The Chicago Blackhawks are in a major hole as their first-round series with the Nashville Predators heads south to Bridgestone Arena. The Predators hold a 2-0 lead in the series after back-to-back wins at the Madhouse, and will have a chance to put it away with three of the remaining potential five games at home.
For the Blackhawks to advance to the second round, they’ll need to win four of those games, including at least two on the road. The Predators have already shown that’s possible, but there’s one little problem: The Hawks need to actually show up if they want to win.
The first two games against Nashville weren’t worrisome because they were both losses. They were worrisome because the Hawks followed up a narrow loss in Game 1 by getting their teeth kicked in two days later. The big response we all hoped for following the series opener was a total dud of a performance. It felt, frankly, very much unlike the Blackhawks.
But the good news is that there’s still a lot of hockey to be played. Back in 2013, the Blackhawks were down 3-1 to the Red Wings in the second round, then rattled off three straight wins to save the day. Last year, they forced a Game 7 against the Blues after going down 3-1. So being down two games is far from the end of the world. It just means the Blackhawks need to be a lot better going forward, and maybe benefit from a lucky bounce or two along the way.
With that in mind, here are a few adjustments I’d recommend to Joel Quenneville and the coaching staff before Game 3 on Monday evening.
Defensive shake up
Maybe the Blackhawks could afford to have one of Johnny Oduya and Brian Campbell in the lineup. But having those two veterans on separate pairings leaves Chicago looking pretty slow on the back end when Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson aren’t on the ice.
This became abundantly clear in Game 2 as the Predators aggressively went after Oduya, and he repeatedly needed to make scrambling, backpedaling stops just to prevent breakaways. In one of those situations Saturday, Oduya couldn’t get his stick out fast enough, and Harry Zolnierczyk sniped one past Corey Crawford.
In the regular season, Oduya had a 45.1 even strength Corsi, which was five percent lower than when he wasn’t on the ice. He hasn’t been quite as bad in the playoffs with 38-36 shot attempt totals so far, per Natural Stat Trick, but he’s also benefitted big time from score effects. If you adjust his Corsi metric for score and venue, Oduya drops from a raw Corsi of 51.3 percent to an adjusted Corsi of 45.3 percent, which is right in line with his regular season statistics.
Oduya has never been great at driving possession, but he was still well above 50 percent at Corsi during his years in Chicago. He hasn’t come close to that this season, and it seems like he might just be slowing down at age 35.
So it’s time to bring in Michal Kempny. I’m not sure what the defenseman did to get buried so deep into the dog house, but the Blackhawks thought they had a solidified top six on the blue line after adding Oduya. Kempny has been so much better at driving possession this season, however, that it’s difficult to see what Oduya could be doing to overcome that. Kempny’s EV Corsi this season is 56.3 percent, over 11 percent higher than Oduya’s.
Maybe Kempny can’t cause that kind of swing in possession when he’s on the ice in the playoffs, but it’s hard to see how he could be meaningfully worse than Oduya (or even Campbell, who hasn’t been great either) in Game 3.
Do *something* with the power play
The growing criticism over the Blackhawks’ coaching decisions in this series is most easily seen in the power play. How does a team with so many high-level scorers look so underwhelming with the man advantage?
Far too often, the Blackhawks’ power play seems to be looking for one of two plays: an Artemi Panarin one-timer from the left dot, or a Brent Seabrook slap shot from the high point. In both cases, they’re plays that operate higher up in the offensive zone, with the hopes that rebounds will create those close-in opportunities.
It’s not working, though. The Predators have taken away the cross-ice passes that set up Panarin’s one-timers, and they’re letting the Blackhawks take those shots from the point because they know a good chunk of them won’t even get through the defense.
The Blackhawks need to find a way to generate more from down low on the power play. Part of it could be to bail on two-defenseman formations and pull Campbell off special teams. Let Keith be the point man on one unit, Seabrook the point man on another. Otherwise pile up your most skilled forwards and let them try to push deeper into the defense rather than stick on the perimeter.
Maybe the Blackhawks’ power play is too broken now to be fixed in a day or two during the playoffs, but they need to do something. Going 2-of-29 (6.8 percent) over the last 10 contests isn’t acceptable for a team so talented.
Consider starting Scott Darling
Crawford isn’t the biggest reason for the Blackhawks’ big hole in this series. He was very good in Game 1, and didn’t really let the wheels come off in Game 2 until the third period. It’s fair to say there are far bigger problems in Chicago than goaltending, and nobody should be surprised if Crawford is back out there Monday.
But if the Hawks decided to go with backup Scott Darling, I wouldn’t begrudge them. Not after the way Crawford ended the regular season, then opened the playoffs. Over his past five appearances, he has 114 saves on 130 shots, which is just a .876 save percentage. If you want to stretch back to mid-March, he has a .897 save percentage over his past 10 games.
That’s reason to be a little worried. Crawford has always had a bit of inconsistency to his game, but this is a terrible time for him to be running into that. We saw this against the Predators back in 2015, when Darling took over for the final five games of the series as the Hawks rallied to win.
Now I can’t help but wonder if, with Crawford playing pretty poorly over the past month, it’s time to turn back to Darling to right the ship. It would be a risky move, and after a 5-0 loss at home, I’m not sure Quenneville really needs to send another message to his team by benching the starting goalie. But between how good Darling was this year, and how poor Crawford has been of late, there’s a real decision to be made here.