Keys to a Blackhawks’ series victory over Nashville

15-_DSC2491-toresizeTwo months ago this matchup didn’t quite seem possible, as the Predators appeared to be running away with the Central Division crown. Then came their downfall that landed them as the second seed in the Central, leading us to a rematch of the 2010 Western Conference Quarterfinals. The Blackhawks haven’t necessarily been playing well either, and have lost four straight games heading into the playoffs. Putting all of that behind us, there are many factors that come into play when trying to determine a winner in this series.

I said it in my “predictions” post that I think the Hawks will win this series in six games. Obviously it could go four, five, or seven games, but regardless I still think the Blackhawks will advance. The questions is, how will they advance?

-First of all, Patrick Kane is back and will be playing in Game One. That right there is a huge advantage in favor of the Hawks, who badly need to get their offense and powerplay back on the right track. I think we all know just how valuable a player Kane is, so I won’t elaborate anymore on him.

-Secondly, the Hawks’ defense has to be playing at the top of their game. Kimmo Timonen will be back to start the series after missing the last handful of games to close out the regular season, and his presence on the team’s blue line gives them more depth and reliability. That means nothing, however, if his partner (likely Rundblad or Rozsival) continues to be a liability. In the top four, we pretty much know what we’re going to get for the most part. Seabrook always seems to have the ability to stink, as does Oduya, but hopefully those two play the way they have lately and like they did in 2013. If it were up to me, I’d have the d-pairings look like 2-7, 4-27, 44-32. Keith and Seabrook, and Oduya and Hjalmarsson all seem to play better when they are paired that way.

The Blackhawks finished the year as the second best team in hockey in goals against per game, which says a lot about their team defense (and goaltending, which we’ll get to). The problem that the blue liners of the Hawks have had is their giveaways in their own zone and the neutral zone. More often this year than in years past we’ve seen Blackhawks defensemen pass the puck right to the opposition at the Hawks’ own blue line or in the neutral zone, leading to incredible scoring chances for the other team. This cannot continue to happen. Mistakes like these are usually mental ones and can be eliminated or at least cut back on.

While the Predators don’t present the best group of forwards in the league by any means, they’re still good and can take advantage of mistakes. I’m not too worried about the actual defensive play of the Hawks’ top five d-men, but they cannot afford to turn the puck over.

-Corey Crawford is coming off of arguably his best regular season since becoming the team’s number one goalie, earning his second career Jennings Trophy, and he’ll need to keep it up for the next couple months. He and his backups are a HUGE reason why the Blackhawks ended with over 100 points this year, so hopefully he can keep that up as well as get some more goal scoring from his teammates in front of him.

-Line combinations always are, and will continue to be a huge part of the playoffs. Right now, unfortunately, Joel Quenneville has his lines messed up. In the team’s last two practices, including today, the line combos were Saad-Toews-Hossa, Versteeg-Richards-Kane, Bickell-Shaw-Sharp, Nordstrom-Kruger-Teravainen. As you may have noticed, Antoine Vermette is missing from those line combos. Yes, that’s the same guy that the Hawks traded away a first round pick and arguably their top defensive prospect for at the trade deadline. And yes, he’s still one of the league’s best players at winning faceoffs. Yet he appears to be a healthy scratch for Game One.

The first question that pops into my head is why did they trade for him if he’s going to sit for Game One of the playoffs? I’m guessing that’s a common question among fans right now, but it’s not really a good one. A better question is what makes Joakim Nordstrom and Kris Versteeg more valuable than Vermette? Nordstrom is a fourth line player who is smart and reliable on the penalty kill. Guess what? So is Antoine Vermette, who’s also a better all-around player. As for Versteeg, he has been the worst Hawk over the last month and a half and has provided next to zero production for the team over that span. What makes him so irreplaceable? What Quenneville is probably thinking is that with Kane now back, he can reunite that trio of him, Versteeg, and Richards that was so successful back in December. If it works, great. If not, Versteeg should either be in the bottom six or scratched.

Another negative to Vermette apparently being benched is that you now have to play Andrew Shaw at center. Granted, even with Vermette in the lineup this has still recently been the case because Quenneville inexplicably decided to put him at wing. By having Vermette in the lineup and at center, the correct position, Andrew Shaw is moved to the wing where he has been his most effective throughout his career with the Blackhawks. As a wing, Shaw is able to be more involved on the forecheck and doesn’t need to take faceoffs. After acquiring Vermette back in March, the Hawks had Shaw on the wing and he instantly started playing his best hockey of the year. Go figure!

I am extremely hopeful that Quenneville will come to his senses and put the playoff experienced, veteran center Antoine Vermette back in the lineup for Game Two. Better yet, maybe he’ll still play him tomorrow and hope that these last two practices served as a “wake-up call” for Vermette who really does need to step up his game. Best case scenario, the lines for Game One would be Sharp-Toews-Hossa, Saad-Vermette-Kane, Versteeg-Richards-Bickell, Shaw-Kruger-Teravainen.

I’m not saying that the Blackhawks can’t win with the current line combinations, but I also think they’d be a lot better off with Vermette in the lineup on a nightly basis.

This series has the potential to be a really good one. In the end though, I think the Blackhawks are simply too deep and have too much offense (provided they start clicking) for Nashville to handle in a seven game series. I also think that the Blackhawks’ defense and goaltending will triumph over the Nashville forwards.

I hope I’m right…

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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.

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.

Hawks get Vermette

imageThe Blackhawks have traded Klas Dahlbeck and this year’s 1st round pick to Arizona for Antoine Vermette. Vermette, a center, is a career 58% at the faceoff dot and figures to be a big addition to the Hawks’ special teams.

Dahlbeck was one of the Blackhawks’ top prospects, but Bowman realizes the time is now to try and win the Cup. Also, you can count on the Hawks acquiring a 1st round pick this summer when they inevitably trade a Sharp, so don’t freak over that.

Vermette will probably/hopefully be placed on the team’s second line, moving Richards to the third and Shaw to the wing where he belongs. Ideally, the lines will look like this:

Saad-Toews-Hossa

Sharp-Vermette-Versteeg

Shaw-Richards-Teravainen

Smith-Kruger-Bickell

You might even switch Versteeg and Teravainen. Teuvo and Sharp on a line centered by Vermette sounds very intriguing. Also, all of a sudden the Hawks have some nice depth. If they manage to get deep enough into the playoffs where Kane can come back, they are going to be loaded.

Let’s hope we witness that.

Blackhawks acquire Timonen, but may not be done

15-_DSC2491-toresizeFriday night the Blackhawks traded for 39 year old Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen in exchange for a couple of draft picks, including this year’s 2nd round pick. The Hawks badly needed to upgrade their blue line before the trade deadline came and went, and it appears that they have done so. It all depends on Timonen’s health, however.

Kimmo Timonen, a 5-time NHL All Star and 4-time Olympian (Finland), has yet to play in a game this season. Last summer, blood clots were discovered in his right leg and both lungs, which kept him off the ice for quite some time. Since being cleared to resume hockey activities, Timonen had been practicing with the Flyers and was apparently ready to start playing in games again as of Friday. He was supposed to be back in the Flyers’ lineup tonight as a matter of fact, and is likely to be in the Hawks’ lineup on Monday.

In a phone conference after learning that he had been traded to the Hawks, Timonen said that his one goal in returning to play hockey this season is to win the Stanley Cup. That’s it. He also made it clear that it may take him a few games to really get back into “game shape” and back to the level of playing that he is used to. That should come as no surprise.

While we were all anticipating Stan Bowman to acquire a defenseman before the trade deadline on Monday, Kimmo Timonen’s name was not often mentioned as a possible target of the Hawks. Now that the deal is done, let’s take a look at what the Hawks got:

  • I’m guessing most people’s first reaction to the trade was “He’s 39!?” Or something along those lines. The answer is yes, but don’t be discouraged by that. People close to him have commented that “he’s in the best shape of his life.”
  • Timonen was once one of the NHL’s elite defenseman with the Predators and Flyers. He is, as mentioned before, a 5-time All Star and 4-time Olympian. He had, and still has, incredible skating ability and great offensive and defensive awareness.
  • His game is more of an offensive style, which fits perfectly with the way that the Blackhawks play. They can easily use him on the second d-pairing if they want (or third when Oduya comes back), and the powerplay. He is another good left-handed shot from the point.
  • Despite being 39, age has not really caught up with Timonen the way it does with most aging players. He isn’t what he once was, but he’s not that far off either. He can still out-skate a lot of guys in the NHL.
  • He is a great presence in any locker room and is yet another leader we can add to the roster.
  • Timonen carries a 1-year, $2 million dollar contract with him and has already stated he is going to retire after this season.

To sum it all up, even though he has yet to play this season, Timonen was a great acquisition for this specific team. Obviously the ultimate decision on this move can’t be made until we see how he performs, but all signs look good at this point.

By getting Timonen, the Hawks now have at least four reliable defensemen on the roster. Maybe even five if Oduya can get back to the way he was playing the last two years. Adding Timonen now also allows Quenneville to reunite Seabrook and Keith on the team’s top d-pairing. That pair is often regarded as one of the best in hockey.

With Trevor van Riemsdyk getting set to return to the Hawks sometime very soon, the defense doesn’t look all that bad suddenly (it’s worth noting that the Hawks placed Tim Erixon on waivers today and sent Kyle Cumiskey back down to Rockford). If the Blackhawks can enter the playoffs with a trio of d-pairings that looks something like Keith-Seabrook, Hjalmarsson-Timonen, Oduya-TVR, I’d be quite happy. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be that way barring another injury.

In other news, it sounds as though Bowman isn’t done trading yet. He told reporters that he would still like to add another forward via trade by Monday. The team still has roughly 4-5 million dollars in cap space, and it appears they are intent on taking advantage of that.

Antoine Vermette and Curtis Glencross have both been heavily linked to the Hawks in trade rumors over the past few days. Vermette, a center, would be the better option of the two. He is a two-way player, is great at the faceoff dot, and would be a great add to a Blackhawks team that could use another center. I’m not so sure that the Blackhawks’ centers (aside from Toews) could truly compete with the centers of the Kings, Ducks, and even Blues as the roster stands right now. With Brad Richards’ decline in performance over the past couple months, it would be great to add a younger and bigger centerman to the Hawks’ second line. This would allow them to demote Richards to the third line and move Shaw his natural wing position, which happens to be where he is most valuable as well.

As for Glencross, he’s got a lot of talent and skill, but he’s a left winger, and the Hawks really don’t need another wing. Obviously the more scoring potential on the roster the better, but when it comes down to Vermette and Glencross, Vermette would be the better fit. Especially if/when Kane comes back in the playoffs.

There are also A LOT of Patrick Sharp rumors out there right now. And by rumors, I mean hockey rumors, and non-hockey rumors… Supposedly the Hawks have had trade discussions with Detroit, Montreal, and Washington regarding Sharp. That was reported by a number of NHL reporters and writers. At the same time, however, Sharp’s agent is claiming that the Hawks told him Sharp will not be dealt by the trade deadline. With Kane now out, I think it would be smart to hang onto Sharp unless they’re getting a top 6 forward in return.

As for the non-hockey rumors surrounding Patrick Sharp, they’ve actually been there since last year, but only now is the average fan finding out about them. If I can say one thing, it’s this: Be cautious with what you believe. There are a lot of rumors out there right now, leading me to think that something did in fact happen, but I’m also being real careful with what I choose to see as facts. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire, but just how big of a fire? Until that information is leaked and confirmed, take the rumors with a grain of salt. Don’t believe everything you read. If the situation inside the locker room is really as bad as some are making it sound, I think we see Sharp get traded by the deadline. Keep in mind though that this supposed “stuff” was already there before the season even started. It didn’t just happen in the last week.

That’s all for now. The next 48 hours should be fun.

Kane to LTIR; All eyes on Stan Bowman

15-_DSC2491-toresizeTuesday, February 24, 2015 will forever be one of the worst days/nights in Chicago sports. During the first period of the Blackhawks’ tilt with the Florida Panthers, NHL points leader Patrick Kane was cross checked from behind and fell awkwardly into the boards. It was instantly obvious that he severely injured his left arm in some way. Then about two hours later, news broke that Derrick Rose had re-torn the meniscus in his right knee. Both are expected to miss a lot of time. While the Rose injury is definitely sad and horrible for him and the Bulls, I’ll only focus on Kane and the Hawks here.

It was reported today that the Blackhawks are expecting Kane to miss somewhere near 10 weeks. The details of the injury are still not completely known, but it is certain that he’ll be out for some time. This prompted the Hawks to place Kane on long term injured reserve (LTIR). By doing this, Patrick Kane’s salary no longer counts towards the Hawks’ salary cap.

Also in response to Kane’s injury, the Hawks recalled Teuvo Teravainen back up from Rockford. He had just been sent down not long ago.

Meanwhile, Stan Bowman and the Hawks are presumably still looking to acquire a defenseman before the March 2nd trade deadline.

So, clearly a lot to digest here. Let’s start with Stan Bowman and the trade deadline.

With Kane now out of the lineup until possibly the playoffs, the Blackhawks have a big hole to fill on the roster. Since Kane has been placed on LTIR and his salary no longer counts towards the Hawks’ cap hit, the team has roughly 5 million dollars that they could theoretically spend on new acquisitions. These possible acquisitions would have to be guys who currently have a contract that expires this summer, basically making them rental players. Another thing to note is that the league salary cap disappears in the playoffs, meaning Kane could return in the postseason and his contract wouldn’t mean a thing to the team’s cap hit.

A few names come to mind regarding forwards the Hawks should/could look to target. The first, and maybe the biggest, is that of Antoine Vermette. Vermette is a 6’1″, 198 pound center and currently plays for the Arizona Coyotes. He has a $3.75 million dollar cap hit, which may be a bit higher than the Hawks would like, and is a free agent this summer. He would fit real nice with the Hawks. Last season, he finished with 24 goals and 21 assists, and also won over 56% of his faceoffs. This year he has 13 goals, 22 assists, and is still winning 56% of his draws. Brad Richards has not really performed the way a true number two center should, and Andrew Shaw is really not a center. Adding another real center to the lineup (besides Toews) who wins faceoffs with regularity would be big, especially when you consider the quality of centers the Hawks will face in the playoffs.

Another name is Curtis Glencross, who I’ve talked about before so I won’t get into too much detail about him again. Glencross is a two time 20 goal scorer with speed. The way he plays would fit well with the style the Hawks like to play.

Two other names that I was going to mention were Daniel Winnik and Jirri Tlusty. However, both were just traded within the last hour, so that eliminates those two options for the Hawks. The fact that both guys were just traded (the day after Kane gets hurt) makes me believe that Stan Bowman needs to act quickly to make a deal. Teams know that the Hawks might be looking for a replacement for Kane, and therefore they are ramping up their pursuit of additional forwards.

Aside from looking to fill Kane’s hole in the lineup, the Hawks still need another defenseman. In fact, they need a defenseman more than they need a forward to replace Kane. It has been reported that they are actually looking into Andrej Sekera of the Carolina Hurricanes, who I have also recently talked about in a previous blog or two. If they can land Sekera, that would be really big. Jeff Petry has also been linked to the Hawks within the last day or so. Like Sekera, I wrote about Petry not long ago, so look at my previous posts for information on him.

Of course, if the Hawks trade for anyone, it will come at a price. Whether that price is Patrick Sharp, Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell, or Antti Raanta, as well as prospects/picks, someone is likely leaving town. Just keep that in mind. There have also been rumors surfacing that there is some disfunction in the Hawks’ locker room right now, and some people believe Patrick Sharp is the source. Whether or not that’s true, who knows. If it is true, he may be the man on his way out.

I mentioned earlier that Teuvo Teravainen was brought back up from Rockford today to fill the empty roster spot left by Kane. Despite everything I just said about the Hawks looking to trade for a forward, this may be Teravainen’s time to shine. The sole reason that he was sent down to Rockford recently (according to Quenneville) was because there was no room for him on either of the top two lines for the Hawks. Well, now there’s a glaring hole at right wing, Teuvo’s natural position, on the team’s second line. I would imagine he’ll slot right into that spot in the lineup and be given the chance to earn a spot on the playoff roster. At the same time, the Blackhawks may be looking to trade for someone to fill that spot. If it were up to me, I’d set my sights on Vermette (who would likely center the second line, thus still leaving right wing open for Tevuo) and Andrej Sekera. Sekera should be priority number one. If you can’t get Vermette, then don’t trade for a forward at all.

Everything just got extremely interesting with the Hawks now that Kane is out. A defenseman should be their top priority, but if they can get an Antoine Vermette as well, go for it. If that happens, and you then add Kane back into the lineup for the playoffs, we’re looking at a pretty good team.

Update: Andrej Sekera has just been dealt to the Kings. So there goes that. The clock is ticking for Bowman and the Hawks.