Blackhawks’ new challenge: Maintain their hard-working identity as the losses pile up


CHICAGO — MacKenzie Entwistle doesn’t really have an “off” switch, so when he saw the puck skittering free from Reese Johnson in a scrum along the boards in the offensive zone midway through the first period Friday afternoon, he dove right in, eventually scrapping with Montreal’s Kaiden Guhle for several feet and nearly catching a stick in the teeth.

Later on the same shift, Entwistle again went hard on the forecheck and took a few stiff shots from old pal Kirby Dach behind the Canadiens’ net. Moments later, Entwistle was in a similar spot behind the net, spinning off a smear along the end boards from Guhle and Joel Edmundson to move the puck along up the boards.

It was exactly the kind of aggression and intensity that Luke Richardson wants to see from all of his players. It’s the Blackhawks’ new identity, after all. Chicago held the puck in the Montreal zone for 57 consecutive seconds, essentially the entire shift, and Entwistle’s effort was as big a reason as any.

In those 57 seconds, the Blackhawks didn’t get a single shot on goal. Or even a real scoring chance.

They eventually lost 3-2 in a shootout — one capped by a Dach winner, no less — their sixth straight loss and 12th loss in the last 14 games.

It’s the third straight game in which the Blackhawks have had something to feel good about — erasing a 3-0 deficit against Pittsburgh, taking a 4-1 lead in Dallas and scoring late to take Montreal to overtime. But all three ended poorly — losing late to Pittsburgh, collapsing in spectacular fashion in Dallas, watching Dach taunt a booing crowd by cupping his hand to his ear in celebration.

The effort is all well and good. But eventually, you need a win to validate the effort.

“It’s one point, so at least you can see something in the standings instead of nothing,” said Richardson, who thought his players didn’t quite have their legs for the matinee and thought the busy schedule was catching up to them a bit. “We’d just rather two (points) and we need a win. We want to deserve it and feel good about it. But at least we can look (and see) there’s one more point in the standings. Now we’re going to go for two.”

We all heaped praise on the Blackhawks for their scrappy start, which included a four-game win streak in October and a 4-1-2 run that stretched into November. Richardson was wringing every last bit of talent out of a roster that was designed to be overmatched, and he was forging a lasting identity in the process. It was all so encouraging.

But it’s easy to play like your hair’s on fire, to expend all that effort and energy when it’s working. When you’re winning. The challenge the Blackhawks and Richardson now face is clear: Can they keep playing that way, that hard, that aggressively, when they’re not getting the results? When they’re not winning? When all that work is not being rewarded? When it’s the dog days of the season and the early excitement is over and the playoffs start looking more and more like a pipe dream and there’s little on the line other than pride and personal development?

That’ll tell us more about these Blackhawks than anything we saw in the opening weeks of the season.

“It’s harder, yeah,” said Jason Dickinson, who came over from Vancouver and immediately embodied that hard-working, hard-forechecking identity. “Not just in sports, but in life. When things don’t go the way you plan or you don’t get the results, it’s easy to start cheating and start taking different approaches and get away from what you thought would create success to find other avenues. It’s only natural, I think, for us as human beings to get like that.”

Despite the mounting losses, Dickinson was encouraged by what he’s seen in video sessions from the last few games. The Blackhawks haven’t strayed too far from the identity that made them such an early-season surprise. But as he said, they’re only human. And as the weight of so many losses adds up, it’s easy for a season to spiral out of control, and for the humans involved to spiral along with it.

But Dickinson said the Blackhawks have kept their chins up as they’ve kept their effort up.

“It takes a group effort to keep reminding each other (that effort will eventually yield results) because I can sit there and tell myself all day, and I may not do what I say,” he said. “It’s easy for me to sit there and say I’ve been saying it in my head this whole time. But I might not be doing it on the ice. So it takes the coach, it takes a teammate, it takes everybody being on the same page and expecting it from one another.”

Meanwhile, just down the hall, the Canadiens were blasting music and celebrating a win as their own surprising start continued. Expected to be contending with Chicago and Arizona for the best draft lottery odds, Montreal is now 11-9-1. And one of the young players leading the way is Dach, who has four goals and 13 assists in 21 games — three goals and 11 assists in the last 13 games since becoming a top-line winger alongside Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki.

Dach was booed lustily as he took the ice with the game on his stick in the third round of the shootout. And when he completed the shootout sweep by beating Arvid Söderblom on the glove side, he played the heel with a quick taunt of the fans — something he said he used to do in juniors when he was booed.

There’s no reason to boo Dach, of course. He never asked to be traded, after all. All he did was keep his head down and keep working while people around the city and the hockey world started saddling him with the ‘bust’ label. But it’s surely tough for Blackhawks fans to see him realizing his potential after three mostly underwhelming years in Chicago.

Dach, for one, isn’t dwelling on why Kyle Davidson traded him, but rather why Habs GM Kent Hughes gave up the No. 13 pick for him.

“I look at it the other way around,” Dach said, when asked if he was bothered that Chicago gave up on him at age 21. “Montreal, they wanted me to be there. That’s a blessing as a player when you’re wanted and you feel wanted. I’m just focused on Montreal and haven’t really thought about it too much, about not being wanted here.”

Dach insisted he never lost confidence in Chicago, but playing big minutes on the top line, being deployed by coach Martin St. Louis with the game on the line — all of those things have given Dach a little swagger that maybe he lacked here.

It’s a swagger the Blackhawks surely envy. And the only way to recapture it is to keep working, forechecking, attacking, building, buying in and keep believing that it’ll come.

Because the obvious talent gap isn’t going to close itself anytime soon.

“I thought the guys really willed themselves to getting a point, but it is frustrating,” Richardson said. “Everybody loves to win and it’s disappointing sitting in that room as a player, putting all the effort out for 60 minutes and not having a point, or only getting one out of three pretty good games and efforts. But there’s 82 games. You have to think as an optimist, that the next three games will be two home wins and (then) start off the trip on the road with a win. That’s how I look at it, and I talk to the players that way. So hopefully they feel that way and have confidence in each other. It breeds just like negativity does. So we have to make sure we’re positive and help ourselves out of this, because no one else is going to help us out of it.”

(Photo: David Banks / USA Today)


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