Blackhawks lose Keith and the game in Minnesota

130107_gq_trout_aTuesday night’s Blackhawks – Wild game in St. Paul saw things quickly turn from ugly to really ugly for the Hawks. Not long before the game was set to begin, we learned that Brent Seabrook would be a scratch due to an illness. This was a decent blow to a defensive unit that had already been struggling. Then about halfway through the opening period, Duncan Keith was assessed a five minute major and game misconduct for an “intent to injure” Charlie Coyle of the Wild.

Keith’s ejection left Niklas Hjalmarsson as the only reliable defenseman in the lineup. At the time, the overwhelming thought was that the Hawks were absolutely screwed moving forward in that game given Seabrook and Keith would be out. Turns out, it wasn’t as bad as anticipated. The Blackhawks did lose the game, but it’s not like Minnesota torched the Hawks’ defensive corps the whole night. It could have been a lot worse than it actually was.

All of that is just the short-term effect of Keith’s penalty though. The long-term effect could be a lengthy suspension for the two-time Norris Trophy winner.

I’ll be the first one to try and defend a Hawks player when a questionable situation arises. In this instance, however, I cannot defend Keith’s actions against Coyle. You can’t, under any circumstances, intentionally slash a guy in the face with your stick. It does not matter how heated you might be in “the moment.” Doing what Keith did is just stupid, plain and simple, and he deserves a suspension.

The big question now is how many games Keith will have to miss.

If I had to make my best guess as to what kind of punishment the Department of Player Safety will hand down to Keith, I’d say he will probably be looking at a suspension of anywhere from 3-5 games. The possibility exists that he could get even more.

On the one hand, yes it was a bad move by Keith to do what he did, but there have been a lot worse actions by other players that have only warranted suspensions of 5 games or less. On the other hand, however, Keith was suspended during the 2013 Western Conference Final for a very similar reason when he slashed Jeff Carter in the face at center ice. Seeing as how he has done this more than once now, the NHL may look to send a stern message to the Hawks’ d-man and suspend him for 5 games or more. Any suspension of more than 5 games would mean Keith will miss at least one playoff game, seeing as how there are just 5 games left on the Blackhawks’ schedule.

Obviously, this is not an ideal situation for the Blackhawks. They are already all but eliminated from possibly ending up second in the Central Division, and they also have Nashville sitting just 4 points behind them in the top wild card spot. Losing Keith now is not what this team needs if they’re looking to lock up third place in the Central.

Guys like TVR, Rozsival, and maybe Ehrhoff are going to have to pick up more minutes now, which isn’t exactly a great thing. Luckily for the Blackhawks, 3 of their remaining 5 games are against non-playoff teams.

And as if this Keith stuff is not bad enough news, here’s some more for you.

It was reported on Tuesday by Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times that Corey Crawford’s “upper body” injury is in fact a head injury, and it could be that he’s dealing with vertigo symptoms much like Bryan Bickell was last spring and summer. The problem with vertigo is that there really isn’t a timetable for recovery. One person may see their symptoms disappear a lot quicker than others.

In Crawford’s case, no news is bad news, meaning that no updates to his condition likely mean he’s not improving. He has yet to skate since leaving the lineup, and Quenneville is still calling him day-to-day while hoping that he will be ready for Game 1 of the first round.

I, personally, am growing more and more concerned about this. The Blackhawks have, for the most part, been relatively quiet about the Crawford situation. Quenneville has repeatedly given the same quick answer when asked about Crawford’s condition (“he’s day-to-day, hopefully ready for Game 1”), and having listened to Q over the years, his quick answers usually mean he’s a little worried.

I guess time will tell with Crawford.

As for the Blackhawks as a team, their recent play is a bit bothersome, but I still can’t get overly concerned about them. Anyone who has watched the Hawks play over the last 8 years or so knows just how quickly this team can turn things around and go on to win multiple playoff series’ and even the Cup.

With just 5 games left in the regular season and Keith likely to miss at least a couple of those, winning 3 of those 5 would be big for the Hawks. They cannot afford to end up in a wild card spot.

Time to flip the switch: How the Blackhawks can get going again

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Winnipeg JetsTuesday night the Blackhawks will welcome the Central Division-leading Stars back to Chicago. Dallas currently leads the division with 95 points, while the Hawks sit in third with 91. Both teams have just 9 games remaining on their regular season schedules this year, so tonight will go a long way in determining whether or not the Blackhawks will have a legitimate chance of still winning the division. If they wish to achieve that goal, then tonight’s game becomes a must-win.

Lately the Hawks have been in a funk, to say the least. And in all honesty, it’s nothing that should come as much of a surprise. They have become a perennial mediocre team in the month of March over the past few years. Only when the “real” games begin in April do they dial it up a few notches. That being said, however, now might be the right time to begin that dialing-up process.

Following Tuesday night’s game against Dallas, the Hawks will take off on a four-game road trip out west to Calgary, Vancouver, Minnesota, and Winnipeg. None of those games will be easy, and given how the Hawks have performed on the road this year (18-14-4), it would be nice if they began flipping that switch to playoff-mode beginning with Tuesday’s tilt against the Stars. If they play the way they have for the majority of the last month on the upcoming road trip, the Blackhawks could be staring at another four-game losing streak.

To get a win tonight and to begin working their way towards that “playoff mode,” here’s what the Hawks need to do:

  • First off, the offense needs to start clicking again. The Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line was arguably the league’s best for the first four months of the season, but has since quieted down a bit. For this reason, among a few others, Joel Quenneville has begun mixing up his lines on a pretty regular basis whether in the middle of a game or heading into a game. We’ve seen Kane with Toews and Ladd while Hossa takes the second line RW spot, we’ve seen Ladd flanking Teravainen on the team’s third line, and we’ve seen a number of different combinations on the bottom two lines in recent games. All of this has been an effort to generate some offense, but it hasn’t consistently worked. At this point, I see two possible solutions moving forward. The first one is if Ladd just can’t seem to connect with 19 and 81 on the first line, move him to the third line and bump Fleischmann up to the top line. He has shown some really good skill and energy since coming to Chicago, and it may be a nice fit for everyone involved. Ladd, meanwhile, would add some really solid depth on the third line. The second option, and the one I hope prevails, is for the Blackhawks to simply wake up and “flip their switch.” We say this same thing every year, but only because it’s true every year. They are playing on auto-pilot right now, and until they begin to actually try and go all out each and every night, we’ll continue to see more mediocre performances. This team now has the depth and talent required to win a Stanley Cup thanks to the trade deadline, but until they start playing like they really want it, the losses will keep coming.
  • Secondly, Quenneville needs to figure out his defensive pairings. Right now we’re seeing guys like Ehrhoff and Gustafsson rotate in and out of the lineup while only getting around ten minutes or less of ice-time per game. Meanwhile, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Michal Rozsival are seeing their minutes increase to the high twenties despite them being arguably the two worst defensemen on the team. The bottom line is that while Q has been “resting” his top d-men as of late, he needs to start giving the appropriate minutes to the appropriate guys while at the same time figuring out who his 4-6 defensemen will be come mid-April. If it were up to me, the d-pairings would be Keith-Seabrook, Ehrhoff-Hjalmarsson, TVR-Rozsival with Gustafsson possibly taking TVR’s spot. Brent Seabrook cannot support a sub-par d-man on his pairing anymore like he maybe could have at one time. Instead, he needs a rock solid partner like Keith or Hjalmarsson. Speaking of Hjalmarsson, I like him with Ehrhoff for the fact that Ehrhoff can be a responsible defenseman, but he can also move the puck offensively better than any other d-man on the Hawks not named Keith. This pairing provides you with solid defense in Hammer, and good (not great) defense and above average offense in Ehrhoff. As for the third pairing, I say start with TVR and go to Gustafsson as soon as van Riemsdyk runs into trouble.
  • The penalty kill for the Blackhawks has been awful for most of the season in case you haven’t noticed. This is partially due to Marcus Kruger’s injury, and matters only got worse when Hossa went down. Hossa is now back, and Kruger could be coming back as soon as this weekend. Their PK was 3 for 3 against Minnesota Sunday night, but the Stars will be a much stiffer test despite Seguin not being in their lineup. Now is the time to figure this thing out and start building some positive momentum heading into April. I’m not saying the penalty kill has to be perfect every single game, but allowing a powerplay goal or more each night cannot continue. Kruger’s imminent return to the lineup should go a long way in helping solve this issue.
  • Surprisingly, the third period has become the Hawks’ enemy in recent weeks as opposed to years past. Take Sunday night for example when the Wild outshot the Hawks 16-7. Allowing 16 shots against in a period, let alone the third period, is not a good habit to fall into. Then when you consider that the Blackhawks are not generating many shots, it becomes a terrible scenario. There needs to be more urgency on offense and more reliability on defense shown by this team in the third period moving forward. If the Hawks are trailing entering the third period against Dallas or if they fall behind in the third, look for them to try and play with more urgency.

The Blackhawks are by no means a bad team or a team with huge concerns heading into the playoffs. There are, however, some concerns and weaknesses that need to be shored up starting now. The Hawks could really use home ice advantage in the playoffs this year as they have been very average on the road this season. The only way to earn home ice in the playoffs at this point is to start winning hockey games.

Expect the Stars to come out flying tonight as they look to unofficially eliminate the Hawks’ chances of winning the division. On the flip side, the Blackhawks know how big this game is with regards to their hopes of winning the Central, and it would be disappointing to see them come out as anything other than energized and ready to go.

*Update: Scott Darling will be in net again tonight as Crawford continues to recover from an upper-body injury.

Blackhawks’ biggest threats in the West

2015-11-07 13.59.52Now that the NHL trade deadline has passed, we have ourselves a better idea of how each team’s roster should (for the most part) look come playoff time. Minor changes could be made here and there and players could get injured between now and April, but we can’t predict any of that. So we’re left with the present rosters.

Many people are naming the Blackhawks as this year’s big winners of the trade deadline, and I’m not sure anyone can thoroughly argue that. But aside from what the Hawks did, there were some other big moves by other teams as well.

Given the current rosters of each team in the West, let’s look at which teams may pose the biggest threat to the Blackhawks’ hopes of returning to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight season.

  1. Los Angeles Kings: The Kings are always scary in my mind. They aren’t as deep as they have been in the past when they won their two Cups, although they did just trade for Kris Versteeg, and their defense isn’t as much of a sure thing as it once was. That said, they’re still the Kings and they still possess more playoff experience than just about any other team in the league outside of the Blackhawks. Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar are world-class players at their respective positions, and those two alone can carry this team to another Cup if all goes well. Also, if they can get a healthy Marian Gaborik back for the playoffs, they’ll be that much better. So while L.A. may not be as good as the next team on this list, the fact that they’ve climbed to the mountain top and back twice is reason enough for me to be more afraid of them than any other team in the Western Conference.
  2. Anaheim Ducks: Despite their rocky start to the season, the Ducks find themselves in a position where they could win the Pacific Division. They didn’t make any big moves at the trade deadline, but I’m not completely sure that they needed to. They’re a deep team at forward and on defense, but their defense can also be torched at times. Come playoff-time, Anaheim will likely have to get by L.A. at some point if they are to end up facing the Blackhawks (again), and the same goes for the Kings having to face the Ducks. I bring that up because I don’t think Anaheim beats Los Angeles in a seven game series, thus eliminating their threat to the Hawks. The bottom line with the Ducks, however, is that unless they get great goaltending from Gibson, which can be a toss-up, and unless Getzlaf and Perry perform like all-stars, this team won’t beat the Kings or Blackhawks in a playoff series.
  3. St. Louis Blues: I’m still scratching my head over the fact that Doug Armstrong made zero moves to help his team at the trade deadline. They could really use another goalie given the injuries to Allen and Elliott, and James Reimer was available, but Armstrong did nothing. They could also have used a scoring winger and a defenseman, but again, they did nothing. As currently constructed, the Blues lack the forward and defensive depth to knock off a Chicago, L.A., or Anaheim in a playoff series. They’re a tough, bruising team, but like always they lack that offensive firepower that is necessary to make a deep playoff run.
  4. San Jose Sharks: This team has performed much better than expectations this year, and they lead the NHL with 22 road victories. It is imperative that you be a good road team if you want any success in the playoffs. Aside from that, they have decent depth at forward and own a very good top two lines led by Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau, and Couture. Defensively they’re not bad either, but they’re not great. Brent Burns is arguably the league’s best offensive d-man and adds a big scoring threat when on the ice, but overall their defense can be beaten. I really like their addition of James Reimer at the trade deadline, as they now have a very good goaltending tandem of him and Martin Jones. That said, Jones, their number one, has no playoff experience and Reimer has little. This is a team that has the talent to pull off an upset over a someone like Anaheim, L.A, or St. Louis, but not Chicago (I say that as unbiased as I can).
  5. Dallas Stars: Some may ask why they’re number five on this list, and I suppose that is somewhat justifiable. Here’s the thing, though: Dallas got WORSE at the trade deadline. I cannot fathom why Kris Russell drew so much attention when all he was in Calgary was a terrible defenseman on a bad defensive team. Sure, he may have some offensive numbers, but his defensive stats are horrible. Yet the Stars went out and got him with the hopes of deepening their d-corps. That d-corps, by the way, has some recognizable names to it, but they’re almost all offensive-defensemen with the exception of Oduya. Then you factor in their goaltending, which is probably the worst of any team near the top of the standings in either conference, and you begin to see why they really don’t have a strong chance of knocking off a team like the Blackhawks in a playoff series. Sure their offense is elite, but if you can’t keep the puck out of your net in the postseason, you have no chance. Oh, and I like to make note of the “experience factor” come playoff-time, of which the Stars have minimal with all things considered.

Given the additions made by the Blackhawks over the last week, I firmly believe they are the best team in the West, and quite possibly the NHL. They definitely have the deepest set of forwards in the league, which is absolutely crucial in the playoffs. Their defense could have really used a guy like Dan Hamhuis, but the hope is that Christian Erhoff will find success in the Hawks’ system and turn into a reliable number four, puck-moving defenseman by the end of the regular season.

I like the Blackhawks’ chances in a playoff series against any team in the Western Conference due to their forward depth and experience (keep in mind that they are still without Hossa and Kruger), but ultimately they’ll have to go out and prove they’re the best team yet again.

This is still too early to be making any solid playoff predictions, so we’ll hold off on that until the playoff matchups are set, but as of right now the Blackhawks are my Stanley Cup favorite for many reasons.