Blackhawks – Lightning: Stanley Cup Final prediction

10-171460575-smallAfter Saturday night’s rather dominating victory over the Ducks in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final, the Blackhawks had punched their ticket to their third Stanley Cup Final appearance in the last six years. No other team in hockey can say they’ve done that. Opposing the Blackhawks will be the Tampa Bay Lightning; a team many had picked to come out of the East well before this season ever began. If a hockey lover could have hand picked their dream Stanley Cup Final, this one may very well have been it. Both teams are highly skilled, fast, exciting, and dress big name players. There aren’t many other matchups that could consist of players such as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Victor Hedman, just to name a few. Just consider ourselves lucky that we get to witness such a star-studded final.

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Let’s start with the Blackhawks. The Hawks come into this year’s SCF after having knocked off the Predators, Wild, and Ducks in the first three rounds. One could argue that the Blackhawks have had to travel the tougher road up to this point, but that’s an argument not worth getting into at the moment.

Up front, the Blackhawks own what many consider to be the deepest group of forwards in the NHL. Their top two lines are nearly unparalleled, and their third line often plays like another top two line. What eventually helped put the Blackhawks over the top against Anaheim was that they kept getting contributions from their bottom two lines. If you look at the seven games that were played in the WCF, the Hawks got continuous scoring and production from those bottom six forwards. Whether it was Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw, Antoine Vermette, or Teuvo Teravainen, those guys kept coming up with big plays and goals. The Ducks simply couldn’t match that. And now that Kane and Toews have been reunited on the top line, the Blackhawks offense has looked nearly unstoppable.

Defensively, a lot has been made of the number of minutes that the Hawks’ top four d-men are playing. Clearly, however, that hasn’t fazed those guys one bit. Duncan Keith is coming off of one of his best ever playoff series, as is Johnny Oduya, and Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson just continue to be themselves and make the big plays offensively and defensively. Not many teams own as solid of a top four as the Blackhawks. Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad both played pretty well in games 6 and 7 against the Ducks, which is a good sign moving forward.

In net, Corey Crawford is back to his 2013 form. He currently owns a .919 save percentage and has single handedly won the Blackhawks a couple of games this postseason. His rebound control has seemingly gotten better and better as these playoffs have progressed, and when he is absorbing the puck like he did in Game 7, for example, it’s tough to score on him.

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As for the Lightning, they were the best offensive team during the regular season, and they haven’t slowed down all that much in the playoffs. They have three players with at least 17 points this postseason, including Tyler Johnson who leads the playoffs with 21. His 12 goals are also a playoff best up to this point. Tampa Bay’s top two lines have been nearly unstoppable for long stretches during these playoffs, and if that continues, they’ll have a chance in this series. The problem with their forwards is their bottom six. Ryan Callahan leads them in points with just 4. To compare, Patrick Sharp leads the Blackhawks’ bottom six with 12. The Lightning absolutely must receive more from their bottom two lines if they want to succeed in this series.

On the back end Tampa owns a pretty solid group of defensemen. Led by their top pairing of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, the Lightning have speed and defensive reliability with most of their d-men. Hedman, Stralman, and Nikita Nesterov all have recorded more points than any of Tampa’s bottom six forwards. This is a defensive group that likes to be active in the offensive zone and tends to take some chances when most wouldn’t anticipate them to. When you take into account their top two lines, the Lightning’s ability to also produce offense from the blue line makes their offense lethal at times.

Between the pipes for Tampa Bay stands Ben Bishop and his 6’7″ frame. His .920 save percentage is one point higher than that of Corey Crawford. Bishop, while he has looked quite “leaky” at times (especially against New York), has also turned in some big time performances. He recorded shutouts in games 5 and 7 against the Rangers, with both of those games being played in New York. That should tell you that this guy doesn’t get easily rattled when under pressure to perform.

THE PREDICTION

This is going to be an extremely fast-paced series featuring two teams that like to play that way. The key to winning will come down to depth and special teams. On the one hand, Chicago has the definite advantage in the depth department. Their bottom two lines have been phenomenal this postseason, and Tampa’s have not. On the other hand, the Lightning have been the better team on both the powerplay and penalty kill thus far.

Even though Tampa Bay has the better special teams (statistically), the Blackhawks are getting just enough production out of theirs to still be successful. Add in Chicago’s depth at forward and the entire team’s level of experience in the Stanley Cup Final, and it’s nearly impossible to pick against them.

Blackhawks in six.

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Here we go again: Game 7

15-_DSC2491-toresizeFor the third straight postseason, the Blackhawks will be playing a Game 7 as they take on the Ducks tonight in Anaheim at 7:00pm CT. Two years ago, it was the Blackhawks defeating the Red Wings in overtime at the United Center to advance to the Western Conference Final. Last year, 363 days ago to be exact, the Kings sent the Hawks home in overtime, yet again, of Game 7 at the United Center. Joel Quenneville recently described that loss as “the worst of our lives.” Tonight, the Blackhawks have the chance to redeem themselves and earn a trip to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in six seasons.

This series between the Ducks and Hawks has been one for the ages. We’ve seen two multiple overtime games, one single overtime game, and three other relatively close games. Each team has one road victory and has proven that they are worthy of winning this series.

For the Blackhawks to win this game, they will need to draw upon the things that they accomplished in their Game 6 victory. Those things, among others, include:

  • Rolling all four lines
  • Getting big performances from the star players
  • Playing responsible, tight defense
  • Winning the board battles
  • Good goaltending from Corey Crawford
  • Playing with energy and intensity

Game 6 was a clinic by the Hawks. They didn’t come out guns blazing like Anaheim was expecting them to. Instead they seemed to sit back, wait for Anaheim to make a mistake, and then pounced. Once they finally “pounced” and scored the game’s first goal, they took their game to the next level and scored two more times within just a few minutes. They earned a 3-0 lead in the game (which was brought to 3-2 by the Ducks) and never looked back. Tonight, we need more of the same.

Scoring first will be big yet again. It isn’t necessarily imperative, but it would sure be nice. Getting the game’s first goal will not only give the Hawks momentum, but it will put the Ducks on their heels and quiet the Anaheim crowd (not that they’re that loud anyways). The Blackhawks are a much better hockey team while playing with the lead than they are when playing catch up.

Quenneville appears to be sticking with his nuclear line of Saad, Toews, and Kane to start the game. This line was rather dominant in Game 6, and there’s no reason why that should change tonight. The only difference now is that Bruce Boudreau and the Ducks will have the last change. Odds are that Boudreau will want Ryan Kesler matched up against the Toews line, which is something he wasn’t able to do very often in Game 6. Kesler was doing an okay job of defending Toews and his mates through the first five games, but with Kane now a part of that trio, it’s a new animal to try and handle. If this line gets off to a good start, things should be looking alright for the Hawks.

The key to tonight’s game could lie with the Blackhawks’ second line of Bickell, Richards, and Hossa. This line had a difficult time getting much going last game (despite producing the Hawks’ second goal) and often found themselves pinned in their own end for long stretches of time. While Hossa is an elite two-way forward, Bickell and Richards are not. It will be key for these guys to put together good shifts and not get stuck playing defense the whole night. Odds are that they will probably see a lot of the Getzlaf-Perry line.

As for the Hawks’ third and fourth lines, those guys continue to put pressure on Andersen and the Ducks’ defense with regularity. Those two lines have come up with a number of big goals in this series, and another one or two (or more) tonight wouldn’t hurt.

Defensively, Duncan Keith will need to dig deep yet again and lead the way. His performance in Game 6 was one for the ages, and if he can do anything close to that again tonight, the Blackhawks will be in good shape.

David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey both turned in good performances last game, and they’ll need to do so again tonight. Granted, Quenneville won’t be able to protect them as much as he could at home by giving them offensive zone starts all the time, but if these two can play solid games, then they’ll have done their job.

In net, Corey Crawford now owns the best save percentage of any goalie to make the Conference Finals. He has turned in clutch performances in big playoff games before, and the Hawks will need him to do it again. Expect the Ducks to come out of the gates going 100 miles per hour tonight, meaning Crawford will have his work cut out for him. It is imperative that he makes some big time saves without letting in any soft goals.

Most seventh games end up being rather low scoring as neither team wants to take too many chances that could lead to disasters going the other way. I’m not saying tonight will be the same, but don’t be surprised if it is. Anticipate seeing both teams play conservative games similar to what you see in overtime. I’ll be shocked if the Ducks try and play a super physical game tonight because that can lead to players being caught out of position. Their goal in being as physical as they were through the first six games was to wear the Blackhawks down for Game 7. Now that we’re at Game 7, the Ducks will probably ease off the physicality aspect of their game with the hopes that their hitting earlier in the series did it’s job (I doubt that it did).

As I am writing this, my heart is already trying to escape my body, and we’re still an hour and a half from puck drop. Game 7’s, while they are the most entertaining games for fans, are the worst for fans of the two teams playing. It is literally three straight hours of feeling like you’re going to throw up. Luckily for us Blackhawks fans, we’ve become quite experienced in these types of huge games (as have the Hawks’ players) and know how to handle them better than most other fan bases.

Given what this roster of Blackhawks players has gone through in past postseasons whether they’ve won or lost, I am confident that they will come out as the more prepared team tonight and deliver a victory.

Takeaways from Blackhawks’ Game 5 loss; Looking ahead

10-171460575-smallThe storylines now surrounding Game 5 between the Blackhawks and Ducks are pretty straight forward and don’t need much more recognition. Anaheim struck three times in the first period to take a 3-0 lead in the game, only to have the Blackhawks come storming back and tie it with less than a minute left in regulation thanks in large part to the miracle that was pulled off by Jonathan Toews. The game would head to overtime, again, and the Ducks’ Matt Beleskey scored the game winner just 45 seconds in. Ducks 5, Blackhawks 4, with the series headed back to Chicago for a now must win Game 6 for the Hawks.

Here’s what you should know about why the Blackhawks lost the pivotal fifth game:

  • First and foremost, that opening period was dreadful. It was probably the single worst period of the season for the Blackhawks. They came out flatter than the Great Plains and watched Anaheim skate circles around them with the puck. It was embarrassing to say the least. The Hawks managed just three shots on goal in the period, with their first one coming late in the frame. Only they know why they came out so slow and disinterested, and we can only hope we never see that again. As a result, the Ducks netted three goals and probably could have had a couple more.
  • The Blackhawks had a lot of trouble clearing the puck out of their own zone/getting the puck in deep to Anaheim’s end, and this directly resulted in at least three goals for the Ducks. The two most notable instances of this were the Ducks’ fourth and fifth goals. On their fourth goal, Kimmo Timonen chipped the puck to Patrick Sharp along the half boards to Corey Crawford’s right. Instead of then moving the puck into open ice up the middle and out of the zone, Sharp tried to get it out along the boards. The Ducks held it in and pulled off a spectacular goal thanks to some incredible passing. On the fifth and game-winning goal, Bryan Bickell had the puck just over the center ice line and simply needed to dump it into the Ducks’ end so that the Hawks could get a line change. Instead of making the sure and safe play, he chose to take a slap shot (presumably directed at Frederik Andersen) that hit a Duck defenseman, dropped right to the stick of Jakob Silfverberg, and the next thing you knew Anaheim had a two on one going the other way. Game over. Those plays cannot happen if you’re Sharp and Bickell.
  • Speaking of Bryan Bickell, how awful has he been? He’s getting out-muscled along the boards with regularity and is providing next to nothing for the Hawks. There’s no way that the coaching staff isn’t noticing this. Maybe his costly turnover in overtime last night will finally get him benched. In his defense, it looks like he’s playing injured and that could have something to do with his ineffectiveness. If that’s the case, he shouldn’t be playing. Dress Versteeg, Nordstrom, or even Ryan Hartman. Someone who can actually contribute to the team. At this stage of the series, Joel Quenneville should be putting his absolute best lineup on the ice.
  • No one should be blaming Corey Crawford for this loss. He had no chance on either of the Ducks’ first two or last two goals, and was likely screened on their third. He came up with some huge saves in the first period and never really looked bad in the game. It was his teammates that hung him out to dry.
  • Lastly, the powerplay of the Hawks wasn’t good enough. They were 0/2 with the man advantage. They did generate a few chances, but never found the net. They have GOT to start scoring on the powerplay if they want to come back and win this thing. Not to keep picking on Bryan Bickell, but he shouldn’t be on the second PP unit. I know he’s a big body that can park in front of the net, but he can’t do anything else. Teuvo Teravainen, who just keeps getting better and better, should take his spot. He’s a play-maker creates scoring chances, and that’s what the second unit is lacking.

Looking ahead to Game 6, the Blackhawks really should have some confidence in themselves. If they had even shown up just a little bit in the first period of Game 5, they probably win the game. They dominated the final 40 minutes and found a way to tie the game after trailing 3-0 at one point.

Jonathan Toews did another Jonathan Toews thing by scoring two goals in the final two minutes to tie the game. It was truly a miraculous finish to regulation. I’m not a huge believer in momentum carrying over from one game to the next, but the fact that the Blackhawks were able to outplay the Ducks over the final two periods and erase a 3-0 deficit in Game 5 should make them feel pretty good about themselves heading into Game 6 on home ice.

The Blackhawks are not a team that gets rattled or “scared” while facing elimination. Jonathan Toews even said following last night’s loss that the Hawks almost seem to play better when their backs are up against the wall. We’ve seen them come back in series multiple times before, and I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if they find a way to do it again now. If you’re looking for someone who might be scared, look in the direction of Frederik Andersen. He was awful in Game 5, and maybe his confidence is diminishing. If I’m the Hawks, I’m shooting early and often in Game 6.

Knowing that with a loss they’ll be sent packing, I am fully expecting the Blackhawks to come out with everything they’ve got on home ice Wednesday night. Win that game and force Anaheim to defend home ice in a Game 7 yet again. In case you forgot, the Ducks were in this exact same position last year against L.A. in the second round. The Kings took Game 6, and then proceeded to blow out the Ducks in Anaheim in Game 7.

It won’t be easy, but there’s no reason why the Blackhawks should doubt their chances of coming back and winning this series.

Keys to a Blackhawks Game 5 victory

15-_DSC2491-toresizeAfter winning a crazy Game 4 in double overtime to even this best of seven series at two games apiece, the Blackhawks will take the ice in Anaheim tonight in Game 5 looking to bring a 3-2 series lead back home for Wednesday. Both of the Blackhawks’ victories in this series have come in multiple overtime games, something this team has become accustomed to in recent years. In fact, the Hawks are the first team in NHL history to win four multiple overtime games in one postseason. This is a resilient group that doesn’t seem to ever be fazed by adversity.

After losing Game 2 of this series in triple overtime, many thought that the Ducks would be somewhat demoralized and surely lose Game 3. That did not happen as they went on to win that game by a score of 2-1. After losing Game 4 in double overtime, now their second multiple OT loss of the series, one has to wonder if Anaheim will be down on themselves heading into tonight’s game. Odds are that they’re not, but losing two games in this series in the fashion that they did is not easy to overcome. With the series now shifting back to California, however, one should assume that the Ducks have forgotten about Game 4.

In this series, each team has had extended stretches in which they have controlled the game. Both sides are probably thinking that they’ve been the better team than the other. The truth of the matter is that these are two very evenly matched teams, and frankly, this series could go either way at this point.

So heading into tonight’s fifth game, let’s take a look at five keys to a Blackhawks’ victory.

  1. Score first. The team that has scored the first goal in the game has won each game this series. That’s not to say this will continue, but playing from behind is much more difficult than playing while ahead. With this game being in Anaheim, the Blackhawks do not want the Ducks getting the first lead. Anaheim thrives on home ice while winning.
  2. Good special teams. The Blackhawks’ powerplay has been both good and bad this series. The two games in which they’ve notched a powerplay goal, they’ve won. Anaheim is a team that clearly likes to be physical and get involved in extra-curricular nonsense. Those two traits often lead to more penalties for them compared to their opponent. If the Ducks are going to continue taking bad penalties, the Blackhawks have to make them pay. Scoring at even strength against this team is no easy task, so taking advantage of being up a man will be big. Also, the Hawks’ penalty kill has been better during this series than either of the first two. It goes without saying that killing off their penalties is hugely important, especially at this stage of the series. If the Blackhawks can win the special teams play tonight, they should win the game.
  3. Continue rolling four lines. Arguably the biggest strength of the Blackhawks is the fact that they have four lines that can generate offense while being responsible defensively. After messing up his lines in Game 3 (a game in which the Hawks’ offense looked lost), Quenneville went back to his original lines from games 1 and 2 for Game 5. The result? Four lines that put heavy pressure on the Ducks’ defense and Frederik Andersen. The two overtime goals scored by the Hawks in this series have come from their fourth and third lines respectively. They need all four lines to continue doing what they’ve been doing. The Toews line seems to have picked up some momentum recently, and hopefully they can carry that into tonight.
  4. Get good minutes from the defensemen. So much has been made of the fact that the Hawks are really only using four d-men right now. While no one can deny that their top four defensemen are logging heavy minutes, I will say that those four guys are not as worn out as the media and Ducks players are making them sound. That being said, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya need to keep up their strong efforts. Getting productive minutes out of Cumiskey and Timonen will be key as well.
  5. Corey Crawford. He always seems to step up in big games and deliver. With so much at stake in this game, there’s no question that Anaheim will come out flying tonight, and Corey Crawford will need to make some big saves. We’ve seen him do it many times before, and he’ll need to do it again.

The Ducks have done a lot of talking over the past couple days about how they know they’re wearing down the Blackhawks with their physical play. They’re doing so much talking about that subject that it almost seems like they’re doing whatever they can to make themselves feel good about where they’re at. I am really starting to wonder if they haven’t become distracted by the fact that the Hawks are taking so many hits without really showing any symptoms of being worn down.

Also, I’ve never seen a team more concerned with trying to get in the heads of their opponent than the Ducks. Every single time Ryan Kesler is on the ice, he’s either chirping or doing something else towards a Blackhawk to try and get in their head. It’s almost as though he’s more worried about that than he is the actual game. The same can be said of Corey Perry.

The Ducks are a team that tends to lose their cool when things aren’t going well (much like the Blues). If the Blackhawks get a late lead in this game tonight and are controlling the play, it’s definitely realistic to think Anaheim might start taking dumb penalties out of frustration. If this happens, the Hawks need to make them pay.

This is a pivotal game and one that would be massive for the Hawks to win. As I’ve said many times, there isn’t another team in hockey more equipped to handle the pressure of and win big games.

Epic win for the Blackhawks in Game 2

10-171460575-smallIt ended up being the longest game in Chicago Blackhawks franchise history, and it will no doubt go down as one of the most memorable. Game 2 of the Western Conference Final between the Ducks and Blackhawks started at roughly 8:20pm Central time on Tuesday, lasted nearly six whole periods, and finally ended around 1:15am Wednesday thanks to Marcus Kruger. A game that extends to a third overtime and finishes the day after it began would normally exhaust its viewers, with many of them opting to go to sleep instead. Not this game, however. From start to finish, Game 2 featured non-stop action and heart-stopping moments making it basically impossible to turn away from.

After getting two quick powerplay goals to begin the first period, the Blackhawks saw their 2-0 lead evaporate by the end of the second frame. From the time that Marian Hossa knocked home the Hawks’ second goal all the way to the end of the second period, Anaheim pretty much dominated the game. They were hitting anything that moved wearing a white sweater and continuously pinned the Blackhawks in their defensive zone for long stretches. Fortunately, the Hawks got out of the first 40 minutes tied.

The third period was a bit slower in pace with each team seemingly playing a more conservative game. Chances were had by each side, but both Frederik Andersen and Corey Crawford answered all shots directed their way. Overtime would ensue.

In the three overtimes that were played, both the Ducks and Blackhawks created numerous incredible scoring chances. Anaheim hit the post three, maybe even four times. The Hawks had a good three point-blank shots on goal. Each side was dealt a powerplay, but almost nothing was getting by the goalies.

I say almost because the Blackhawks had a goal taken away from them during their powerplay in the second overtime period. After a shot from Patrick Kane deflected up high into the air off the shoulder of Andersen, Andrew Shaw proceeded to jump and headbutt the puck into the net. It was one of the most incredible things you will ever see in a hockey game, simply because it never happens. The Blackhawks players spilled off the bench and mobbed Shaw thinking that they had won the game, only to have the goal reviewed and overturned. By rule, intentionally hitting the puck into the net with anything other than your stick shall result in the goal being disallowed. Having said that, not many people including current and ex-players were fully aware that a “headbutt goal” is illegal.

From there, the Ducks killed off the remainder of the Hawks’ powerplay and the game headed to a third overtime.

10-171460575-smallIn the third OT, both teams traded more chances only to be denied by the two netminders. Then finally, with 3:48 left on the clock, a point shot from Brent Seabrook hit Marcus Kruger to the right of Frederik Andersen, the puck dropped to the ice, and Kruger tapped it home for the game winner. Roughly five hours after the opening puck drop, the game was over.

Due to the endless scoring chances and near-death moments for each team, this game was as exciting as they get and will go down in history as one of the greats.

So with that, here’s what us Hawks fans should take away from this epic Game 2:

  • Corey Crawford was phenomenal. He had a couple of sequences in the overtime periods of two or three consecutive Grade A saves. In total, he stopped 60 of the 62 Anaheim shots. Those 60 saves are his new career high. Maybe no save was bigger or better than his glove save on Corey Perry with about eight minutes left in the second overtime. It won’t, but his Game 2 performance coupled with the way he played against Minnesota should silence any of his doubters. If he keeps this up, he and the Hawks will be a tough out.
  • The Blackhawks top four defensemen all logged at least 46 minutes of ice time through the three overtimes, with Keith playing the most (49:51). To compare, Francois Beauchemin recorded the most minutes for the Ducks at 46:29. Analysts are already trying to make a huge deal out of this by saying that there’s no way the Hawks can survive with their top four d-men being asked to play so much each night while the bottom two defensemen receive much less time. While that may be true to a certain extent, if you look at the total minutes that the Blackhawks have played this postseason and then compare the total minutes played by their top four d-men, their average playing times are really not that abnormal. Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya have been playing great, and they need that to continue.
  • The bottom two lines for each team in this series have been great. All the talk has been about Anaheim’s third and fourth lines, but the Blackhawks’ bottom two lines have been just as good. The third line of Sharp, Vermette, and Teravainen was outstanding in Game 2 and generated the best scoring chances of any of the Hawks’ lines. That line also saw a lot of the Ryan Getzlaf/Corey Perry line and did a great job of keeping them in check. The fourth line of Desjardins, Kruger, and Shaw has arguably been the Blackhawks’ best line through these first two games and netted the overtime goal to take Game 2. Heading home, Joel Quenneville will now be able to decide which line plays against which of the Ducks, and this should only lead to added success for the Hawks’ forwards.
  • Patrick Kane needs to be put into a position where he can be more dangerous. Being on a line with Bryan Bickell is not working for him. As the guys at The Committed Indian pointed out, it looks like Bickell could be hurt and is therefore not as effective while along the boards. Kane needs a guy on his line who can win board battles, maintain puck possession in the offensive end, and ultimately get him the puck. Switching Saad and Bickell may do the trick as Toews and Hossa could compensate for whatever Bickell is unable to do. The same can’t be said of Kane and Richards. Bottom line here is that Kane needs to be more involved offensively than he has been in either of the first two games of this series.
  • Going along similar lines, the Blackhawks could use more production from the top line of Saad, Toews, and Hossa. With the series shifting to Chicago, Quenneville can now opt to get that line away from Ryan Kesler’s line which may lead to more offensive production. Having the last change at home is big, and even bigger when discussing a Joel Quenneville team.
  • Lastly, the Blackhawks’ special teams showed up big time in Game 2. Their first two goals came via the poweplay, and their penalty kill was 5/5, including a big kill in overtime. Having said that, the Hawks did have an extended five on three in the third period and a five on four in overtime, but failed to score either time. Nonetheless, getting two powerplay goals and a perfect penalty kill is a welcomed sight for the Blackhawks. If they are starting to get the PK figured out again, that should only increase their chances of success moving forward.

Taking the series back to Chicago tied 1-1 rather than down 2-0 is HUGE for the Blackhawks. They have played great hockey at home this postseason and are fully capable of winning the next two games. That being said, they are still going to be required to play some of their best hockey of the year if they want to beat the Ducks. Winning these next two won’t be easy, but it’s doable.

Game 3 is Thursday night at 7:00pm Central time. A win would be huge for the Hawks, and that’s just what I expect.

Blackhawks – Ducks preview

Patrick Kane, Frederik AndersenThis year’s Western Conference Final features some familiar faces, and some not so familiar faces. On the one hand, we’ve got the Chicago Blackhawks who are making their fifth appearance in the WCF in the last seven years. On the other hand, there’s the Anaheim Ducks. The last time the Ducks made it this far in the postseason was 2007 when they eventually went on to win the Stanley Cup. Of the players on that ’07 team, only three remain.

The Ducks finished this season tied with the Blues for the most points in the Western Conference (109) and held the tiebreaker over St. Louis thus giving them the top spot in the conference. So clearly, they’re a solid team. But what about them makes them so good?

Well, they’ve got one of the best lines in all of the NHL. That line features the star names of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, as well as Patrick Maroon. While most average fans may not be familiar with Maroon, he is no pushover. The 6’2″, 230 pound winger can play a bruising game while also owning the ability to put the puck in the net. He’s not Getzlaf or Perry, but he is a nice complement to them. As for Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, they are playing some great hockey this postseason. Perry leads the league with 15 points these playoffs, and Getzlaf is not far behind with 12.

Their second line consists of Matt Beleskey, Ryan Kesler, and Jakob Silfverberg. Silfverberg and Kesler rank third and fourth on the team in points this postseason, while Beleskey has just 5 of his own. All of his 5 points, however, are goals. This line is a pretty stellar defensive line, which is no surprise seeing as how Ryan Kesler is a former Selke Trophy winner.

The third and fourth lines of the Ducks are good, but not really great. They have some nice players such as Andrew Cogliano and Nate Thompson, but they just haven’t seemed to be able to generate a whole lot so far. The majority of Anaheim’s offense is provided by their top two lines.

Defensively, the Ducks are weak. This is most likely their achilles heel.

Hampus Lindholm, Francois Beauchemin, Cam Fowler, and Sami Vatanen are all pretty solid d-men when the play is in the offensive zone. They can generate from the blue line and contribute to the team’s offensive success. It’s when they are forced to defend in their own zone that these guys often find themselves in trouble. Both Winnipeg and Calgary were able to exploit this at times already this postseason, but neither team possessed enough offensive firepower to really make the Ducks pay. A team like the Blackhawks will make Anaheim pay for their lack of quality defensive defensemen.

In goal, the Ducks are riding the hot play of Frederik Andersen. During the first two round of the playoffs, Andersen posted a 1.96 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. Both of those statistics are respectable and deserve some recognition. Like most of his teammates, however, Andersen has never played this deep into the postseason. How he handles the pressure of playing in the Western Conference Final remains to be seen.

As for the Blackhawks, they come into this series fresh off a sweep of the Minnesota Wild, who many considered the hottest team in hockey heading into the second round. In beating the Wild, not only did the Hawks beat a very good team, but they also knocked out another Vezina Trophy finalist in Devan Dubnyk (Chicago beat Pekka Rinne in round one). Against two finalists for the best goaltender in the NHL during the regular season, the Blackhawks made both look mediocre at best.

Offensively, the Hawks have been led by Patrick Kane, who has 13 points this postseason and has scored at least one goal in five straight games. The team’s top line of Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa has been very good and usually outplays whichever line is matched against them. That’s not really hard to believe when you consider that line has two future Hall of Famers.

The second line of Bryan Bickell, Brad Richards, and Patrick Kane has been good as well, although mostly because of Patrick Kane. The Hawks could really use a hot stretch from Bickell, who has earned a name for himself with his postseason performances the last two seasons. Even despite his lack of offensive production, Bickell has been a one man wrecking ball through the first two rounds with his physical play. That will need to continue.

The Blackhawks’ bottom two lines are what could put them over the top in this series. Their third line of Patrick Sharp, Antoine Vermette, and Teuvo Teravainen was outstanding against Minnesota. When they play the way they did in the second round, they’re basically a top two line. Due to the acquisition of Vermette at the trade deadline, it has allowed Joel Quenneville to move Andrew Shaw from the third line center position to the fourth line right wing spot; his natural position. This, along with the unexpected chemistry shown from Andrew Desjardins (another trade deadline acquisition) with his fourth line linemates, Marcus Kruger and Shaw, has made Chicago’s fourth line extremely valuable this postseason. They not only get matched up against the opposing team’s top line most of the time, but they also have been consistently creating offense. You can’t ask for much more from your fourth line.

The biggest reason Chicago did not defeat L.A. in last year’s WCF was because they couldn’t effectively roll four lines. This year they can and are arguably the deepest team in hockey at the forward position.

On defense, the Blackhawks have their usual top guys of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya. They are just about as good of a top four as you’ll find in the NHL. It’s the fifth and sixth defensemen where the Hawks run in to some problems. Now that Michal Rozsival is done for the season with a fractured ankle, Kimmo Timonen will be forced to pick up some more minutes, which at 40 years old is more of a challenge than it sounds. Also, Rozsival’s injury means David Rundblad will be joining the lineup. Rundblad will most likely be paired with Duncan Keith, something that we saw a lot of during the regular season. The problem with Rundblad is that he can be a turnover machine. He absolutely must be smarter with the puck and not cost his team in this series.

The goaltending for the Hawks is actually better than what most people might think. After a rough first round, Corey Crawford has regained his regular season form and is playing at the top of his game. In the four games against the Wild in the second round, Crawford allowed just 7 goals. A couple of those goals came in the final minutes of Game Four when Minnesota was forced into desperation mode. Another 3 of those 7 goals came in the second period of Game 1. Needless to say, for nearly the entirety of the four games against the Wild, Corey Crawford was outstanding.

So now that we’ve briefly gone over each team’s make-up, here’s how this series will be won:

  • Depth. Depth is a must in the playoffs, and especially when you get to this stage. Whichever team gets better play from their third and fourth lines will likely have an advantage.
  • Special Teams. Both Chicago and Anaheim struggles on the powerplay during the regular season. During these playoffs, however, the Ducks have had the best powerplay in the league while converting 31% of the time. The Hawks rank fifth with a 20% conversion rate. On the penalty kill, the Ducks currently rank fifth, and the Hawks twelfth. After leading the NHL in PK percentage for most of the season, the Blackhawks saw their penalty kill percentage significantly drop over the final month. They haven’t really turned that trend around yet this postseason. Scoring on the powerplay could prove to be a huge part of this series.
  • Goaltending. This one’s kind of obvious, but needs to be mentioned. You can’t win the Cup without receiving stellar goaltending. Both goalies in this series are coming in hot. The question becomes who will falter?
  • Experience. Here is where Chicago has a big advantage. Their players and coaches have been here before, and most of them have won at least one Stanley Cup. The same cannot be said of the Ducks or their coaches. Bruce Boudreau is making his first ever appearance in a Conference Final, and it will be interesting to see whether or not he can come close to matching the smarts of Joel Quenneville in this series. Aside from that, having been here many times before should give the Blackhawks an advantage when it comes to winning on the road. The Hawks always get at least one important road victory per series.

After all of that, here’s my prediction.

The top two lines of each team will play to a draw, or close to it, in this series, and the Blackhawks will receive the better production from their bottom two lines than the Ducks. Defensively, the Hawks’ forwards will burn the Ducks d-men and create an abundance of scoring chances; something that Andersen has not been used to these playoffs. This isn’t the Calgary Flames anymore that Anaheim is going up against… Unless Andersen plays out of his mind, the Hawks should see some great offensive production. The team defense of the Hawks is very good, and should limit the number of good chances against Corey Crawford. As long as Crawford comes up with the necessary saves, the Hawks should be alright.

Depth, overall team defense, and experience should put the Blackhawks over the top against the Ducks.

Hawks in six.

What the Blackhawks should expect in Game 3

10-171460575-smallWith the Hawks now up two games to nothing in this best of seven series with the Wild, the series shifts up to St. Paul tonight for Game 3. The Blackhawks are coming off of what was arguably their best performance in a long time in Game 2, while Minnesota seems to be searching for answers. Wild head coach Mike Yeo was quoted as saying “I don’t know what team played that game tonight, but it wasn’t us,” following their Game 2 loss. All signs would indicate that the Hawks have the Wild backed into a corner and are ready to deliver the death blow. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Minnesota knows that they cannot afford to lose Game 3, or Game 4 for that matter. Falling behind 3-0 or 3-1 in a best of seven series is a recipe for elimination, especially against a team like the Blackhawks who know how to close out a series better than anyone.

So what should the Hawks expect tonight? I’ll tell you.

First and foremost, they should expect a deafening arena. The Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul is one of the loudest buildings in the league. Add in the fact that those fans haven’t seen their team play on home ice since eliminating the Blues, and that the Wild need a victory tonight, and you’ve got yourself one amped up fan base ready to wreck havoc on the Blackhawks.

Secondly, the Blackhawks should expect Minnesota’s best effort of the season. They realize that they cannot afford another loss tonight, and they will do whatever it takes to ensure a victory. From the Wild’s perspective, they can’t let themselves get too over-hyped and try to do too much on the ice, causing them to make bad decisions or end up out of position. This whole “energy” factor could be a good or bad thing for the Wild, depending on how they use it.

To get a victory in tonight’s game and put a stranglehold on this series, here’s what the Blackhawks must do:

  • Survive the first ten minutes. The first ten minutes of this game will feature incredible noise coming from the fans and a Minnesota team that is jacked up on adrenaline. Needless to say, the Wild will come out flying. The Hawks need to stay calm and collected, play solid defense, and come out of the first ten minutes of the game either tied or ahead on the scoreboard.
  • Get the first goal. This one kind goes along with the first bullet point, and is just as important. If the Hawks can record the first goal of the game, that will not only provide them with energy and momentum, but it will plant a seed of doubt into the heads of the Wild players and fans. Taking the fans out of the game early would be huge. Also, it’s much nicer playing with the lead than it is trying to catch up all game.
  • Remember Game 2. Playing Game 3 like they did Game 2 can only yield positive results for the Hawks. Granted, they may even need to dial it up a notch from Game 2, but if they can do that they’ll win. When the Blackhawks dictate games like they did in the second game of this series, there’s not a team in hockey that can beat them.
  • Receive another good outing from Crawford. In a game like this on the road against a team who knows they cannot afford lose, the Blackhawks need Corey Crawford to be their best player, or at least one of them. Minnesota will have their fair chances at scoring tonight, and the only way the Hawks overcome that is if Crawford comes up with some big time saves. Getting help from the defense in front of him like he did in Game 2 wouldn’t hurt either.
  • The Hawks’ stars need to shine again. It’s been a common theme for the Blackhawks this postseason: their best players have been their best players. That can’t change in a game like this. Again, the atmosphere will be hostile, and the Wild are going to throw everything they’ve got at the Hawks. The star players for Chicago need to step up yet again and make the big plays. This doesn’t mean that the Hawks’ bottom two lines don’t mean anything tonight, because they certainly do. Speaking of them…
  • Roll four lines. Since adding Vermette back into the lineup, it has allowed Shaw to move down to the fourth line and play his natural position on the wing. That made the Hawks’ fourth line much more formidable and dangerous, and it’s paid off big time. Also, reinserting Teravainen into the lineup in Game 1 of this series and on the third line with Sharp and Vermette has lead to some great chemistry between the trio. They essentially have three top two-esque line now. My point here is that the Hawks have incredible forward depth, and they need all four line to continue being productive tonight.

One thing that I didn’t mention, which is somewhat of a given, is that the Blackhawks six defensemen need to be on their game. They’ll continue using basically five d-men, with Timonen receiving limited minutes, and they all need to have their heads in the game. This means no dumb plays or penalties from Rozsival. I singled him out because, well, he’s really the only regular that I’m consistently worried about.

As you may have gathered, Xcel Energy Center is going to be very loud and unkind to the Blackhawks tonight, and the Wild players are going to leave it all on the ice. The Hawks must try and replicate they way the played in Game 2, as well as step it up another level.

This is going to be one of the toughest tests for the Hawks this postseason, and I’m very anxious to see how they respond. Then again, they are the Blackhawks, and they never cease to amaze any of us.

Blackhawks – Wild preview

10-171460575-smallIt took both of these teams six games to advance to the second round of the playoffs, with the Blackhawks eliminating the Predators, and the Wild doing the same to the Blues (who seem to be everyone’s favorite to win the Cup on a yearly basis, but have now been sent packing in the first round three straight postseasons). Back in January, it wasn’t looking good for the Wild who sat about eight points out of a playoff spot at the time. That was before trading for Devan Dubnyk, however, who basically single-handedly got Minnesota into the playoffs. As for the Blackhawks, we all knew they’d be playing in April. The only question with them was which seed they’d receive.

This will be the third consecutive year in which the Blackhawks and Wild have met in the playoffs, with the Hawks winning both of the first two series. While the Blackhawks remain mostly the same team that eliminated the Wild the last two seasons, Minnesota has changed quite a bit without actually changing their personnel.

Two years ago when these two met in the first round of the playoffs, Minnesota was in its first season with this “new group.” By that, I mean it was their first year with Parise and Suter. They also had a bunch of young guys on that team like Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Charlie Coyle to name a few. Those guys were still learning the NHL game and weren’t much of a factor. Fast forward two years to now, and those same three guys, as well as others, are huge pieces to this Wild team. My point being that while you’ll see mostly the same names wearing Wild sweaters in this series, those guys have greatly improved over the last couple of seasons. They are more experienced and more confident than before, which is why the Wild are a better team than either one that lost to the Hawks the last two years.

For the first half of this season, Minnesota was really bad. Their offense wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good enough, and their goaltending was horrendous. This prompted them to trade for Devan Dubnyk, who was having a solid year in Arizona with the Coyotes. After joining the Wild, Dubnyk started 39 games for Minnesota while going 27-9-2 with a 1.78 GAA and .936 save percentage. Those numbers are ridiculously good and are why he is a Vezina Trophy finalist. Once getting Dubnyk, Minnesota seemed to take their game to a new level and started playing like the team we expected them to be, and maybe even better. Defensively, they were strong, and offensively they became better than we’ve seen them in years past.

To compare, this year’s Wild team ranked 12th in the league in goals per game with a 2.72 average. Last season, they ranked 24th and averaged 2.43 a game. Defensively, they finished last season and this season with the same goals against average of 2.42 per game. When your offense jumps from 24th in the NHL to 12th and you stay in the top ten in fewest goals against per game, you know you’re doing something right. Their defense and shot suppression are a big reason why the eliminated the Blues in round one.

In summary, this is a much better team than the one the Blackhawks eliminated the past two years.

As for the Blackhawks, they looked just okay against Nashville in all honesty. They were outplayed in games 1, 2, and 5 for sure, as well as for decent stretches in another game or two. Yet they still won the series 4-2. That goes to show you just how good the Blackhawks are and can be. They tend to make the opponent pay for their mistakes, and they are somehow able to walk that fine line of playing dangerous without losing the series. It’s something we’ve seen from them in early rounds of past postseasons as well.

Surprisingly, goal scoring was a problem for the Hawks this season as they ranked 17th in that category. Their defense and goaltending made up for it, however. The Hawks finished only behind Montreal for fewest goals against per game, and Corey Crawford won his second career Jennings Trophy.

In the first round against Nashville, the script was somewhat flipped.

Corey Crawford was pulled from the net after the first period of Game 1 and struggled again in Game 2, leading to Scott Darling starting the next four games. He too ended up getting pulled after allowing three goals in the first period of Game 6, allowing Crawford to jump back in. The Hawks ended the first round with the second worst goals against average of the sixteen teams in the playoffs.

Offensively, the Blackhawks rank third in the league after the first round by scoring an average of a little over three goals per game. They got Patrick Kane back for the whole first round, and that paid off big time as he was a key reason for their offensive success. His presence not only in five on five play, but the powerplay as well is huge.

In terms of overall team defense, the Blackhawks looked both really good (the 40 minutes of Game 5 and the last 40 minutes of Game 6) and really bad. They had a tendency to give up a goal right after scoring, as well as give up goals in bunches. Look no further than the first period of Game 1 and the third period of games 2 and 5. I’m not sure if they lost focus during those times or what, but it wasn’t pretty to watch. Their team defense was just as much, if not more to blame for Crawford and Darling getting pulled as the two goalies were themselves.

So moving forward to the actual series between the Hawks and Wild, here are my five keys to a Blackhawks series victory:

  1. Goaltending. This goes for both teams. Corey Crawford, who will be the Game 1 starter for the Hawks, has to find his late season form again. He was arguably the team’s MVP for the regular season, and quite frankly, they need him to be just that if they want another parade in June. On the other hand, Devan Dubnyk is going to have his hands full against the Hawks’ offense. If he’s not great, the Wild will be in trouble.
  2. Defense. I know it sounds obvious, but it’s real concern of mine at the moment. Joel Quenneville basically used four and a half defensemen against the Predators due to Michal Rozsival being slow and a major liability and Kimmo Timonen playing the way you would expect a 40 year old to play. This resulted in the Hawks’ top four logging a ton of minutes in regulation, as well as the additional minutes from the five overtime periods that were played. Against Minnesota, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya need to be at their best. Rozsival and Timonen simply have to not make costly mistakes like they each did against Nashville.
  3. Special Teams. The Hawks’ penalty kill has been awful for the past month. They have got to start coming up with more kills if they want to advance. Their powerplay hasn’t been much better. They recorded two powerplay goals in Game 1 against Nashville, as well as another one in Game 6. That means their PP was scoreless for four straight games of that series. They need to start scoring with the man advantage. If they can’t do that, then at least generate shots on goal and momentum.
  4. Depth. Both of these teams have four solid forward lines, although I’d give the edge to the Blackhawks. Their fourth line caused some major problems for the Predators in round one, and they’ll need to keep it up against the Wild. The Hawks’ third line of Bickell, Vermette, and Sharp was alright, but not good enough. It looks like Teuvo Teravainen will be back in the lineup for Game 1 in place of Kris Versteeg, and he’ll be taking Bickell’s place on the third line with Bickell moving up with Kane and Richards. The trio of Teravainen, Vermette, and Sharp looks dangerous on paper, and they’ll have to be on the ice.
  5. Home Ice. The Blackhawks have home ice advantage this round, and have to make use of it. They went 3-0 at home against Nashville, which was huge after winning Game 1 on the road. Minnesota finished the season with 24 road wins this year, and went 2-1 in St. Louis in the first round. Needless to say, they don’t seem to mind playing in hostile environments. They are also a solid home team and play in one of the league’s loudest buildings. While the Blackhawks always seem to get a big road victory or two per round in the playoffs, they’ll need to win at home against this Wild team.

This is going to be a real tough test for both teams, but with Minnesota playing the better hockey at the moment, it may be a bigger test for the Hawks. They’ll be going up against another Vezina finalist after beating Rinne in the first round, and will have to somehow find a way to beat Dubnyk.

We’ve talked all year long about the Blackhawks needing to “flip their switch,” but now they really need to. However, if there is one team in the league who can seemingly take their game to the next level at a moment’s notice, it’s the Blackhawks. I’d expect them to do so starting Friday night at the UC.

Hawks in six.

Blackhawks can’t let up now

15-_DSC2491-toresizeWith Sunday’s 4-2 win over the Predators, the Blackhawks find themselves up 2-1 in this best of seven series with Nashville heading into tonight’s Game 4. As was the case on Sunday, Scott Darling will be starting in goal for the Blackhawks as he looks to improve to 3-0 this postseason. Aside from his effort in Game 3, the Blackhawks as a team put forth their best effort in Game 3 as well. That can’t change tonight.

In Game 1 down in “Smashville” as they like to call themselves, the Hawks got badly outplayed the entire first period and trailed on the scoreboard 3-0 heading into the first intermission. Joel Quenneville replaced Corey Crawford with Scott Darling, the rest of the bunch decided to start playing hockey, the second period began, and the rest is history.

Game 2 saw a better first period from the Hawks, and an okay second. They trailed 3-2 heading into the third before the wheels eventually fell off as they lost the game 6-2.

Then came Game 3 at home on Sunday. You could tell right from the get go that the Blackhawks were playing with more energy than we had seen in either of the first two games. They ended up getting the game’s first goal, which is always big, built two one goal leads before surrendering both, and then finally put away the Preds with goals from Saad and Seabrook to make it 4-2. That was the final.

All around, the Blackhawks played with more energy and desperation than they had in Games 1 or 2. They tightened up on defense and didn’t allow many great scoring chances for Nashville, and they were successful with their zone entries for most of the game. Granted, Shea Weber wasn’t waiting for them at the blue line like usual.

Pretty much everything that the Hawks did in Game 3 needs to happen again tonight. They have the Predators’ backs against the wall right now, and a win tonight would all but put the nail in the coffin for this series.

We know Nashville is going to come out playing like it’s Game 7, and unless the Blackhawks match that same level of compete, this series will be tied heading back to Tennessee.

Here are my keys to a Hawks’ victory in Game 4:

  • Puck possession. The Blackhawks were one of the top teams in the NHL this year in terms of puck possession, and it’s going to be crucial tonight. Keeping the puck in Nashville’s zone will only lead to shots on goal and scoring chances. Not to mention the fact that the more the Hawks have the puck, the more defense the Predators will have to play, ultimately wearing Nashville down.
  • Scott Darling will need to keep his hot streak alive. Nashville is going to get their handful of scoring chances, and Darling is going to have to keep making the big saves. Like I already said, the Predators should theoretically come out flying tonight in an effort to tie the series, so Darling will need to come up big.
  • The Hawks’ team defense was much better in Game 3 than in either of the first two. That has to continue.
  • Depth. The Blackhawks have an overload of forwards capable of playing right now. Their fourth line recorded the game’s first goal on Sunday and produced a number of real good shifts. If the Hawks can get more scoring and production from their bottom two lines tonight, I like their chances. As I always say: you can’t win without having good depth.
  • Lastly, score first. It is so much easier (for lack of a better term) to play with the lead than it is to always play catch-up. Scoring the first goal tonight will not only give the Hawks momentum, but will maybe plant a seed of doubt into Nashville’s minds.

I repeat, the Blackhawks cannot take their foot off the gas peddle in tonight’s Game 4. They have the Predators in a very vulnerable position and need to take advantage of that. Sending this series back to Nashville up 3-1 rather than tied 2-2 would be huge.

Kane’s absence finally hitting the Hawks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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