Late-game magic in Calgary for the Blackhawks

184164326_slideOne of the best, most improbable victories for the Blackhawks during last season’s epic 24-game point streak to start the season took place in Calgary. Ray Emery single handedly won that game for the Hawks, a game in which they had no business winning. The Flames badly outplayed the Blackhawks from start to almost the finish, but ended up allowing Marian Hossa to tie the game with under 5 seconds remaining in the third. The Blackhawks would end up winning in a shootout. Last night, the Hawks pulled off another improbable victory at the expense of the Flames in Calgary.

Unlike last season’s miracle win in northern Alberta, last night’s game was much more evenly contested. The Hawks did not play bad by any means, but they weren’t at their best either. The Flames on the other hand, they did play a very good game by their standards. They held a 1-0 lead entering the third period, and would score again just a few minutes into the third to take a 2-0 advantage. It looked as though this would be a disappointing loss for the Hawks once they went down by 2.

Then with almost 10 minutes gone in the period, Patrick Kane took a bad angled shot from Flames goalie Reto Berra’s right that deflected off a Calgary stick and went into the net. This brought the Hawks to within one and gave them some momentum, something they hadn’t really had all night.

Not even a minute later, Patrick Sharp tied the game on a redirect after a beautiful backhand pass from Hossa through the slot. Just like that, the game was tied and the Flames and their fans were almost in shock.

From that point on, the ice really seemed to open up and the pace of the game took off.

1306350614Following a Calgary icing with about 25 seconds left, Andrew Shaw won the offensive zone draw to Berra’s left. The puck found its way back to Niklas Hjalmarsson who fired a shot toward the net that got blocked. The puck then bounced right to Patrick Kane who spun to his left and fired home a nice backhander that beat Berra with 18 seconds left in the game. Once again, the Hawks had pulled off a semi-miracle on the Flames home ice. The final 18 seconds ran off the clock after the ensuing faceoff, and the Hawks won the game 3-2.

I guess there’s just something about Calgary that makes the Blackhawks do incredible things late in games.

So, here’s what I saw last night:

  • Antti Raanta made his first career start and earned his first career victory while making 20 saves. He played a solid game and came up with some big stops at key moments to keep the game close. This was a great sign for the Hawks that he played well. Hopefully that continues moving forward. 
  • Kris Versteeg was all over the ice last night. He had a number of quality scoring chances, but couldn’t find the back of the net. His versatility has really shown since coming back to the Hawks a couple weeks ago. Quenneville hasn’t hesitated to move Versteeg from the third line, to the second line, and vise versa. His goals will come with time.
  • Duncan Keith is playing out of his mind right now. He is definitely deserving of all the Norris Trophy talk he is receiving.
  • Patrick Kane now has a point in 12 straight games, making this the longest such streak of his career. He appears to have the “I’ll do whatever I want, when I want” attitude right now, which is a bad thing for the rest of the league.

The Hawks have now won 4 straight games on this road trip after losing the first game in Colorado. They also now lead the NHL in points with 40, although they’ve played a couple more games than teams like St. Louis who are right behind them in the standings. The Hawks will finish this 7-game trip with games in Dallas and Phoenix on Friday and Saturday night, respectively.

I really like how the Blackhawks are playing right now, even without Bryan Bickell in the mike-madduxlineup. When he comes back, I’d personally like to see him bump either Handzus or Bollig out of the lineup. Handzus will not play every game because of his health and age, but theoretically Bollig could. My problem with Bollig is that he doesn’t really do a whole lot that warrants him being in the lineup every game like he currently is. You can’t tell me that there are no better hockey players in Rockford than Bollig who could be playing on the Hawks’ fourth line. When Bickell comes back, I’d be fine if Bollig and Handzus platooned that last spot on the fourth line, but I don’t want to see Bollig continue to play every night. He’s just not that good.

That’s all for now.

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Versteeg back in the mix

Banner-Raising-2013-1600Following the Blackhakwks’ shootout victory over the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday night, Stan Bowman met the media and announced that the Blackhawks had traded for former Blackhawk, Kris Versteeg. Versteeg was a huge part of the Blackhawks’ success from the ’08-’09 season through the ’09-’10 season when they won the Cup. Following their Stanley Cup victory in 2010, the Hawks were forced to trade away many of their key players in order to accommodate the salary cap. Versteeg was one of those players, and he was one of the harder players to lose seeing as how valuable he was to the team. But now, that is all a thing of the past, because Steeger is back.

In acquiring Vertsteeg from the Florida Panthers, Bowman was forced to part ways with minor leaguers Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen. Both of which had played in a fair amount of games with the Blackhawks over the last 2 years or so, but neither really stood out when with the NHL club. Jimmy Hayes, who is 6′ 6″, was never really able to figure out how to use his size to his advantage when here with the Hawks. That, coupled with the fact that he is a weak skater, led to his departure. As for Olsen, He played in 28 games with the Hawks back in the ’11-’12 season. During that time, he played just alright, and never proved that he belonged in the NHL. Following the end of the 2012 season, he was demoted back to Rockford and has been there since.

While the Blackhawks did give up 2 prospects that the organization had been high on until recently, many, myself included, believe that the Blackhawks got the better of this deal. Versteeg is a dynamic forward with high-end skill who can play in many different situations throughout the game. Also, Florida is eating half of Versteeg’s remaining contract. Currently, he is earning $4.4 million per year, but the Panthers have agreed to take on half of that amount for the remainder of his contract. That leaves the Hawks with just a $2.2 million cap hit per year on Versteeg.

Versteeg will be making his second Blackhawks debut tonight when the Hawks take on the Predators in Nashville. Many had speculated and Joel Quenneville confirmed this Kris Versteegyesterday that Versteeg will play on the third line with Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell. That’s where he spent the majority of his time when he was last with the Blackhawks, except his line-mates then were Ladd and Bolland. By adding Kris Versteeg to this third line with Shaw and Bickell, he brings a lot of skill that that line has been lacking. While the line of Bickell, Shaw, and Morin/Smith/Brookbank hasn’t been bad, they have lacked a consistent threat to score. Add Versteeg to that line in place of Morin/Smith/Brookbank, and you immediately have an upgraded line offensively.

Defensively, Kris Versteeg is underrated. In his previous time with the Hawks, he saw a lot of time on the PK unit, and one would have to believe that will be the case again this time around. The Blackhawks have really struggled on the penalty kill this season, so Versteeg is a welcomed sight in that aspect of the game.

The biggest positive about Versteeg coming back to the Hawks is the depth that he adds to this team. Like I said before, the third line hasn’t been bad for the Hawks, but it hasn’t been great. Now, that line is a serious threat, which means that the Blackhawks can roll out at least three dangerous lines against their opponents. Depth was their key to success last year, and they are now well on their way to replicating that same success this year. There will probably be a bit of an adjustment period here for Versteeg seeing as how he’ll have to get acclimated to playing with Shaw and Bickell, but that shouldn’t be much of a problem. He is already familiar with most of the Hawks’ current system of play.

After watching Versteeg’s interview after practice on Friday, it is clear that he is more than 1306350614happy to be back where his career began. He’s got great relationships with the guys who were on the 2010 team, and he already knows this city very well. His presence in the locker room should only help strengthen what is already one of the closest, most tight-knit teams in the league.

Versteeg and the Hawks play tonight at 7 CT in Nashville. He’ll be wearing number 23.

To be honest, I can’t find a single negative in this trade, and that’s a rarity. Good work Stan.  

Here’s one of Versteeg’s top moments as a Hawk: 

Welcome to the Central, Winnipeg

184164326_slideIn their first ever meeting as new Central Division foes, the Blackhawks took down the Jets today by a score of 5-1. The game was over with just under three minutes left in the second period. This was one of the more dominating performances of the season by the Blackhawks, and the Jets stood no chance.

After falling behind 1-0 early in the first, the Hawks tied the game when Niklas Hjalmarsson notched his first goal of the season with a brutal slap shot right off a faceoff to Pavelec’s right. Kruger won the draw cleanly and the puck went right to Hjalmarsson who wasted no time in firing the shot on goal. The period ended 1-1.

Then the second period started, and that’s when the game pretty much ended for Winnipeg. Just 54 seconds in, Brandon Bollig fired in a wicked wrister past Ondrej Pavelec while on a two-on-one with Marcus Kruger. This was Bollig’s second goal of the season (he would later add an assist). Then about two minutes later, Patrick Sharp gave the Hawks a 3-1 lead on a breakaway goal. Hossa made a beautiful pass to Sharp to spring the breakaway. Later in the second, Nick Leddy nailed his third goal of the year with a slap shot from Pavelec’s right. That goal ended the game for Pavelec, who was replaced by Chicago native Al Montoya.

The third period saw more domination of puck possession by the Blackhawks, and Ben Smith added the fifth and last goal of the game for the Hawks on a nice deflection. With this being the first time that these two teams have met as divisional rivals, as well as the first time that they’ve played each other in Winnipeg since that city got their team back, the Blackhawks sent a stern message to the Jets that playing in the Central Division isn’t going to be easy.

So with that, here are some things that stood out to me today:

  • With five more goals today, the Blackhawks have now scored 24 goals in their last five games. That puts them behind only the Sharks for the most goals scored in the NHL this season (50). It’s safe to say the offense is “clicking” again.
  • Corey Crawford scared us for a minute when he went down after being run into by Blake Wheeler. It made me realize how valuable he is to this team when thinking about his alternative(s). He stayed in the game, however, and put together another fantastic performance.
  • Jeremy Morin messed up early in the game when he blew his coverage, which allowed Winnipeg’s only goal. He was benched the rest of the period. From the second period on, however, he was very good. He’s making a big impression on the coaching staff in my opinion as he is responsible at both ends of the ice.
  • Since Michal Handzus was taken out of the lineup four games ago, the Blackhawks have scored 19 goals. Make what you want of that statistic…
  • Two goals from the fourth line today (Bollig and Smith) is a very encouraging sign. The depth of the Blackhawks is what separated them from the pack last year, and they’ll need it again this year.

All in all, today was a very good game for the Blackhawks. They dominated in puck possession, and did not allow the Jets any easy scoring chances. The defense of the Blackhawks was just about as good as it’s been all season. Even when they did allow scoring chances, Corey Crawford was there to make the big saves.

Banner-Raising-2013-1600It will be interesting to see what route Quenneville goes tomorrow night in terms of the goalie situation. Normally, he’d start the backup goalie tomorrow night with no questions asked seeing as how it’s the second game of back-to-back games. Unfortunately, that decision isn’t so easy anymore with the way Nikolai Khabibulin has played in his last two starts. No one has much confidence in Khabi right now, so his playing time is not guaranteed. If he continues to struggle, look for Antti Raanta to get called up from Rockford. The management would rather not do that and get Raanta a full year in the AHL before calling him up, but they need wins, and Khabibulin hasn’t been producing them.

Thanks for reading.