That’s more like it

1306350614After suffering disappointing and bad losses to the Lightning and Wild in consecutive games, the Blackhawks got back on track last night with a 5-1 victory in Minnesota over the Wild. It took the Hawks a couple periods to really get going, but the end result was very satisfying. After two periods the Blackhawks led by a score of 3-1, and everyone was anxious to see if they could finally pull away from their opponent and seal the deal in the third period. Well, they did, and they did it with an exclamation point.

Sharp, Brookbank, and Leddy accounted for the Hawks’ first three goals last night, with Leddy’s coming on the powerplay. Then just under three minutes into the third, Brandon Saad pulled of a beautiful spin-o-rama, behind the back pass to Patrick Kane that resulted in a tap in goal for Kane. Easily the prettiest goal of the year up to this point for the Blackhawks. About six minutes after that, it was Brandon Saad again, this time scoring his own highlight reel goal after receiving a perfect pass from Duncan Keith. This put the Hawks up 5-1, and it remained that way for the rest of the game.

So here are my observations from last night’s game:

  • Brandon Saad is without a doubt a top six forward on this team. He’s got all kinds of skill, he’s smart, and he is responsible defensively. Looks like he and Kane have developed some chemistry together as well, which never hurts. 
  • Brandon Pirri finally got his first crack at centering the second line with Michal Handzus scratched for the game. I’ve been calling on Quenneville to make this move for a while now, and finally it happened. Pirri finished the game with two assists (all three players on that line had two points in the game), and now has 5 points in 7 games since being brought up to the NHL.
  • Sheldon Brookbank is making a strong case to be the Blackhawks’ number six defenseman. This is three games in a row now that he has played really, really well. His goal last night didn’t hurt either.
  • Corey Crawford had a nice bounce back game after giving up 5 goals to the Wild on Saturday night. He really made some big stops through the first two periods to keep the game close.
  • The powerplay scored again. I believe that’s five straight games now with a powerplay goal. Compare that to last season, and I’ll take it. There are still times when they don’t shoot enough, but last night was better.
  • Banner-Raising-2013-1600Sharp finally scored. He’s got just two goals on the year now, but maybe last night’s goal will get him going. He seems to be a streaky scorer based on his past.

If the Hawks can figure out how to play every game like they did last night, then they should be just fine moving forward.

Getting back to Brandon Pirri, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that as soon as he joined the second line, all three forwards had a great game and totaled six points combined. Michal Handzus, love him or hate him, is not a second line center, especially on this team. He is way too old and slow and doesn’t have the skill. He is good for winning faceoffs and that’s pretty much it. I honestly don’t see a place for him on this team on a nightly basis. He might be okay as a “plug-in” player who might play every 4 games or so, but he’s not good enough to play every game as the Hawks had hoped coming into this season. Guys like Pirri, Smith, and Morin should not be taken out of the lineup to make room for ‘Zus.

Speaking of Jeremy Morin, he has looked really good since being recalled prior to Saturday night’s game. He has really improved his game since last season and looks like he’s here to stay. Brad Mills has also looked good in his first two games with the Hawks. Looks like he may have found a home on the PK with Marcus Kruger.

Tonight, the Blackhawks take on the Senators at the UC. Ottawa is 3-5-2 in their last ten games and has struggled here in the early part of the season. I’m expecting a Hawks’ victory tonight.

That’s all for now.

Blackhawks take four weekend points

184164326_slideOn Friday night, it was the Islanders who tried to take over the United Center. Their mission was unsuccessful as the Blackhawks won that game by a final score of 3-2. Then on Saturday in the second night of back-to-back games for the Hawks, the 0-4-1 Sabres looked to notch their first victory of the season in Chicago, but they came up short as well, losing 2-1. While the Blackhawks only won by one goal in both games, they really outplayed both New York and Buffalo for the majority of their respective games.

The Blackhawks outshot the Islanders 28-19 on Friday night, and really controlled the puck possession for most of the night. Some good goaltending by Kevin Poulin held the Hawks to just 3 goals on the night, but they generated a number of quality scoring chances.

Saturday night was some more of the same by the Blackhawks, as they only won by one goal, but dominated against the Sabres from start to finish. Ryan Miller was fantastic on the night, stopping 38 of the 40 shots that the Blackhawks put on net. At times in this game, the Blackhawks looked like they had one or two extra players on the ice. They had a number of dominating shifts in which the puck stayed in Buffalo’s end for a good 30-60 seconds at a time. Basically, the Hawks were skating circles around the Sabres pretty much the whole night.

182616912_slideNikolai Khabibulin looked good in his first start of the season on Friday night. He stopped 17 of the 19 shots that the Islanders took, and came up with a few huge saves near the end of regulation to secure the Blackhawks’ victory. The only noticeable weak spot with Khabi was his puck-handling behind the net. He had one really bad turnover that nearly resulted in an Islanders goal. All in all though, he looked good.

What had been a major weakness through the first 3 games for the Blackhawks was the opposite in both games this weekend. The Blackhawks’ penalty was a perfect  5 for 5, and they looked pretty decent in killing off all 5 penalties. Still, their penalty kill is a work in progress, but it is definitely progressing.

Michal Handzus, who started as the number two center on Friday, saw his role rapidly decrease as that game moved on. By the end, he was on the fourth line and finished with a total of 9:17 of playing time. Saturday night he was a healthy scratch. This is something to keep an eye on moving forward. Handzus is old and not very skilled. He is not a typical number two center, which is what the Blackhawks have been asking him to be. Because of his lack of speed and skill, he has been dragging down the play of Sharp and Hossa at times on the second line, therefore resulting in his role reduction. If Handzus can’t figure things out, he could find himself with a permanent limited role on this team, similar to Jamal Mayers last season.

Jimmy Hayes was sent back to Rockford late Friday night, and Brandon Pirri was recalled to Chicago. Hayes, who looked great in training camp and the preseason, just didn’t look like the same guy once the regular season started. He has the skill, size, and ability to be a really good power forward in the NHL, but at times it seems as though he’s afraid to be aggressive. He doesn’t seem to use his size to his advantage nearly enough, and that has resulted in him being demoted back to the AHL. However, that’s not the only reason he was sent back down to Rockford.

With the decrease in Handzus’ role over the first four games, the Blackhawks found themselves in need of another center to replace ‘Zus. They therefore brought up Brandon Banner-Raising-2013-1600Pirri, who is much faster and much more skilled than Handzus. In order to make room for Pirri, the Hawks chose to send down Hayes. So while Hayes didn’t impress anyone in the two games that he played, he was also the victim of an unfortunate circumstance in which an open roster spot was needed on the Blackhawks to accommodate Pirri. Watch for Brandon Pirri to slowly work his way into the number two center position between Sharp and Hossa. This is what the Blackhawks ultimately want to have happen, but it is up to Pirri to play his way into that position.

One big positive to take away from the two games over the weekend, and really from all 5 games up to this point, is the Blackhawks’ powerplay. They notched another PP goal against the Sabres, and are now 5-20 on the season (25%). That’s good for 8th in the league. When you compare that to where their PP ended last season and in the playoffs, this is a nice improvement. They are doing a much better job at entering the offensive zone, and they are getting a lot more movement from everyone once they have themselves set up. Last year was a bunch of standing around waiting for the puck. So far this season, guys are a lot more active for the Hawks on the powerplay, and it is helping the results. Hopefully this continues and improves as we progress through the season.

Another positive that I saw from these last two games was the emergence of Joakim Nordstrom. It’s amazing what scoring one goal can do for a guy. Nordstrom scored his first NHL goal on Friday night, and that seemed to give him a world of confidence for the remainder of that game and the next game. He was a lot more patient with the puck and did not hesitate to shoot when he had the chance. This is a real good sign for the Hawks moving forward.

Coming up this week, the Blackhawks head to Carolina on Tuesday night, then come back home for games against St. Louis and Toronto on Thursday and Saturday night, respectively. Dave Bolland will be making his first trip back to Chicago in that game on Saturday night.

Blackhawks’ final roster almost set

11985-statue-of-jesus-rio-de-janeiro-1280x800-world-wallpaperWith just three days remaining until the opening puck drop to the 2013-14 season, the Blackhawks still have some key decisions to make regarding their final roster. Currently, Ben Smith, Jeremy Morin, Jimmy Hayes, Brandon Pirri, Joakim Nordstrom, Michael Kostka, and Ryan Stanton are all battling for the remaining three open spots on the Blackhawks’ roster. All seven of those guys are worthy of playing in the NHL, but only three will begin the season in Chicago.

There has been a lot of talk all summer long about who may get the number two center job with the Blackhawks this year. For a quite a while, it was looking like Brandon Pirri would be the guy. However, it is looking more and more like that potentially may not be the case. While he is certainly still a candidate, other guys like Ben Smith, Joakim Nordstrom, and Michael Kostka are proving this preseason that they belong on the opening night roster. If those three were to make the team, then that leaves Brandon Pirri headed back to Rockford (for now at least). It is possible that the Blackhawks may not keep 8 defensemen on the roster like they have right now. They may choose instead to hang on to 3 forwards, which would be a good thing for Pirri.

As training camp came and went and as the preseason has come and (almost) gone, Joakim Nordstrom has really stood out as the possible replacement to Michael Frolik on the fourth line and top penalty-killing unit. Joel Quenneville has commented that Nordstrom has looked really good on the PK with Kruger, and Kruger has voiced the same opinion. Nordstrom has made it clear that he is willing to do whatever it is going to take to make the team, and right now he seems to be doing the right things. His hustle and defensive awareness have apparently really stood out to the coaching staff.

Right now, I would pencil in Ben Smith and Joakim Nordstrom on the opening night roster. The last open spot will most likely go to either Pirri or Kostka, based on how things have played out this preseason. Personally, I would keep Brandon Pirri on the roster. That would mean that someone like Brandon Bollig would have the be a healthy scratch, but I am okay with that. Pirri is a better all-around player than Bollig.

Regardless of what the Hawks’ coaching staff and management decides to do with the remaining three empty spots on the roster, this is going to be a good team. Almost everyone from last year’s team is back, and the rookies who do make the team should fit in just fine. The Blackhawks’ have done a real good job of developing their minor league prospects in recent years, and because of that they have a number of young guys who are more than capable of playing on the NHL team.

This should be another fun season.