The Blackhawks may finally be learning how to protect a lead.
Between Feb. 1 and Monday, the Hawks blew seven of their nine multi-goal leads (excluding empty-netters), a feat so bad it was impressive. But after nearly two months of those extreme difficulties, they seemed to turn a corner this week.
The Hawks built multi-goal leads by the second period of both games against the Panthers and managed to successfully see both of them out.
“We want to build confidence that, when we’ve got a lead in the third, we’re going to close it out,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “You want those to be automatic. The way that you do it, it can build confidence in your team. You want to just snuff it out.”
Tuesday’s lead fizzled from a decisive 3-0 to a nervy 3-2 by the final minutes — the Hawks didn’t exactly snuff out the game — but it translated into a win nonetheless.
And the Hawks responded well both times the Panthers did score. The Hawks followed the Panthers’ first goal with several offensive-zone shifts that regained their momentum entering the second intermission. Mattias Janmark followed the Panthers’ second goal by drawing a power play that ate up most of the remaining time.
If Tuesday was a small step forward, though, Thursday was unquestionably a massive leap.
After conceding a barrage of shot attempts and scoring chances earlier in the game — even while building their 2-0 lead — the Hawks played their best defensive hockey of the night during a crucial stretch of the third period.
“I really liked our third,” Colliton said. “We beared down there and found a way to defend. I would’ve liked us to spend a little more time in the offensive zone … [since] that is, a lot of times, how you close out a game. But we did have to defend quite a bit and we did a really good job.”
Between the “under-10” commercial break with 9:19 left and Brandon Hagel’s game-sealing empty-net goal with 1:24 left, the Hawks didn’t give up a single shot on goal.
The Panthers recorded five shot attempts during those eight minutes, versus 68 attempts during the other 52 minutes. One missed the net, and the other four were blocked by Ryan Carpenter, Hagel, Patrick Kane and Nikita Zadorov, respectively. Goalie Kevin Lankinen — en route to a 41-save shutout — had a busy night, but not during that stretch.
The Hawks’ stoutness then exemplified how they’ve learned “not to feel panicked,” Connor Murphy said.
“We showed times in the past where we would vacate the front of the net and let a guy get a ‘grade-A’ chance in the slot, or let their ‘D’ walk down to open ice,” Murphy added. “It seemed like guys were clicking better with that, realizing that even though [the Panthers] were going to have a little bit of a push, we weren’t going to panic.
“We were going to play the way we know we can in ‘D’-zone. And then when you get a puck, you’ll make a strong play to get it out at the right time. That clicked.”
A seven-week sample of bad results outweighs a one-week sample of good results, so it’s premature to say the Hawks’ issues are fixed. Colliton has used the phrase “lack of killer instinct” a dozen times this season, and those words will surely reappear at some point.
But the improvement the Hawks showed and positive reinforcement the Hawks received this week should help moving forward.
“[We took] steps forward, for sure,” Colliton said. “[It’s] not perfect, we know there are things we can be better at, but we’re a team that has a lot of learning to do. And we know we’ve got to keep improving.”