How bottom-heavy Blackhawks are coping with dearth of goals, wins

CALGARY — Every player in the NHL fancies himself a goal scorer. You don’t get to the best league in the world without boatloads of skill, and even the fourth-line grinders and third-pairing defenders and AHL tweeners were dominant when they were kids. Everyone believes they have a little more offense to give, if only they’d get the opportunity.

But the harsh truth is, not every player in the NHL is a goal scorer. Not at this level, at least. The Chicago Blackhawks are living proof.

“We’re missing guys that score goals,” Jason Dickinson said. “There’s no shying away from it. The guys we’ve got playing right now in a top-six role maybe aren’t top-six guys, and maybe aren’t going to produce for us the way a top-six player should.”

Dickinson wasn’t being callous, he was just being honest. Dickinson himself is one of those guys. He’s an outstanding third-line center, but is he an outstanding second-line center? First-line center? Doesn’t matter. He’s the best the Blackhawks have right now, so that’s his role. He has 15 goals this season; no other healthy Blackhawks player has more than nine. Only three have more than five. Without Connor Bedard (jaw), Taylor Hall (knee), Andreas Athanasiou (groin), Tyler Johnson (foot) or even Anthony Beauvillier (wrist), the Blackhawks are icing a team loaded with hard-working grinders. They’re working hard. They’re grinding.

They just aren’t scoring. As in 10 goals in 10 games following Saturday night’s 1-0 loss in Calgary.

That’s how you get shut out four times in six games. That’s how you score no more than two goals in nine of 10 games. That’s how you lose a franchise-record 20 straight road games.

In the first period alone against the Flames, Boris Katchouk pounced on a puck and earned himself a breakaway, Lukas Reichel attacked the net for a golden chance, and Reichel found MacKenzie Entwistle in stride streaking down the slot. In the second period, Katchouk had another breakaway (this one short-handed), Philipp Kurashev had a breakaway, and Isaak Phillips made a beautiful coast-to-coast rush in which he danced through the Flames defense.

None of them scored.

“We just don’t have that game-breaker ability that Bedsy brings, that Hallsy brings, that Double-A brings,” Dickinson said. “The rest of us play really hard, and then those guys get us that big goal. That’s just how it works.”

There have been exceptions — Dickinson has a hat trick this season, and so does Colin Blackwell. Katchouk has bursts of production here and there, and Reichel, Philipp Kurashev, Ryan Donato and Cole Guttman have shown some higher-end finishing ability. They just can’t do it as consistently as the top guys do.

Another example: Entwistle had a monster night Thursday in Edmonton, with three high-danger scoring chances, plus a penalty shot. He didn’t bury any of them. The Blackhawks lost 3-0, yielding a late empty-netter.

The fact is, Entwistle’s not supposed to carry the offense. That’s not his job. That’s not what got him to the NHL. He’s a worker, a grinder. He’s, at best, a depth scorer. Problem is, every single player on the active roster right now is, at best, a depth scorer.

“Good teams find a way to put the puck in the net,” Entwistle said. “I had a breakaway, I had a penalty shot, I had two glorious chances in front of the net, and didn’t score. You put those in, it’s a different game.”

That cold self-awareness Dickinson revealed is important. Without it, the Blackhawks would be driving themselves mad right now, spiraling and despairing. Because the truth is, they’ve played some of their best hockey since Bedard suffered a fractured jaw on Jan. 5 in New Jersey. They’ve been more stout defensively, keeping far more skilled teams like Vancouver and Edmonton within reach before inevitably falling, and outworking more modest teams like Calgary, San Jose and the Islanders in home victories. Since the Bedard injury, shots against were down from 33.2 to 29.3; goals-against per 60 were down from 3.18 to 2.71; and Chicago’s expected goals share had risen from 39.8 percent to 45.53 percent.

Seems odd to say, but the Blackhawks have been quite impressive while approaching the franchise record for consecutive road losses. They work hard. Really hard. And even as the losses pile up, the Blackhawks are finding some pride — and some hope — in the way they’re losing.

“There’s pride in doing what you can do well,” Dickinson said. “If you do what you do well, you can’t be mad. You can’t ask a fish to walk; it can’t do it. But it can swim really well. So when you ask it do what it does well and it does it, you’re going to be pretty happy with what you get. It’s not always going to be pretty, and it’s not always going to be the result we want. But if we do what we do well, we can be proud of the product and not happy with the result.”

With a thoughtful, mature perspective like that, it’s easy to see why the Blackhawks wanted to keep Dickinson around. Nick Foligno and Petr Mrázek, too. That triumvirate has become the Blackhawks’ conscience, the little voices telling them it’s going to be OK, that hard work will eventually yield rewards, that this astounding run of injuries could make this a better team in the long run, that if they play like this when the scorers return (or in some cases, finally arrive), the wins will come.

That’s leadership, right? That esoteric, intangible quality that hockey people always talk about but can’t really define? It’s not standing in the middle of the room during the second intermission and making a speech straight out of a Disney movie. It’s subtly inspiring belief in the toughest of times.

“It’s doing something that everybody else doesn’t necessarily want to do but knows that somebody needs to do,” Dickinson said. “(Foligno) does a really good job of that. He reads the room. He’s been around a long time so he’s seen it on the other side of things. So he knows, OK, this is a moment where I need to be positive, I need to bring energy — because nobody else has got it right now. And if I bring it, somebody’s going to feed off of me, and then it’s a snowball effect. Somebody else picks it up, and then somebody else picks it up, and on and on.”

The Blackhawks lost Saturday night. Again. Shut out. Again. But they haven’t lost hope, and they haven’t lost pride. They know the reality of their situation, and frankly, they’re doing the best they can.

Because you can’t ask a fish to walk.

(Photo of Connor Zary and Isaak Phillips: Gerry Thomas / NHLI via Getty Images)

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