( Scott Strazzante, Chicago Tribune)

Well, it’s not the way we had it scripted, but the 2011-2012 Chicago Blackhawks season ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

It was supposed to be  a lot different (better), of course. This particular ‘Hawks team was going to be the one to restore all the glory after a mostly forgettable 2010-2011 season. That season was written off fairly early by many fans who understand how contracts and the CBA worked. Hey, they would be back with a vengeance the next season, reloaded and rested, right? We heard a lot about how much that loss to Vancouver pissed them off. We heard about how hungry they were to prove the critics wrong. We were told the ‘Hawks finally had some money to spend. We had reason to be optimistic.

At the draft, they shipped out Brian Campbell to Dale Tallon and Troy Brouwer went to Washington for a 1st round pick. The ‘Hawks snapped up young forwards such as Mark McNeil, Phillip Danault, Brandon Saad and later on Andrew Shaw. But most important of all, they acquired cap space with the (unfortunately necessary) Campbell trade.

Shortly thereafter came free agency. A few days before July 1st, Stan Bowman acquired Steve Montador. Sure he was a healthy scratch in Buffalo’s game seven, but we were told he was the man who would stabilize the blue line and eat up some special teams minutes. At least he wasn’t Nick Boynton! Then on Free Agent Day, Bowman played it cautiously. He started by signing Andrew Brunette. Hey, a name we recognize! A guy that can feed Kane and Toews from behind the net! A Q guy! Welcome aboard. StanBo also added burly vet Sean O’Donnell. While we knew his best days were long behind him, he was someone who would finally be the realiable 6th or 7th D-man we lacked the previous year. Another addition was Jamal Mayers, a Q guy who could win face-offs and kill penalties while bringing it physically.  Stanley closed out the day by signing former nemesis Dan Carcillo. Fun would finally return to United Center after a dreadfully boring 2010-2011 season. While some people were disappointed Bowman didn’t spend close to the Salary Cap, it looked like a reasonably successful off-season. Certainly it was enough to put a team with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabarook right back into contention.

We were told the lineup now had some grit. They would would fight and win puck battles. They had the blue line depth they lacked the year before. They had guys who pummel anybody who so much as looked at Kane the wrong way.  Plus, we knew we would have CASH MONEY to spend at the deadline. CASH MONEY! We eagerly anticipated opening night in Dallas.

While that opening night was spoiled, things were going pretty damn well for a time. Even though the PP was suffering and the physicality we thought we had hadn’t quite come to fruition,  the Blackhawks took full advantage of a soft early schedule and jumped out to an early lead in the Central Division and Western Conference. On January 1st, the ‘Hawks stood at 24-10-1 with 52 points, good enough for 1st in the Western Conference. Things were looking good indeed, and those lingering deficiencies would be addressed at the deadline. Ahh, the joys of cap space.

But then things started to get dicey in January. Even though abrasive 5th round selection Andrew Shaw was making some noise, the Blackhawks dropped key games against Philadelphia and Colorado while losing two games to Detroit in extra time. It was becoming clear that Nick Leddy could not be asked to carry the load defensively and that the team desperately needed a 2nd Center – preferably one that could win draws and provide a physical presence on the forecheck and in front of opposing goaltenders. It was also evident that Corey Crawford wouldn’t be winning too many games on his own. No big deal though, they went on a 3 game winning streak with victories over San Jose, Buffalo and Florida in the run up to a home and home with Nashville. Nothing to worry about, after all, they were still in 3rd place in the Western Conference.

On January 21st, the Blackhawks traveled to Nashville. They sat at 29-14-6. A strong playoff team and a Cup contender.  That evening, a horrible goal from the neutral zone was given up by Crawford in the 2nd period and the ‘Hawks never recovered. They went on to lose 5-2. At the time, it just looked like one of those games that didn’t go our way. Seem ‘em a hundred times before. Little did we know it was the beginning of the worst streak the Blackhawks had had since the Dark Ages, one that would shake the confidence of Blackhawks fans all over and perhaps even their General Manager.

The 9 game losing streak (all losses to teams in the Western Conference) shook the foundation to the core. Everything that could go wrong did. The PP disappeared completely. Corey Crawford lost control of his starting position. Secondary scoring seemed to disappear. No longer were the ‘Hawks the Cup contender they imagined themselves to be. It would now be another year of simply struggling to make the playoffs. By the time they finally won a hockey game in New York, which ended the 9 game skid, they had fallen to 6th place in the West, where they would ultimately finish.

In the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, ‘Hawks Nation furiously debated what the Blackhawks needed to add. Many yearned for a new Center, one who could relieve an out of his depth but improving Marcus Kruger. Others, like our own JMH, wanted a big defenseman like Hal Gill. Some people even talked about getting a new face between the pipes. Whatever it was, the ‘Hawks needed a shot in the arm if they had any chance to advance in the post-season.

At the deadline, we watched Antoine Vermette go to Phoenix for basically nothing ,while Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn headed to Nashville. We also watched T.J Galiardi go to San Jose. All of these were players that would have helped the Blackhawks up front. Instead, Bowman settled for modest help on the blue line, acquiring Johnny Oduya (who worked out nicely in the regular season before shitting his pants in the playoffs) from Winnipeg. This was clearly not a General Manager who was all in. Remember all that cash money? It was going to stay in the wallet of Rocky Wirtz. Was Bowman acknowledging that this team wasn’t a winner? Or was the right guy simply not out there? For a team with enough cap space to gamble a bit, it certainly seemed like the former.

From there, you know the rest of the story. The Blackhawks finished out the regular season decently, but never made it back to the top echelons of the Western Conference. Jonathan Toews suffered a concussion just days after the losing streak ended and missed the final 22 games. The playoffs this year will likely be remembered as the year where the ‘Hawks ran into a hot goaltender while having their own best player knocked back in time by old foe Raffi Torres.

A series with five overtimes should have felt closer than that did, but to me, especially after the loss in Game 3, after Hossa has been knocked out, it seemed like we were constantly playing from behind, which we were.  Down two goals in Game 4, they were incredibly lucky the puck bounced to the stick of Michael Frolik in the final seconds. Didn’t matter. A gutsy performance in Game 5 simply prolonged the agony. After dominating the first two periods in Game 6, the ‘Hawks simply ran out of gas and will in the third.

Maybe had Hossa not gotten hurt they would have pulled it out. Maybe had Crawford not let in two of the ugliest playoff goals in history things would have been different. Maybe had mainstays like the Patricks decided to show up the ‘Hawks could have scored more than two fucking goals in more than just one of the games. Maybe had the PP been competent, maybe had Oduya not suddenly turned back into a Winnipeg Jet….we could go on and on. All of these things together added up to a second consecutive 1st round exit.

It hurts knowing we have to wait so long for the Blackhawks to address their shortcomings. It hurts even more to realize that many of them are the same problems they had before this season started.

Everybody knew the Blackhawks were going to have a rough time after shedding all that talent after the 2010 Cup win. It was easy to accept the 1st round exit last season – especially after the series they gave Vancouver. This year, it’s not easy at all and it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Moves like Montador and OD flopped while Carcillo missed a good chuck of the season with an injury (one he got while brutally hitting an Edmonton Oiler). Jamal Mayers played solid hockey for the ‘Hawks most of the season, answering the bell more than a few times in defense of teammates, while also killing penalties, but he found himself a healthy scratch the last few games of the playoffs, when it really mattered.  Brunette never found chemistry anywhere in the lineup – and Q did try him everywhere. Oh also, turns out he was the one guy in the league who could lose to John Scott in a foot race.

The goaltending was another story completely. What initially looked like a solid tandem turned into a horrific Sophie’s Choice kind of thing for Joel Quenneville by the end of the season. To underscore how bad Crawford and Ray Emery were, the last time the Blackhawks did not have a shutout in a full season including  the playoffs was in the pre- Ed Belfour era, the 1988-89 season, when they lost in the Campbell Conference finals to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames in 5 games. Yeah, it was that kind of year for the goaltenders.

I’m not even going to waste the time on the PP. You all know it was complete dogshit all season long.

After winning the Stanley Cup, many ‘Hawks fans triumphantly claimed that they were going to be the next great thing in the NHL – even with their cap problems.  The ‘Hawks would claim the mantle of the Old Red Wings and dominate the league with guys like Toews and Kane for years to come. That sort of talk now seems extremely misguided.

The future is still very bright  and anybody calling for the head of Patrick Kane or Duncan Keith is an irredeemable moron, but for now, I would accept a team that resembles the Blackhawks of 08-09 and 09-10, much less the old Red Wings.

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On a lighter note, I think I speak for everybody here at CtA when I say from that from the bottom of our hearts, we appreciate all of our readers and followers out there. We hope you’ll stick around over the summer and rejoin us next season.

We’ll be around soon with some player evaluations and as we get closer to the Free Agent period, we will look at some possible targets for the Blackhawks and all that good stuff. Thanks again.