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Blackhawks struggle through March with defensive setbacks

By Colleen Boyle

The two week Olympic break gave some of the Blackhawks a rest while other players took part in an exciting international competition that brought Chicago Blackhawks players four medals (a silver medal for Patrick Kane and gold medals for Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Jonathan Toews). But returning to the United Center and getting back into their Blackhawks sweaters, the team has suffered some setbacks in a season that has felt to be only gaining momentum rising above expectations for the fans and players alike.

In the 2008-2009 season, the Blackhawks experienced a similar sag in the month of March with a record of 6-7-2 (Wins-Losses-Overtime Losses). So far, March's record has been a disappointing 4-4-2 and injuries have become very frequent for some of the best defensive players—a place the Hawks has been strong all season long.

The biggest gap in Chicago’s defense has not been the goaltending but the loss of Brian Campbell. Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals boarded Campbell on March 14th and received a Match Penalty and a two-game suspension. Ovechkin's suspension seems rather meager when considering Campbell received a broken rib and clavicle and is predicted to be out for seven to eight weeks. Campbell's injury has caused a lot of changes for the team’s defensive pairings—something that Coach Joel Quenneville has not been forced to juggle often since injuries were mainly occurring to the offensive players.

In the game following Campbell's injury, Blackhawks played Anaheim Ducks and faced former teammate James Wisniewski, and in the first period, Wisniewski hit Brent Seabrook and gave him a concussion on ice. The hit on Seabrook was unexpected since he did not have the puck, but it was also a high hit with Wisniewski leaving his feet (all of which make a check illegal). While the officials on ice only gave Wisniewski a two minute penalty, the NHL deemed the hit to be pre-meditated and gave Wisniewski an eight game suspension.

In the days following Seabrook’s concussion, he was on ice for the morning practice on Friday but did not dress in Saturday’s game against Phoenix Coyotes. The Coyotes were on a seven game winning streak when they faced the struggling Chicago team on March 20th. The game ended with a Coyotes victory in a shootout, and this disappoint was felt by the crowd, of which, half appeared to be in Blackhawks sweaters.

Others players who have missed recent games include Christobal Huet, who did not dress for two games and was said to have the flu. In the two games Huet was a scratch, Corey Crawford was called up from Rockford Icehogs (American Hockey League) and given the start against Anaheim ending in a 4-2 loss. Anti Niemi gave a solid performance against the LA Kings on the following evening where he recorded his fifth shutout of the season. The team’s defensive players played a solid game—only allowing 17 shots on goal even while Brian Campbell and Brent Seabrook were missing from the lineup.

The team returns to the United Center on Tuesday in a rematch against Phoenix Coyotes, and the team just announced Seabrook will return to the lineup. Kim Johnsson remains on the injured reserve with an upper body injury and a day-to-day decision (meaning he could return to the lineup in any of the next few games) but already announced to be a scratch in Tuesday’s game against Coyotes. Johnsson was acquired in a trade with Minnesota Wild for Cam Barker just before the Olympic Break in February. In Johnsson's eight games with the Blackhawks, he has recorded one goal and two assists and is a +7 on ice.

Acquiring Johnsson is only one player recently added to expand the depth of the team's defense in the present line up and in future prospective players. With Johnsson, the Hawks also acquired Nick Leddy, a defense man who plays for Minnesota in the US College league. While the Blackhawks did not make any drastic changes at the trade deadline, they did make moves at the America Hockey League level. Blackhawks traded goaltender Joe Fallon for goaltender Hannu Toivonen and defense man Danny Richmond and assigned both to the Rockford Icehogs.

The Blackhawks remain at the top of the league’s standings just behind Washington Capitals and closely followed by both the Phoenix Coyotes and San Jose Sharks. Keeping this in mind, Tuesday’s game against Phoenix is an important win to hold the team’s position in the league standings and secure a top playoff spot. Staying at the top of the standings will allow Chicago to have home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and the Madhouse on Madison is ready for more playoff action.

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