By Allan Muir
Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always believed that breaking out of an offensive slump is a bit like finding love. Both seem to happen when you stop trying so hard.
That bit of advice might come in handy for the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that’s playing with all the dash of a pimply-faced teen the week before the prom. These guys are awkward. Unsure of themselves. Their best moves aren’t working. Their desperation is palpable. And it’s killing any chance they might have of busting out of the slump that threatens to end their Stanley Cup dreams.
And it’s not just their amateurish fumbling on the power play, although that’s clearly the focus heading into tonight’s pivotal Game 4 in Boston. Things are going so badly with the extra man that the Hawks have even begun to lose confidence in their five-on-five game. And if that continues, there’s no way Chicago’s sealing the deal.
But it’s not like hope is lost.
In fact, this game is there for the taking if the Hawks just relax a little. You know, stop trying so hard. Let the game come to them.
Again, it’s like love. You don’t win just by being fancy. Sometimes a direct approach is more effective.
This means you, Patrick Kane. Instead of trying to dazzle a swarm of Boston defenders with your sick stick skills every time you attempt an entry, you might want to work in something simpler, like a dump-and-chase or simply rimming it around the boards. It’s not as flashy, but it gets the puck deep and forces Boston’s defenders to make a play that could lead to a turnover. And it’s a lot more impressive than having the puck slapped away and turned back into your own zone over and over again.
And when they get possession in Boston’s end, the Hawks need to take a chance. In fact, take every chance they can. They have to open themselves up to the possibility that, yes, Tuukka Rask can be beaten, and it might not take a highlight reel play to make it happen.
Go back over the Hawks’ shot selection and you can tell that’s what they’re thinking. Remember when Duncan Keith found himself all alone in front of Rask on the power play early in Game 3? And instead of simply putting the puck on the net, he decided to get all fancy and set up a backdoor play that wasn’t there?
It’s not just Keith. You see that happen time and again and you know the Hawks have psyched themselves out. They ignore their instincts. They’ve struck out before they’ve even stepped up to the plate.
They need to watch the Bruins, who are not a smooth-talking, sports-car driving bunch. They’re pickup truck guys, and that’s reflected in their simple, straightforward style. That’s not to say they won’t surprise you with a little sizzle — Jaromir Jagr’s pass that set up Patrice Bergeron’s clincher in Game 3, for instance, was a real piece of work. But even that play was created by their commitment to drive the net.
The Bruins know there’s no reward for playing on the edges. They get the puck, they go straight to the middle and make a beeline for Corey Crawford. Doesn’t mean they’re going to score — in fact, it’s probably worth noting that the B’s have just four goals during the last nine periods — but they’re committed to taking their chances from the right areas. And so if they don’t light the lamp, maybe they draw a penalty (the way Chris Kelly and Dan Paille did in Game 3), or they add to the cumulative pain of Chicago’s D with their physical persistence, an effort that could pay dividends as this series stretches on.
But the most important element of Boston’s success is that the Bruins do nothing alone. Their amazing success on face-offs in Game 3? At least eight of those wins came after a winger or defender made a play on a 50/50 puck. Their penalty kill? They routinely get three men positioned around the puck to outnumber the attackers. Their zone entries? They use speed and numbers to get the puck deep and win battles down low. Just like finding love. It helps to have a good wingman.
The Hawks know how to play that game, too. The sooner they remember, the better their chances of getting back in this series.