s a good time to take a look back and see where the Hawks are at the Olympic break.

While there’s a lot of things we discuss from game to game and day to day, admittedly some of it is just to find anything to talk about when a team is as good as the Hawks are. So first things first, let’s get to some of the things that truly do matter for when the playoffs roll around. These aren’t really things like Bollig’s ice time, which shouldn’t matter in the spring (until another OT turnover) or Seabrook’s play (he was really only just ok in last year’s run despite his two OT winners, but Keith was outstanding to negate it) or even the power play (as the Hawks have proven, you don’t need one to win).

Let’s get to it:

The penalty kill – Until Glendale, it had been really good for a month or more. 34 of 35 killed, in fact (I think, but it’s around there). Some of it has been an improvement in Corey Crawford’s play, some was systemic in that the Hawks went back to more of a box than the phallic look they had adopted in the season’s first months. Against the Yotes it was a retreat to that 1-1-2 that gave Yandle so much time to get a shot through. It’s been improved by the play of Michal Handzus, who really has been outstanding on the kill and that’s probably the only reason he’s been kept in the lineup. One wonders if Peter Regin’s acquisition isn’t to see if he can’t do the same on the kill and provide more at even strength than Zus. If the kill continues to hum at the level of the past month, I’ll feel a lot better about the playoffs. As we saw last year and actually the two previous, you can win a Cup without a power play but you can’t without a kill.

Goaltending – Always the raging debate among the Hawks’ Nation is just how good do the goalies have to be for the Hawks to play into June. Well, it has to be pretty good, it just might not have to be other-worldly. It can’t be bad, as we saw in 2012. Since returning from injury, Corey Crawford has been at least pretty good and bordering and damn terrific, especially on this latest road trip. Since coming back, Crow’s numbers are a .926 save-percentage and a 2.13 goals-against. And that’s while seeing a kind of un-Hawks-like 30.2 shots per game. All of that will do nicely, because whatever we think a second round against St. Louis will be, I think we can all agree there won’t be too many goals.

Secondary Scoring – Becoming more of an issue. It hasn’t mattered too much with how good Hossa has been, but really the only one not on the top six cashing in regularly is Brandon Saad. There were signs of life from Bickell in Anaheim and Phoenix. But Andrew Shaw has three goals in 2014 and one in his last 11. Ben Smith one in his last 12. I’ve forgotten what Kris Versteeg goals look like. Kruger has two goals since the beginning of December, and considering his skills that has to be better.

As we know in playoff hockey, a lot of time the top players end up canceling each other out and it’s your bottom guys that get you through. You get big goals from Frolik, Shawk, Bickell, Bolland last year. The Hawks need to find more from their bottom six as the season closes. One can’t help but look longingly at the four goals Jeremy Morin managed this weekend and wonder if that wouldn’t help.

Johnny Oduya – An underrated factor in last year’s triumph was Oduya playing the hockey of his life. That’s not to indict anyone or the team, because any team that wins – especially in such style as the Hawks did – needs a lot of guys with career years. This was capped off by Bangkok Dangerous’s tour-de-force in Game 4 against the Kings with Keith suspended. Needless to say, he hasn’t been that good this year, especially lately. We’ve seen a little too much of the erratic player the Coyotes exposed in ’12. Considering the Hawks just might have to go through Phoenix, St. Louis, and Anaheim just for the right to play Boston or Pittsburgh, that’s a lot of heavy forechecks to survive. Add to that he’s going to have to improve his play while coming off the Olympics, it seems a lot to ask.

If O.D. can’t bring his play back up, it would be a risk but explainable to pair Leddy with Hjalmarsson. Sure, they wouldn’t be able to take the top assignments like the Swedes to now but if Duncan Keith is a Norris candidate then he should be able to handle it. The Hawks need drive from their second pairing, not just defensive solidarity. Leddy has been excellent of late, and at some point he’s either in your top four or he’s gone. The time to find out may be coming sooner than we thought.

I feel like among Hawks fans there’s a strain of entitlement toward another championship. It’s not that easy. There’s a reason no one’s managed a repeat since ’98. I suppose you could take encouragement from the fact that the team to do it (Scum) did it also in an Olympic year. However, the Wings that year were basically rolling out an All-Star team, and not in a cap era. We have no idea how our Olympians are going to finish out the year. It could be anything. While anything less than another parade will and should be considered a failure, what it wouldn’t be is surprising. That’s why the secondary scoring is of such concern, because it would not be shocking if Toews, Hossa, Kane, and Sharp start to run out of legs in April and May. Those who got the break are going to have to carry the Hawks at some point, which is why Crow’s play is so encouraging. But Saad, Shaw, Bickell, Steeg and others are going to have to find it and maybe carry a bigger load than they did last year.

Olympic Coverage: I think what we’ll do is a full preview tomorrow, then open up threads for the games at night (as they all take place at odd hours). We’ll wrap up the day’s events in the last afternoon or evening and preview the next to come. So stick with us.

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