Switch flipped?

15-_DSC2491-toresizeAfter four consecutive underwhelming performances against non-playoff teams that led to a grand total of two points, the Blackhawks have reeled off two straight victories against a couple of the toughest teams in the Western Conference. On Sunday night, it was the Jets that watched the Hawks “go through the motions” for the first 40 minutes of the game before turning it on in the third period and pulling off a last second win on the road. Then last night at the United Center, the Kings fell victim to a rather dominant performance by the Blackhawks that ended with a final score of 4-1 in favor of the home team. Just like that, the Hawks went from being in a Wild Card spot to one point behind the Blues for second in the Central, and four behind the Predators for first place with one game in hand.

Their victory over the Kings may very well have been the best all around performance we’ve seen from the Blackhawks this season, and it came without arguably their best player in the lineup. Right from the opening puck drop, you could see that the Hawks were playing with more energy and desperation than they have in quite some time. They were relentless on the forecheck and kept L.A. pinned in their own end for long stretches at a time. All four lines contributed with either goals or strong shifts that seemed to wear down the Kings.

It is performances like the one we saw last night that make you believe this team, the Hawks, still have all the potential in the world to roll right through the playoffs to the Stanley Cup. When they come out playing with energy and desire like we saw against L.A., I’m not sure that there’s a team in the NHL that could win four out of seven games against the Blackhawks.

Scott Darling proved a big point to me last night. After letting in possibly his softest goal of the season right at the end of the first period, he bounced back in the second and third periods by making a number of big saves without letting in another goal. This showed me that he is strong mentally and won’t let one hiccup lead to another and another. He was quoted after the game as saying something along the lines of “The guys told me not to worry about that goal and that they would get it back for me.” Sure enough, the Hawks struck twice in the first couple minutes of the second to get a 3-1 lead in the game. When a goaltender feels that his team has his back and has confidence in him, that almost always propels him to stronger performances on the ice. The same goes for Corey Crawford, who will undoubtedly be the team’s starting goalie for the playoffs.

With the Hawks now coming off of back-to-back huge wins and 80 straight minutes of solid hockey, they cannot let up. They absolutely need to continue to build off of these last two games and use them as building blocks moving forward. With two more games remaining against the Blues, and one against the Wild, the Blackhawks will need to put forth their best effort to beat those teams and secure a good seed in the playoffs. Second place in the Central is certainly not out of reach by any means. Nor is first for that matter. At the same time however, if they falter in the final two weeks of the season, they could be looking at a Wild Card spot to open the playoffs. My point again: don’t let up.

Patrick Kane update

Kane skated during the Hawks’ optional practice yesterday morning and apparently did everything but take contact and slap shots. Quenneville said afterwards that Kane continues to look real quick and solid on the ice, and that “good news” could be coming soon. Does this mean that the 12-week recovery period may be less? We can only hope.

Kane’s absence finally hitting the Hawks

GTY 464336458 S SPO HKO HKN USA ILRemarkably, the Blackhawks went on one of their better runs of the season following the injury to Patrick Kane in late February. They went 7-1-1 in the next nine games after losing Kane for the remainder of the regular season, beating a couple of the league’s better teams during the process. Rather than bringing the team morale down, Kane’s injury almost seemed to have reignited the Hawks. While losing arguably the team’s best player is never wished upon by anyone, Kane’s injury did allow the Hawks to land Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timmonen. Those acquisitions appeared to restore the sometimes vacant energy and confidence from the Blackhawks. Now, however, the team is searching for answers after four straight poor outings and going 1-3-0 in that stretch.

Ever since defeating the Rangers 1-0 at Madison Square Garden on March 18th, the Blackhawks have been outplayed in every game they’ve competed in. In Dallas, they were rocked 4-0. In Carolina they won 3-1, but were the worse of the two teams over the final two periods of play. The Hurricanes ended up out-shooting the Hawks 44-25 in the game. From Raleigh, the Blackhawks went into Philadelphia and lost 4-1. Then, Friday night, the Hawks returned home to face the Blue Jackets and ended up on the losing side of a 5-2 game. All four of those games were against teams who are not in a playoff position.

During this rough stretch, and really since Kane went down, the Blackhawks have struggled offensively. Since Kane’ injury, the team has averaged just over two goals per game, which is not good enough for a team fighting for a top three finish in their division. The Hawks have lacked puck possession recently, an area in which Kane may be the best in the NHL, and they have had a real tough time suppressing their shots against. When you don’t have the puck as much as you’re used to, you can expect your shots against average to rise.

While the Hawks did continue to win games in the immediate aftermath of Kane’s injury, their offense was at times not as good as the scores may have indicated. As big a reason as any as to why the team kept winning without Kane was their goaltending. Corey Crawford and Scott Darling (he recorded a 1-0 shutout at the Rangers) were playing out of this world up until recently. This somewhat covered up the fact that the Blackhawks were being outplayed by their opponents with more regularity. Just take their win in Carolina as an example of that. Now, the goaltending has seemingly come back to reality. It hasn’t been bad, but it also hasn’t been what it was over the first few weeks of March. With the Blackhawks still struggling to score and the goaltending not performing at the level that it had been, we’re seeing more losses.

The easiest solution to all of this is to simply say that the Blackhawks need to get better offensively. The question is how do they do that?

Well for one, I think the forward lines need some consistency. Blackhawks players have flat out stated that they like having some consistency with the lines. It’s tough for players to be playing with new linemates every game. This doesn’t allow them to build chemistry or familiarity with one another. While the natural reaction by Quenneville may be to switch up the lines when the team isn’t playing well, it may pay off in the long run to just stick with them. If he wants to switch them up for the second half of game in which they’re trailing, fine, but then go back to the original lines to start the next game. I think the best lines for this team are Sharp-Toews-Hossa, Saad-Vermette-Teravainen, Versteeg-Richards-Bickell, Shaw-Kruger-Nordstrom. It would certainly help out A LOT if Versteeg and Bickell broke out of their current slumps and did something to contribute to the team.

Secondly, for the Hawks to become a better offensive team, or to at least play up to their potential, they need to simplify their game. They need to take what’s being given to them by the opposition, make the smart, simple plays, and go from there. Lately they have been trying to do too much individually. Guys will get the puck and try and dangle their way out of the defensive zone or into the offensive zone, thus leading to turnovers more often than not. They have gotten away from playing that “north-south” game as Eddie Olczyk calls it. If the Blackhawks can get back to that style of play, they should start to see some better results.

Lastly, shoot the puck. The Hawks seem to be one of the most reluctant teams in the league at shooting the puck (I’m looking at you Keith). They’d often rather attempt to complete a highlight reel pass instead of shooting when they have the chance. Duncan Keith, as I just mentioned, is one of the team’s biggest culprits in this regard. I can’t even begin to list the number of times in which he’s left with a good shooting lane, but instead tries to make a slap-pass through traffic to someone standing beside the net. I will admit that this does work maybe once in 50 attempts, but that’s not good enough. Somehow though, Keith happens to rank third in the league in shot attempts during 5 on 5 play. You just wouldn’t guess that. Putting that stat aside, my point still stands.

With Kane out of the lineup until at least mid to late May, the Hawks have got to start finding ways to compensate for his absence. They were getting by without him for a couple of weeks due in large part to their goaltending and team defense, but now those have started to slip due to their lack of puck possession. If the Blackhawks can get back to the basics and do the things I just went over, among others, their offense and time of possession should see a rise in production.

This team has too much talent to be struggling this much at scoring goals. There is no denying the fact, however, that Versteeg and Bickell must step up their games and give quality minutes for this team to regain its depth and advantage in play. Those two players cannot be overlooked.

Blackhawks stay hot

15-_DSC2491-toresizeWith last night’s 4-1 victory over the 90 point New York Islanders, the Blackhawks improved to 5-0-1 in March, and 6-1-1 without Patrick Kane. They now have 90 points on the season and sit just 4 back of the Nashville Predators with three games in hand, and 5 back of the Blues with one game in hand.

When Kane suffered his broken clavicle, putting him out for 12 weeks, most people were left with the feeling that the Blackhawks wouldn’t be able to survive without him. Then Stan Bowman made a series of trades bringing in Kimmo Timonen and Antoine Vermette most notably. Those trades seem to have re-energized the Hawks and reassured them that the front office has confidence in this group even without Kane.

Despite the trades, the Hawks still needed guys to step up their games in Kane’s absence, and they have. The team’s last three games against the Coyotes, Sharks, and Islanders (all victories) are all perfect examples.

Against Arizona, the Hawks won 2-1. Their two goals came from Andrew Shaw and Brad Richards, neither of whom had scored in over a dozen games.

In San Jose, the Hawks received goals from Sharp (hadn’t scored since late January), Keith, Saad, Bickell, Sharp again, and Hossa.

Last night against the Islanders and with Sharp reunited with Toews and Hossa on the top line, the Hawks scored 4 goals in the game. All of them came from that first line.

The Blackhawks needed to make up for Kane’s absence by getting more production from all 12 forwards in the lineup. So far, they have. This doesn’t mean that the third and fourth lines need to average a goal per game from here on out, but if they can contribute with strong efforts each night even without scoring, that will help. We can expect goals to continue coming from the Toews line, and the Vermette line with Saad and Teravainen is bound to find the back of the net with regularity sooner or later with they way they’re playing.

So with that, here are some quick thoughts:

  • Corey Crawford is back to playing like he was prior to his concert injury. He has only allowed 8 goals this month and looks as good as ever. The team will need this trend to continue heading into April and May.
  • I was calling for a Sharp-Toews-Hossa reunion a few games ago in an attempt to get Sharp back on the score sheet, and last night Q finally listened. Granted Sharp scored twice already in San Jose, but him on the top line makes him and his linemates that much more dangerous. We saw just that against the Islanders when the Toews line scored all 4 of the Hawks’ goals.
  • The second line of Brandon Saad, Antoine Vermette, and Teuvo Teravainen continues to look really good. They just aren’t scoring as much as they probably should be given their recent play. I’d expect this line to start piling up the goals sometime soon.
  • Defensively the Hawks have been better lately. They are still allowing more shots against than they’d like, but they aren’t surrendering many great scoring chances anymore.
  • Last night against the Islanders, Johnny Oduya looked like his old self again. If he can turn the corner in his game and get back to the Oduya we saw last year or the year before, that will be very good news. Also, Kimmo Timonen is slowly returning to full strength. His passing and decision making are fantastic, and if he can get his legs fully back under himself, his acquisition will really pay off.
  • Lastly, Kris Versteeg has been bad ever since returning from his injury suffered in the Winter Classic. He’s trying to do too much by himself and ends up coughing up the puck to the other team too often. Somehow, some way, he needs to get back to the way he was playing in November and December, just without Kane to his right.

Tonight is a huge game in New York against the Rangers, who will be without Martin St. Louis. When these two teams met a couple of weeks ago, the Rangers won 1-0 in OT. If they Hawks can figure out Cam Talbot early on, I like their chances in this one.

NHL playoff format needs to change

139990-330-0Last season was the first year of the current NHL playoff format. Under this format, the top three teams from each division make the playoffs, as well as two Wild Card teams per conference. The purpose of this was to build more rivalries in the NHL, because under this structure the first round consists of more divisional matchups than ever before. Here’s how it works for those who don’t know or forgot:

-Division winner plays a wild card team (best division winner plays worst WC team)

-The second and third place finishers in each division play each other in the first round

This guarantees at least four divisional first round series throughout the NHL each year. By having teams from the same division meet in the playoffs, the hope from the NHL is that more rivalries are developed, thus increasing the interest and passion by the fans.

Here is the problem:

Teams such as the Rangers and Penguins, Blackhawks and Blues, and Lightning and Red Wings are all slated to play each other in the first round if the playoffs started today. It doesn’t seem right that major Stanley Cup contenders should have to face another Stanley Cup contender in the first round. This format automatically eliminates some of the best teams in the league right off the bat. Don’t you want these types of matchups in the second and third rounds?

If the playoffs started today, Vancouver (80 pts) and Calgary (77 pts) would be playing each other in round one, meaning one of those teams would advance to the second round while a team like Chicago (84 pts) or St. Louis (87 pts) is sent packing. That doesn’t seem right.

Under the previous playoff format, the number one team in each conference played the number eight team, two played seven, three played six, and so on. That makes a whole lot more sense than this.

I understand that the NHL wants to create more rivalries and cut down on travel costs with this new playoff structure, but they are punishing some of the best teams in the league at the same time by sending them home too early from the playoffs. Until this gets fixed, there are going to be great teams eliminated in the first round every season.

Quick hits on the Hawks

15-_DSC2491-toresizeFriday night the Blackhawks earned a big two points with a shootout victory over the Edmonton Oilers in a game that turned out to be much closer than anticipated. The Oilers gave the Hawks all they could seemingly handle, but were never able to get a two-goal lead in the game. The Blackhawks ended up tying it late in the third before Antoine Vermette scored the shootout winner giving the Hawks a 2-1 victory.

It’s been two games now since the trade deadline has passed, and we have gotten a good look at the Blackhawks’ acquisitions in those games. Here’s what I have noticed from them, and the team, over the last two games.

  • Tuesday against the Hurricanes was the Blackhawks debut for both Kimmo Timonen and Antoine Vermette. Each player looked a bit lost out there at times, which was to be expected, but the Hawks as a team looked excellent. All four lines played great. You could tell the team was energized by the trades Bowman made.
  • Friday night, in a much faster paced game than against the Hurricanes, Kimmo Timonen was noticeably struggling to keep up. I’m not too concerned with it. The guy hasn’t played in a year, and he’s almost 40 years old. Give him a few more games to get back into the swing of things before really making any judgments about him.
  • Antoine Vermette was one of the best players on the ice against Edmonton. He had easily 2-3 great scoring chances, but couldn’t find the net on any of them. He also set up his linemates for great chances a few times, but no one converted on those either. In the shootout, Vermette scored the game winning goal after misses from both Toews and Sharp. That had to be a huge moment for him. These are positive indications, and ones that hopefully continue.
  • Corey Crawford has bounced back very well after being pulled against the Bruins a couple weeks back. He made a career high 46 saves against the Oilers on a career high 47 shots against. Pretty impressive.
  • All four lines of the Blackhawks looked really good against Carolina on Tuesday. Against the Oilers, however, the Hawks didn’t get as much production from top to bottom. Andrew Shaw definitely makes the fourth line better now that he’s on the wing there, but I think Teravainen needs to be playing every night to really give the Hawks an advantage depth-wise over most other teams. He was scratched against the Oilers, and his vacancy on the ice was noticeable.
  • Speaking of Teravainen, it looks like he’ll be playing tomorrow night against the Rangers on the second line, as well as on the second powerplay unit.
  • In practice today, Patrick Sharp was skating with Richards and Carcillo on the third line. I have two problems with this. First of all, Carcillo looks like he might be playing tomorrow night in place of Bryan Bickell. Bickell has been underperforming, but I don’t think he should sit so that Carcillo can play. Car Bomb is not good. Secondly, I would move Sharp to the top line with Toews and Hossa to try and get him going offensively. He always seems to do well with 19 and 81, and the Hawks could really afford for his production to pick up.

With the win over Edmonton, the Hawks now find themselves just 2 points behind the Blues, who have a game in hand, and 6 points behind the Predators, who have lost 5 straight. The Hawks have a game in hand on Nashville. The Blackhawks also have Minnesota breathing down their neck now. The Wild have won 5 straight games and sit just 4 points behind the Hawks.

With about a month left to the regular season, a lot can still happen. Nashville’s once comfortable lead in the division is now not so comfortable, and the Hawks are now not that far off from being in a Wild Car position. Every game from here on out is a big one because you can expect the other top teams in the Central to win almost every night.

The Blackhawks need to ramp up their level of intensity starting Sunday against New York if they want to keep pace with the rest of their division.

Bowman, Quenneville & Player Development

Great piece, as usual, by Jen.

jenlc13

Stan Bowman took the reins as GM of the Chicago Blackhawks from Dale Tallon back in July of 2009. The team that Tallon had partially built went on to win the Stanley Cup that season. Due to the salary cap, many pieces of that team had to be traded the following summer. The supporting cast of the team was rebuilt and in the 2012-13 season won the Stanley Cup again. Last season the team lost in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Final.

This season, despite being in a playoff position with just under 20 games left, the Blackhawks have been struggling a bit to play a complete game. Many rumors were swirling about trades prior to the deadline. On February 27th, Chicago traded picks for defenseman Kimmo Timonen of the Philadelphia Flyers. Chicago then acquired forward Antoine Vermette from the Arizona Coyotes for AHL defenseman…

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Blackhawks’ new lines taking shape; Sharp addresses rumors

15-_DSC2491-toresizeNow that the dust has settled from the trades that brought in Kimmo Timonen and Antoine Vermette, we can really begin to look into what lines we may see from the Blackhawks moving forward. Today was the team’s first practice since their loss in Tampa Bay Friday night, and it was also Timonen’s first with his new team. Vermette did not participate due to travel reasons.

The lines in today’s Hawks practice were Versteeg-Toews-Hossa, Sharp-Teravainen-Saad, Bickell-Richards-Shaw, Nordstrom-Kruger-Smith. After practice, Quenneville indicated that Vermette will center the second line, meaning we might see Teravainen on the third line, Shaw on the fourth, and either Nordstrom or Smith benched. It also wouldn’t surprise me if the Hawks bench Teravainen, even though I think that would be the wrong thing to do.

The defense pairings today were skewed because Keith did not practice. Timonen was paired with Seabrook, however I don’t think that will be the case tomorrow night. If I had to bet on the d-pairings, I’d say they’ll likely be Keith-Seabrook, Timonen-Hjalmarsson, Rozsival-Rundblad.

Kimmo Timonen was also taking reps with the Hawks’ number one powerplay unit today. That unit consisted of Shaw, Toews, and Hossa, with Seabrook and Timonen at the points. I am really looking forward to seeing just how big of a factor he might be on the team’s powerplay moving forward.

Both Timonen and Vermette will be in the Hawks’ lineup tomorrow night against Carolina. Since Vermette did not practice with the team today, it remains a bit of a question mark at this point in terms of how he will be used on the special teams. One would assume he’ll center the second powerplay unit, as well as take faceoffs on the penalty kill, but we won’t really know for sure until he plays.

Also, Timonen will be wearing number 44, while Vermette will wear 80. That makes it four players now wearing a number in the 80’s for the Hawks, in case you were wondering.

Patrick Sharp

15-_DSC2491-toresizeAccording to the local beat writers for the Blackhawks, Brent Seabrook addressed the media on his own today to put the Patrick Sharp and “fight” rumors to rest. He was never asked by the media to address the situations, but felt it was his job as one of the team leaders. To summarize, Seabrook made it clear that the locker room is “tight” and that there are no issues going on in there whatsoever. Jonathan Toews later backed up those statements.

Then Patrick Sharp addressed the reporters and said that the rumors surrounding him are “laughable,” yet have taken a big toll on him. He denied all the rumors and even went so far as to say he is looking into taking legal action against those who reported the rumors on the internet yesterday. Sharp said that these rumors have taken a toll on him and his family, and have even begun to affect his play on the ice. If you want to read more of what Sharp said today, I suggest scrolling through the Twitter timelines of Mark Lazerus, Chris Kuc, and/or Brian Hedger.

The fact that the Blackhawks took it upon themselves to bring these rumors up with the media today tells me that there probably isn’t anything bad going on in that locker room right now. Maybe, and quite possibly, something did happen last year as was first reported by the guys at The Committed Indian. Who knows what that may have been… As of right now though, it would appear all is good in the Hawks’ locker room despite what some morons on Facebook and Twitter are saying.

If in fact all of this crap surrounding Patrick Sharp is false, then I can’t help but feel terrible for him and his family. He has been absolutely degraded through social media over the last week. I don’t blame him for wanting to pursue legal action against those responsible for the rumors if everything really is false.

Hopefully all of this off-ice stuff gets put to rest once and for all very soon and we can begin to focus solely on the Blackhawks’ as a hockey team. There is a lot of reason to be optimistic even despite the Patrick Kane injury.