Protecting leads still a learning process for BlackhawksBen Popeon November 19, 2021 at 12:59 am

The Kraken nearly overcame a three-goal deficit Wednesday against the Blackhawks. | Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The Hawks nearly blew another multi-goal lead — a recurring problem for them lately — on Wednesday against the Kraken.

SEATTLE — The Blackhawks waited a long time earlier this season to finally enjoy a lead.

Now that they’re going ahead on a regular basis, however, the challenge has shifted to protecting those leads.

“That should be the fun time to play hockey,” Patrick Kane said Wednesday, and he’s right.

Yet the Hawks are having trouble forgetting their scars from October — when every goal against seemed to break a dam and break the Hawks’ spirits — even when they should be having fun.

“Winning’s still a little new to us this year,” Alex DeBrincat astutely noted.

After rushing out to a 2-0 lead in 22 minutes Wednesday against the Kraken, the Hawks slipped back into bad old habits.

The Kraken dominated the Hawks 51-18 in shot attempts over the remaining 38 minutes. And although it took them a while to translate that superiority onto the scoreboard, they very nearly tied the game after scoring twice in the final six minutes and swarming Marc-Andre Fleury with threats of a third goal.

“Once they scored that goal, we got a little reserved,” interim coach Derek King said. “We kind of sat back. It’s almost like maybe those feelings of earlier when they were losing the games and [thinking], ‘Oh, here we go,’ [came back]. We’ve got to get over that hump.”

The Hawks have already blown two-goal leads three times this season — Oct. 27 against the Maple Leafs (an overtime loss), Nov. 3 against the Hurricanes (a regulation loss) and Nov. 9 against the Penguins (a shootout win) — and very nearly one-upped themselves Wednesday.

They’ve found a way to survive their nerve-wracking finishes lately — thus the four-game winning streak — but not in especially confidence-inspiring fashion. And they won’t be able to keep surviving this way forever.

The problem stems from, as DeBrincat put it, the Hawks “panicking” when they do gain possession in late-game situations.

Instead of looking around, finding an open teammate and starting their own push into the offensive zone, they’re flipping the puck aimlessly in the neutral zone. That strategy relieves the immediate pressure but kills minimal time and allows the opponent to promptly attack again.

“You get out in the neutral zone and you do your neutral-zone forecheck, the puck gets by you and you spend the time in the ‘D’-zone,” Kane said. “You chip it out and then the next line comes out and does the same thing… It’s not really the recipe for success.”

“A lot of times when that ice is tilted…we do get the puck at times, we’re just not skating. We’re like frozen in cement. We’ve got to get our foot moving, get our head up and make a simple play.”

Controlling play when holding a lead is difficult: a losing team’s desperation and risk-tolerance will typically help it to produce more chances. Accordingly, only six of the NHL’s 32 teams have an even-strength scoring chance ratio above 50% when leading this season.

But the Hawks have been particularly bad. Their even-strength scoring chance ratio when leading is an abysmal 35.3% — 59 chances for, 108 against. Only two teams (the Rangers and Coyotes) have been worse. The Hawks’ 47.1% even-strength scoring chance ratio when tied or losing isn’t exactly impressive, either — it’s fifth-worst in the NHL — but it’s a whole lot better.

On the bright side, though, the fact the Hawks are even discovering this problem indicates progress from a few weeks ago.

Their first-period performances — which were often dooming them right out of the gate — have been stellar lately, as evidenced Wednesday when they conceded only three shots on goal in the first.

And four straight ugly wins are still four straight wins — and four much-needed wins, at that.

“We’ll keep working at it,” King said. “Hey, if we’re on heels because we’re up 3-0 in a game, I’ll take that.”

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