Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
Injuries have forced Chicago to play a system that's different from the one that brought them two recent Stanley Cups. But now the Hawks are healthy. Can they find their possession game in time, or will the Predators knock them off before it all comes together?
Few people were picking Nashville to beat Chicago in the first round, but after Friday’s walloping, it’s hard to argue that Nashville hasn’t been the better team through two games, despite the series being tied 1-1 after a furious comeback in the series opener. That the Hawks are getting outplayed is an oddity for most fans because Chicago has been one of the league’s best teams since Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane arrived on the scene (two Stanley Cups and multiple sparkling regular seasons don’t lie). The reason they’ve had that success is because the Blackhawks always have the puck, and that’s been the hallmark of their success, according to Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. “You have to play to your strengths and I think our best players are more offensive-type players,” Bowman told The Hockey News Friday. “That’s why I think our system works well. We’re trying to be a team that has the puck and controls the game, and in the process of that you’re not going to give up as many shots because we got the puck and they don’t.” The NHL is a copycat league, which means that many teams are trying to emulate that style of play. The Blackhawks have been the top possession team in the league since 2008, controlling just more than 55 percent of shot attempts at 5-on-5.
“For me it’s not necessarily about the metrics, it’s about what do they mean and that only comes from experience and your own interpretation,” Bowman said. “We’ve been working with this and studying it since 2009-10, and you learn over time that what analytics show is pretty indicative of how things are going to go.” This season has been a little different for the Blackhawks, however. Usually they’re above the rest of the pack, but this year they finished fourth in score-adjusted shot attempt percentage and had a three percent drop from last season. It’s not huge, but the issue behind the drop becomes clearer when you split up the offence from the defense. Chicago is still generating a similar amount of shots at net, but they’re giving up much more than they used to. “Shot suppression has been a major issue for the team this year and that’s a big departure from the seasons that they won the Cup,” said Jen Lute Costella, a Blackhawks blogger. “It’s very difficult for teams to get into and past the first round of the playoffs when their regular season shot suppression numbers do not meet or beat the league average.” That much is already evident in their first round series, where Nashville holds the edge in shot attempts. But the Preds are also doing better at getting pucks through and keeping pucks out, which is important to keep in mind with regards to shot suppression. During any 25 game stretch since 2008, the Blackhawks never gave up more than the league average amount of unblocked shot attempts. This year they’ve been consistently at that mark.
According to Lute Costella, who carefully watches each game twice to track micro-stats like zone entries and zone exits, the main problem for Chicago is a vicious cycle centered around its transition game. Zone exits are sloppier, zone entries are safer and the overall neutral zone forecheck hasn’t been as effective as the past. The zone entry problem is perhaps the most egregious because Chicago is a team that thrives on carrying the puck in with control. This season they’ve had to resort to dumping it in more often. “It plays away from the assets of so many of their players, Lute Costella said. “Not that they’re incapable of winning the puck on the forecheck, they are, but they’re far more suited to a skill or finesse game than a grinder-style game.” Bowman says that injuries have been a big part of that change and a big reason their possession numbers are off from past seasons. The team had to find ways to win games by modifying their creative style to something more straightforward. The key thing is that players have to be smart with the options available when entering the zone. “You can win in a lot of different ways, you can’t just have one style, and either you win or lose with that style; you have to adapt,” Bowman said. “You’d like to keep carrying it in, and if you have the players to do it every team in the league would want to carry it in. But if you don’t have the players, or it’s just not working, then you have to play a more simple game.” And that’s exactly what Chicago has done thanks to injuries, but it means they’re generating less offense, giving up possession and allowing more chances to score. Playing it safe is a necessary evil considering their injuries, but it’s less effective over the long run. Excellent goaltending has masked some of the issues that have plagued Chicago. Despite the number of shots against, the Blackhawks were still the second best team in the league in goals-against per game and much of that credit belongs to all three of their goalies this season. “In the past we haven’t had to rely on our goaltending as much, but this year it’s been one of the big reasons we’ve had success – they’ve played great,” Bowman said. “Whenever you get goaltending you’re going to be in the game.” But depending on hot goaltending is a risky strategy, which is why it’s paramount that the Blackhawks limit their opponent’s chances in the playoffs. The challenge now that they’re healthy will be getting back to what made them so successful in the first place. “Ideally we’d like to get back to that level,” Bowman said. “For me, the numbers kind of uncover something you kind of need to look into and then try and figure out: ‘well, why is that the case?’ ” If Chicago can figure it out, they’re the odds-on favorite to win their third Cup since 2008. If they can’t, they’ll have a hard time getting through a tough Predators team, let alone the rest of the West.