Chicago Blackhawks

Blackhawks face summer of soul searching not seen in a decade

(Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire)

There will be plenty of time to assess the Nashville Predators’ stunning and thorough four-game sweep of the West’s top seed Chicago Blackhawks — the first time a No. 8 conference seed has swept a No. 1 seed in the first round since St. Louis swept Chicago in 1993.

Was it a coming-of-age party for the Predators as we suggested earlier in this series; a glimpse of the enigmatic team we expected to see at the start of the season?

Predators morphing into team we expected at start of season

Or was it just a one-off for a team that has never advanced past the second round in the 17 previous seasons of its existence? We’ll know better when the Predators likely lock horns with the red-hot St. Louis Blues in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The more immediate questions will come behind closed doors in the Blackhawks’ executive offices. Since Chicago began its run of Stanley Cups in 2010, there has been no easy way to kill the Blackhawks. Even when they exited the postseason, it took superhuman, seven-game efforts from Vancouver (2011), Los Angeles (2014) and St. Louis (2016), or the loss of star player Marian Hossa in a six-game series loss to Phoenix (2012).

The Blackhawks didn’t just lose this series. They were thoroughly outclassed, out-skated, out-skilled, outworked, out-everythinged. Nashville outscored Chicago, 13-3, shut them out twice at United Center, and was a hair away from shutting them out again in the series-clinching 4-1 win on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena.

All that stunning progress that Chicago’s young talent made over the second half of a 50-win season was invisible in this series. Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz and Tanner Kero combined for zero points and a minus-8 rating, forcing normally bench-savvy coach Joel Quenneville to repeatedly juggle his lines in an effort to find some life — any life.

Chicago might just chalk those struggles up to stage fright for its rookies. The playoffs are a different animal and the Hawks’ kids did not look ready for prime time, but that leads to a more disturbing question: Where was the leadership from the battle-tested veterans?

Patrick Kane had a goal and an assist. Captain Jonathan Toews had one goal and one assist and was minus-5. His one goal was a meaningless tally with 5:18 left in Thursday’s death march. Alternate captain Duncan Keith had one assist. Artemi Panarin had one assist. Marian Hossa had no points. Artem Anisimov (who was probably still hurt) had no points. Brent Seabrook had no points.

“We could talk about every single guy,” coach Joel Quenneville told reporters in Nashville. “Major disappointment across the board. You take that personally as a coach that we didn’t find the all-out button.”

The question for Chicago will be how to solve it. They are cap-strapped, bound to this core that has already produced three Stanley Cups. It’s probably reactionary to suggest Chicago needs sweeping changes after this disappointment, but it clearly needs a lot more than it has, and it is fair to wonder if the mighty Blackhawks are finally in a downward spiral from which this current group will not be able to recover.

Chicago needs more speed, more skill and more of the killer instinct that once defined it, but is there enough of those ingredients left in the aging core that must carry this team?

“Maybe we won a couple close games that might have made us feel like we were better than we really were,” Kane told reporters in Nashville. “Disappointing. Shocked. I don’t know. Yeah. It’s going to be a long summer, for sure.”


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