Post Trade Deadline Blackhawks Update

Yes, I’m still alive and well here. I know you’ve been worried. You know who else is alive and well? The Blackhawks. They are winners of seven straight games, and have won their last eight road games, which is a new franchise record. They also sit second in the Central Division while owning the league’s third highest point total (89). In a season that I and many others viewed as a stepping stone toward competing for the Cup again in the next two years, the Hawks have, to this point, shocked me.

Coming into this 2016-17 season, it was well known that the Blackhawks were going to have to play multiple rookies each and every night thanks in large part to the salary cap. As has been the case for the last 7-8 years, the Hawks are tight up against the league’s cap due to the fact that they have to pay high annual salaries to some of the NHL’s best players. The only difference this year, however, is that rather than being able to sign some veteran players to cheap one-year deals, the Hawks were forced to build their depth from within their own organization. Enter the likes of Ryan Hartman, Tanner Kero, Nick Schmaltz, Dennis Rasmussen, and Michal Kempny (signed as a free agent last summer).

You never want to have to place a lot of faith and confidence in a bunch of rookies to help guide your team to the postseason. There is simply too much of the “unknown factor” that comes into play in that scenario. There’s no telling how a rookie or other relatively inexperienced players will handle the pressure of being asked to produce right off the bat. That becomes even more true in the playoffs when the intensity on the ice and in the stands rises to levels that cannot be duplicated in the AHL or junior leagues.

However, the Blackhawks’ rookies have exceeded expectations thus far, and that’s an understatement. Ryan Hartman (15G, 11A) is making this city forget about Andrew Shaw. He’s producing offensively, he has been responsible defensively, and he brings some size and grit that can prove to be quite valuable in May and June.

Tanner Kero, while not a big generator of offense, is becoming Marcus Kruger 2.0. His value on the penalty kill has grown all season.

Nick Schmaltz got off to a slow start back in the fall and was sent down to Rockford to gain confidence and work on shooting more often, and ever since being brought back up to the NHL he has been an entirely different player and now sees time on the team’s first line alongside Jonathan Toews when everyone is healthy.

Heading into the trade deadline, it was clear that the Hawks could have used a top six winger, preferably LW, to play on Toews’ left, but again the salary cap (amongst other reasons) prevented that from happening. While Schmaltz has played well lately, I’m not sure he’s the permanent answer for that top line spot. In the playoffs, you want a guy with some experience to be playing in a role like that.

The Blackhawks did, however, reacquire Johnny Oduya prior to the trade deadline passing. This could potentially be a huge move. With Oduya now back in play for the Hawks, they can roll out the exact same top four defensemen that we saw during the 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup runs. All of a sudden, the Hawks’ defensive corps is one of the strongest in the league heading into March and April.

So overall, here are some of my key observations as we near the end of the season and the beginning of the playoffs:

  • Depth. The Hawks seem to have it. As I stated, the rookies are all playing quite well and are either meeting or exceeding expectations. Depth, and goaltending, are the single biggest factors come playoff time.
  • Speaking of goaltending…Goaltending. Once again Crawford and Darling are both playing like No. 1 netminders. It’s Crawford’s job without question, but in case of an injury or a sudden drop in his performance, it’s good knowing Darling is there waiting in the wings.
  • Defense. This might be the strongest group of defensmen that the Blackhawks have had in quite some time. Not only do they have an elite top four with the addition of Oduya, but their fifth and sixth d-men (Campbell, TVR, Kempny, Rozsival) are strong and reliable as well, especially when playing bottom-pairing minutes.
  • Richard Panik. Here’s a guy who was hardly seeing ice time with the Maple Leafs before getting dealt to the Hawks last season, and now he’s playing right wing on the first line with Jonathan Toews. He sits seventh on the team in points (17G, 19A). If he can keep up this level of play in the playoffs, that will be huge.
  • Special Teams. It’s obvious, but the Hawks need to be better here. The penalty kill is substantially better than it was at the beginning of the year (especially with Oduya now in the mix), but it can still be better. As for the powerplay, it should be a top ten powerplay with the amount of talent on the Hawks’ roster. To win in the playoffs, you need a strong PK and a powerplay that will make the opponent pay for its mistake(s).
  • And lastly, Health. The Hawks cannot afford to keep getting bit by the injury bug come playoff time. A sidelined Toews, Kane, Panarin, Keith, Hjalmarsson, or Hossa could be detrimental to this team’s Stanley Cup hopes.

I’ll say it again. I’ve been extremely surprised by the Blackhawks this season. I honestly believe that what we’re seeing is a result, to some degree, of getting an entire summer of rest last year. Just look at Marian Hossa for proof. This team is skating with energy and seemingly a full tank of gas right now, which is something we did not see at this same time of year last season. Exiting after the first round last April could very well have been a massive blessing in disguise.

Moving forward, I think this team has the potential to win the Western Conference and play for their fourth Stanley Cup since 2010. I also believe that the Blackhawks could be knocked out as early as the second round of the playoffs. It will all come down to their depth, which right now seems to be good. But, anything can happen, and that is especially true when talking about a team with multiple rookies in its lineup on a nightly basis.

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Previewing the Blackhawks’ Potential First Round Playoff Mathups

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at St. Louis BluesHeading into Tuesday night’s matchup between the Blackhawks and Coyotes at the United Center, the Hawks sit third in the Central Division with 99 points, while the Stars and Blues are tied atop the division with 105. The Blackhawks do have a game in-hand on both Dallas and St. Louis, but that won’t matter unless the Hawks get two points against Arizona. Given how the standings currently look, let’s breakdown who the Hawks may meet in the first round of the playoffs, and who they should prefer to meet.

We’ll start with Dallas.

If the playoffs started today, we would see a St. Louis – Chicago showdown in the first round. With the Blues and Stars tied for the top spot in the Central and each with two games left on their schedules, a lot can still take place, however. Heck, even the Hawks aren’t mathematically eliminated from winning the division. If St. Louis were to end up taking the division title, we would get a Stars – Blackhawks first round series.

This regular season, the Hawks went 1-4 against Dallas, and all of their losses were of the ugly sort. Needless to say, the Stars gave the Blackhawks some problems this year. While some may be inclined to think much of the same would occur in a playoff series between the two teams, that won’t exactly be the case.

Dallas is the league’s best offensive team with two of the game’s best scorers in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. They’ve also got the likes of Patrick Sharp, Jason Spezza, and even John Klingberg, who developed into one of the NHL’s best offensive d-men this year. They are a deep team at forward and can roll four lines rather effectively.

Defensively, Dallas has some depth as well. The emergence of Klingberg as an elite offensive defenseman has been huge for the Stars, as has the addition of defensive specialist Johnny Oduya. Jason Demers is expected to be out of the lineup for a couple more weeks with a shoulder injury, and when he returns, Dallas has three decent defensive pairings.

The Stars’ biggest knock is their ability, or sometimes lack thereof, to keep pucks out of their own net. While their defense is built with recognizable names, they aren’t exactly the best group when it comes to actually playing defense. Like Klingberg, this is a defensive unit that is stronger in the offensive zone than they are in the defensive zone more often than not. Add in their goaltending, which ranks in the bottom five in total save percentage and allows an average of 2.80 goals per game, and you begin to understand that this is purely an offensive team.

Dallas ranks fourth in the NHL in CorsiFor (CF%) percentage (number of shot attempts a team generates, whether on goal or not, compared to their opponent), which means they’re a team that plays with possession of the puck more frequently than they do not. This is just how they want it given their issues defensively and in net.

In a potential Blackhawks – Stars series, the key for each team would become puck possession. The Stars need the puck so that their offensive weapons can do their thing. The Blackhawks, on the other hand, would need the puck to prevent the Stars’ forwards from doing what they do best: scoring goals. While the Hawks rank in the middle of the pack in CF%, they still own the ability to be one of the league’s best puck possession teams. Given how the Blackhawks seem to dial up their intensity come playoff time, it’s not out of the question that they could be the better possession team in this potential series.

As for St. Louis, they are somewhat the opposite of Dallas in terms of their team strengths.

Unlike the Stars, the Blues pride themselves on defense and goaltending. That is why they rank fifth league-wide in fewest goals against per game, and first in team save percentage. Their defense is led by a top four that is very solid in the defensive zone, unlike Dallas, who have two goalies behind them in Brian Elliott and Jake Allen that both own save percentages in the .920’s. Defense is without question the strength of the Blues.

Aside from the strong defensive capabilities, this team also ranks top ten in CF%. It’s a tough combination to try and go up against. However, despite the strong possession and Corsi numbers, St. Louis is 14th in goals per game. Therein lies their biggest problem.

It seems to be the case every year with the Blues: they have a strong defensive team, but not enough offensive firepower to advance deep into the postseason. You can rank as high as you want in CF%, but if you’re not putting the puck in the net, it will eventually come back to bite you. Granted, the Blues are in the top half of the league in goals per game, but their offensive depth is what could hurt them yet again.

When you look at their individual statistics, Vladimir Tarasenko leads the team with 71 points. Next is Alex Steen with 51, followed by three players in the 40s. Their bottom two lines are not very productive offensively, which usually spells trouble in the playoffs. It is due to this weakness that the Blues have not made it past the second round of the playoffs in any of the previous four seasons, while being eliminated in the first round each of the past three years. Obviously anything could theoretically happen this time around, but the 2015-16 Blues look, on paper, awfully similar to the previous four Blues teams to have made the postseason only to be quickly eliminated.

So looking at the two most likely candidates to face the Blackhawks in the first round, which one should the Hawks prefer?

While I hate “wishing” for a specific opponent (that usually ends poorly), I believe the Blackhawks would be better off getting the Blues in round one. Here’s why:

  1. The Hawks defense can be vulnerable, to say the least. Losing Johnny Oduya was a killer, and the Hawks are still trying to find his replacement on the team’s second d-pairing. Also, Corey Crawford has missed the last 9 games due to injury. Although he is expected back for Game 1 of the first round, who knows how much rust he’ll have to clean off himself. Given those two factors and the fact that Dallas is league’s best offensive team, I’d rather go up against a team like the Blues that isn’t as offensively strong. The Blackhawks’ offense and depth can be good enough to beat a solid defensive team.
  2. There is a certain “familiarity” that the Blackhawks have with the Blues. They’ve recently gone up against each other in the playoffs and know the tendencies that the Blues have on both sides of the puck. Joel Quenneville is no stranger to playing the matchup game against Ken Hitchcock, and he usually wins that battle. Bottom line here is that it would be easier for the Hawks to draw up a gameplan against the Blues than it would be to draw one up against a Stars team that despite playing in the same division, the Hawks are not as familiar with.
  3. Lastly, and feel free to take this one for whatever it may or may not be worth, the Stars have owned the Blackhawks this season. They have a 4-1 record against the Hawks and made Chicago look relatively bad in each of those four Dallas victories. Needless to say, the Stars would head into a series against the Blackhawks with loads of confidence. Again, that might not even be a factor, especially against a Hawks team that could care less about what happened in the regular season, but you never know. The Stars going 4-1 against the Hawks this year has to mean something, even if only a little.

There are pros and cons to playing the Blues and Stars in a seven game series. All I’m doing here is trying to highlight those factors and determine which ones are more important than the others when looking at potential playoff matchups.

With just three games left for the Blackhawks (2 for both the Blues and Stars), the Hawks’ best hope is to win out and have both St. Louis and Dallas lose their last two games. This would vault the Hawks into first in the division and guarantee them home ice advantage for at least the first two rounds. The next best option is to have the Blackhawks win their last three games, while just one of St. Louis or Dallas lose their final two. This would allow the Hawks to finish second in the Central and have home ice in round one. Keep in mind that the Blackhawks play the Blues on Thursday, and then St. Louis finishes their schedule at home against the Capitals. If both St. Louis and Dallas win just one more game, however, or if the Hawks lose one, the Hawks are guaranteed third place.

The push for a better playoff seed begins Tuesday night against Arizona for the Blackhawks. Marian Hossa, Andrew Shaw, and Corey Crawford are all out due to injury, while Duncan Keith serves the third game of his six-game suspension.

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.

NHL salary cap set: let the trades begin

1383642_616596775058148_1814435643_nThis morning, the NHL announced that the salary cap for the 2015-16 season will be $71.4 million; about $2.4 million higher than this past season. This is decent news for the Blackhawks because they need the cap to go up as much as possible if they want to retain players like Saad and Kruger, among others, for next season. Had the cap been any lower than $71 million for this upcoming season, it would have been a big disappointment for many teams like the Hawks.

What the announcement of next season’s cap means is that trades and other moves will begin to take place, and in a hurry. Odds are that not much will happen prior to Wednesday night’s NHL Awards Show in Las Vegas, but who knows? One thing is for sure, and that is that we are bound to see a flurry of trades before the start of the NHL Draft on Friday.

With regards to the Blackhawks, this implies that a big move or two could come between now and Friday. The Blackhawks traded away a number of draft pick for this year’s draft back at the trade deadline a few months ago, and odds are that they’ll be looking to acquire some picks heading into the draft of Friday. To get those picks, they will most likely be looking to dump at least one big salary.

Patrick Sharp’s name has come up more than just about any player in hockey in recent weeks when discussing possible trades. He is set to make $5.9 million per year over the next two seasons. It’s no secret that the Hawks will be looking to move Sharp in return for some high picks and a prospect, but whether or not they can strike a deal with a team over the next 72 hours remains to be seen. I don’t think any of us Hawks fans want to see Sharp go, but it is a move that has to be done. Brandon Saad is a huge part of this team’s future, and really the only way to give him a contract that he deserves is by moving a player with a big annual salary like Sharp.

Other candidates to be traded out of Chicago are Bryan Bickell, and possibly even (but not likely) Brent Seabrook and/or Corey Crawford. All three players have big annual salaries and would bring a lot back to the Hawks if traded. Odds are that both Seabrook and Crawford go nowhere, but their names have been mentioned in trade rumors.

The ideal scenario would be if Stan Bowman could find a buyer for Bryan Bickell. Bickell is set to make $4.5 million annually for the next two years, which is way too much money. Why Bowman ever inked Bickell to such a deal, I don’t know. It was probably a knee-jerk reaction to the way Bickell performed over the course of the 2013 playoffs. Trading away Bickell, who is definitely replaceable from within the organization, would free up a lot of cap space and go a long way in re-signing Saad and Kruger first and foremost. If this deal is made, it by no means implies that Sharp won’t be traded. If I had to bet on this, I’d say Sharp is dealt before any other Hawk. Being able to dump Bickell’s salary would just be a bonus to Stan Bowman.

So in summary, here’s what to look for in the next few days:

  • Patrick Sharp being traded away, and probably to an Eastern Conference team, in exchange for a first round pick in this year’s draft and a good prospect or two.
  • Maybe even a Bryan Bickell trade if Bowman can work magic. Bickell would likely bring in a couple 2nd-4th round draft picks and nothing more, especially if another team agrees to take on the majority of his contract.
  • We may see the names Seabrook and Crawford float around in the rumor mill, but I wouldn’t expect either one to go anywhere.
  • Once Sharp and anyone else are dealt, extensions for Brandon Saad and Marcus Kruger should follow shortly thereafter.

Stay tuned.

Blackhawks are true champions

10-171460575-smallFor the third time in six seasons, the Blackhawks can call themselves Stanley Cup champions. With their impressive 2-0 shutout victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night, the Hawks have cemented themselves as the greatest NHL team of the salary cap era, and some people are choosing to use the word “dynasty.” Whether or not you agree with that label is a discussion for another day. For now, let’s just focus on how great, fun, exciting, legendary, etc., this team is.

The pursuit of this Stanley Cup victory really began as soon as the L.A. Kings knocked the Hawks out of the playoffs last season in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Final. The Blackhawks were one shot, one goal away from advancing to the Stanley Cup where anything could have happened. Instead, they were sent packing far too early for their liking. A bad taste was left in their mouth, and an even stronger hunger left in their minds to get right back to that same spot and change the outcome. They did just that this go around by defeating the Anaheim Ducks in Game 7 of this year’s WCF.

Once they reached the Stanley Cup Final just a couple of weeks ago, this team knew that they would not walk away empty handed again. They had too much reason and too much desire to let that happen. Essentially, the Blackhawks knew that they would win the Cup this year, only they’ll never tell us that.

As if losing to the Kings last spring wasn’t enough motivation, the Hawks received plenty more of it this year that propelled them to winning a third Cup in six years. They endured one of the toughest regular seasons a team could possibly imagine. Just before Christmas, they lost their assistant equipment manager, Clint Reif, to an all too sudden death. The players and coaches all considered him to be just as much a part of that team as anyone else, and his loss hit the Hawks harder than any of us can imagine. Then not long after, former teammate Steve Montador suddenly passed away, again pushing the players’ emotional capacities to the limit.

This team was already on a mission to win the Cup this year to avenge their Game 7 loss last year. After the deaths of two people extremely close to the team, the Blackhawks were not going to be denied the Cup. They were going to win it for those who would not be there to experience it, and they did just that.

Looking back on this playoff run, it’s really amazing to think about how good this year’s Hawks really were. Take this series against the Lightning for example. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp combined for three goals in the series, yet they still won in six games. Contributions were made up and down the lineup to get the Hawks another Cup, whether it was Antoine Vermette, Teuvo Teravainen, Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw, etc. This was a true team full of champions, and now, that’s just what they are.

130107_gq_trout_aDuncan Keith, the unanimous vote-getter for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, put together his best ever stretch of play. He finished the playoffs having played more minutes than anyone else, and it wasn’t even close. Keith finished the postseason with close to ninety more minutes than the next closest player, which is astounding. To add icing on the cake, he scored the game winning goal Monday night.

And how about Corey Crawford? The guy loses his starting job prior to Game 3 of Round 1, only to get it back for Game 6 and never relinquish it. He closed out the playoffs with a shutout to win the Stanley Cup. Had it not been for his early struggles in the first round, Crawford would have had a strong case to be the Conn Smythe winner.

10-171460575-smallAs the seconds ticked down to zero at the end of Game 6 Monday night, it was hard to believe what was happening. For the first time in most of our lifetimes, the Blackhawks were winning the Stanley Cup on home ice in front of their own fans. It was a surreal imagine that I’ll never forget. And although Stanley itself was a little late getting to the party due to sever weather earlier in the evening, it didn’t really matter. The party was on.

Watching Jonathan Toews accept the Stanley Cup from Gary Bettman for the third time, but the first at the U.C., presumably sent chills down the spines of all of Chicago. USP NHL: STANLEY CUP FINAL-TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING AT S HKN USA ILAs Toews then passed the Cup onto Kimmo Timonen, it was tears that took over for the chills. A man who nearly lost his life just a year earlier, who had no clue if he’d ever put on another pair of hockey skates, was holding the greatest trophy in sports above his 40-year old head for the very first and last time. It was truly one of the great moments in Stanley Cup history.

Joel Quenneville solidified himself as one of the single greatest coaches the sport has ever witnessed, winning his third Stanley Cup as the Blackhawks coach. What’s truly remarkable about Quenneville in all of this is that he has now won the Cup here in Chicago with three different coaching staffs. That is a testament to him and to the men he chooses to stand beside him behind the bench.

This year’s Chicago Blackhawks may not have been the best of the three teams they’ve had win the Stanley Cup over the last six years, but they were the toughest. Regardless of what adversity they faced during the regular season and these playoffs, they found a way to overcome it and came out as champions. They started this run five years ago as a bunch of “kids” who were too young and too dumb to realize what they had just done. Now, they are legends who will be looked upon as a modern-day dynasty. For those who just won the Cup for a third time with the Blackhawks, they will forever be the faces of this great organization, and rightfully so. And for a few of them, they’ll be seeing their number hang high above the United Center ice one day, as well as a bronze statue placed outside the stadium for the rest of time.

Enjoy this one, as it may be a while until the Blackhawks ever get back to this point due to imminent salary cap casualties. For now though, the Blackhawks are Stanley Cup champions.

Blackhawks on the verge…again

10-171460575-smallWith Saturday night’s Game 5 victory over the Lightning in Tampa Bay, the Blackhawks have put themselves in position to do something they haven’t done since 1938: win the Stanley Cup on home ice. Saturday night marked the second time in three games that the Blackhawks have defeated Tampa Bay at Amalie Arena, and they did it by playing their best all around game of the series.

The first four games of this Stanley Cup Final saw the Lightning begin each game as the better team, only to have the Blackhawks get better as the game progressed. One could even argue that Tampa Bay was the better team over the course of the first four games. Saturday night’s game flipped the script, however, as the Hawks came out in the first period as the much better team. They dominated in Corsi, ending the period with a 26-14 15-_DSC2491-toresizeadvantage, and also led in shots 14-5. The first period ended with the Blackhawks also winning on the scoreboard by a score of 1-0 thanks to a major mishap between Ben Bishop and Victor Hedman.

Over the years, the Blackhawks have shown that they know how to take their game to that next level when they need to. They know when they have the chance to put their foot on their opponent’s neck, and they always seem to do so. Saturday night was no different. With the series tied 2-2, the winner moving to within one victory of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup, the Hawks knew it was time to elevate their game and scratch out a win. Add in the fact that a win in Game 5 would mean a chance to lift the Cup on home ice in Game 6, and that team had more motivation to play their best than they probably knew what to do with.

So that’s where we’re at now. The series headed back to Chicago and the Blackhawks knowing that with a win Monday night, they’ll be celebrating a championship on home ice for the first time in 77 years.

Here’s what needs to happen in Game 6 to ensure that the aforementioned does take place:

  • Get another great start. For the first time in this series, the Hawks were the better team in the first period during Game 5. This needs to happen again in Game 6. The United Center is going to be absolutely insane with noise, and the Hawks players need to feed off of that right from the get go. Getting a quick one or two (can we dream?) goal lead would be huge and put the Lightning in a very tough spot.
  • Keep it up Crawford. Corey Crawford has arguably been the MVP of this series, and he turned in yet another fantastic performance Saturday night. He definitely seems to have a boat load of confidence right now and is playing his best hockey of the year. With Tampa Bay likely to come out in full desperation mode, Crawford should expect to be tested with some quality scoring chances. It will be on him to make the necessary saves and some “highlight reel” saves.
  • Solid PK. The Blackhawks’ penalty kill has been rather brilliant against the Lightning. They’ve killed off 12 of the 13 penalties that they have taken in this series, which is a huge reason they are now one win away from clinching. Maintaining a solid PK Monday night will once again be large if they can do so. The United Center crowd thrives on successful penalty kills, which lends some momentum to the home team.
  • Star time. The fact that the Blackhawks are one win away from lifting the Stanley Cup without Patrick Kane or Marian Hossa scoring a single goal in this series is remarkable. Heck, Jonathan Toews only has one goal, as does Patrick Sharp. This speaks volumes about the depth of the Blackhawks. However, maybe now is the time for the stars of this team to make their mark. It’s never too late for Showtime.
  • Zone exits. The Blackhawks have been having a really tough time clearing the puck out of their own zone against the Lightning. Tampa Bay does an exceptional job of clogging the boards and not allowing the Hawks to get the puck out of the zone that way. This has led to numerous defensive zone turnovers and subsequent scoring chances for the Lightning. It is imperative that the Blackhawks find a way to get the puck out of their zone successfully in Game 6. Whether it’s using the middle of the ice, flipping the puck high into the air and out of the zone, or literally anything that may work, the Hawks need to do it because using the boards as a way of clearing the zone is not working.
  • Lastly, the Big Four. The top four d-men of the Hawks (Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya) have all played very heavy minutes ever since the beginning of the Western Conference Final. This is well documented. Game 5 was possibly their best performance of this series, especially for Niklas Hjalmarsson. If these guys can put together just one more great game and leave it all on the ice, the Hawks should be in good shape. With the Stanley Cup on the line, I’m confident this will be the case.

The Hawks are 9-0 in Game 6’s under Joel Quenneville. That is absolutely remarkable, but also somewhat of a meaningless stat at this point as each game and each series is different. What that does say, however, is that this team knows how to close out a series when given the chance. This is a cold blooded team that does not often give their opponent second chances. Knowing full well that with a win they can celebrate the Cup on their home ice with their own fans, it would be silly to think the Blackhawks won’t be completely amped up and ready to go Monday night.

Having already won two Cups in the last six years, the Hawks know how to prepare for a potential Cup-clinching game like this. When you’ve got guys like Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, and so on, you know you’ll be prepared and solely focused on the task at hand.

I am expecting the Hawks’ best game of the series in Game 6. I don’t think they’ll let the an opportunity like this pass by without taking advantage of it.

*Also, WIN IT FOR KIMMO!

Disappointing loss in Game 3 for the Blackhawks

15-_DSC2491-toresizeI, for one, felt pretty good about this series after the first two games. The Blackhawks went down to Tampa Bay and took Game 1 thus giving them home ice advantage in the series. They lost the second game, a game which they could have won, but it wasn’t the end of the world. They met their goal by getting at least one victory in Tampa. With the series then headed back here to Chicago where the Hawks have been rather dominant this postseason, I thought it was very possible they could win both games at home to go up 3-1 in the series. Well after last night, that is no longer possible.

Game 3 was a game that the Blackhawks really should have never lost, but they did by a score of 3-2. After Ryan Callahan opened up the scoring early in the first period, the Hawks absolutely dominated the remainder of the period and ended it with 19 shots on goal compared to the Lightning’s 7. In terms of Corsi, the Hawks had a 33-11 advantage after the first period (33 shot attempts to 11). Those are some pretty staggering numbers, yet only Brad Richards was able to find the back of the net for the Hawks through the first 20 minutes and the game was tied at 1 apiece.

It seemed logical to think that the Blackhawks would come out in the second and try to pick up right where they left off in the first, but that didn’t happen. Tampa Bay owned the second period and out-shot the Hawks 17-7. The Lightning did have an extended 5 on 3, which partially led to that shot disparity between the two teams, but they still dominated the whole period. The puck seemingly never left their offensive zone for more than a few seconds at a time, and the Hawks were completely unable to get any sort of momentum going. However, despite their shot advantage and the fact that they had a lengthy 5 on 3 powerplay, Tampa Bay did not score in the period, and it remained 1-1 heading into the third.

Just over four minutes into the third period, Marian Hossa found Brandon Saad wide open in the slot and hit him with a perfect pass to set up a one-timer. Saad made no mistake on the shot and blew it by the glove side of Bishop to put the Hawks in front 2-1.

Then, just 13 seconds after Saad’s goal, Ondrej Palat scored a pretty soft goal at the other end to tie it right back up. Talk about a momentum swing…

For roughly the next 12 minutes, things went back and forth with Tampa Bay getting mostly better chances than the Hawks. Nothing would go in, though, until just over 3 minutes were left in regulation. Victor Hedman carried the puck up the ice and into the offensive zone, weaved through the Hawks’ defenders, then centered a pass from the goal line to Crawford’s right and found the stick of Cedric Paquette who simply redirected it into the empty net. Just like that, 3-2. There would be no “miracle on Madison” in the final minutes of regulation, and the Hawks now find themselves down 2-1 in the series with the Lightning regaining home ice advantage.

This was a game that the Blackhawks had no business losing, making it that much more frustrating. Here’s what I took away from Game 3:

  • After a first period in which the Hawks dominated once allowing Ryan Callahan to score, they only found themselves tied at 1 on the scoreboard. Both Marian Hossa and Teuvo Teravainen had point blank, empty net scoring chances in the period, but neither one hit the net. Granted, Marian Hossa was tripped while attempting the shot, but that’s not a good enough excuse in my mind. Had the Hawks buried either one or both of those chances, there’s a real possibility that we’re talking about a victory right now rather than a loss.
  • Staying with the “dominating first period” theme, the fact that the Hawks came out as flat as they did in the second was mind blowing to me. They had Tampa Bay on the ropes after the opening 20, and then let them back in it in the second frame.
  • What in the world is going on with Ben Bishop? He and Jon Cooper insist that he’s fine and that he’s capable of playing, but the eye test would say otherwise. Yes, Bishop did end up with a 36-save victory, but the Blackhawks never really tested him as much as they should have. Joel Quenneville said so following the game Monday night. It’s pretty evident that Bishop is having some serious trouble moving side to side, specifically right to left, yet the Blackhawks never were able to establish enough offensive zone time to test him with those movements. If Bishop plays again in Game 4, it would be wise of the Blackhawks to test him early and often.
  • 15-_DSC2491-toresizeThe star players of the Hawks need to start showing up on the score sheet. Last night, the first line of Saad, Toews, and Hossa was extremely good and even registered a goal (Saad). Having said that, guys like Toews, Kane, Hossa, and Sharp have got to start finding the back of the net or at least begin creating goals for other linemates. The Blackhawks will not win this series without those guys producing. I also believe that if those guys do begin scoring, the Hawks will not lose this series. If you recall, Toews and Kane did a whole lot of nothing in games 1-3 in each of their previous two Stanley Cup Final appearances. Then in games 4-6, they dominated. Hopefully history repeats itself.
  • Monday night’s loss marked the TENTH time this postseason that the Blackhawks have allowed a goal less than two minutes after scoring one themselves. Instead of letting up after scoring, it’s about time they do the opposite and go for the kill.
  • Corey Crawford, while not horrible, has not been his best the last two games. He’s got to find a way to keep the goals scored by Callahan and Palat out of the net.
  • Byan Bickell played one of his worst games of the year in Game 3, and that’s saying something. I am all for Quenneville benching him and reinserting Kris Versteeg for Game 4. Versteeg brings speed and energy, both of which fit nicely in this series.
  • Lastly, TVR. I thought van Riemsdyk had and “okay” game Monday night, as Quenneville would say. He made some real nice passes and plays to get out of his own end, but he also turned the puck over a couple times in the defensive zone. Instead of forcing the puck up the boards in an attempt to clear the zone, try looking towards the middle of the ice where there’s less traffic.

While there is no question that Game 3 stung, this is only a 2-1 series right now. The Hawks can still even this thing up Wednesday night. There is no denying that they cannot afford to lose Game 4, so I would expect to see the Hawks’ best effort of the series so far. Jonathan Toews has said a couple of times recently that the Hawks seem to play their best hockey when they are backed up against a wall. Well, I’d consider their backs to be against the wall now.

If the Hawks can pull out a win in Game 4, they’ll head back to Tampa Bay where the Lightning have been very disappointing this postseason. They are a weak 6-6 at home during the playoffs. This series is far from over, but a Hawks victory is imperative Wednesday night.