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.

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Personnel changes aside,the Blackhawks remain the same

20131211_151215We all know that the Blackhawks are an incredible team with as much elite talent as any franchise in hockey. We have seen them win three Stanley Cups, all in rather remarkable fashion, and yet some things they do still never cease to amaze us. Friday afternoon’s comeback win in Anaheim is just the latest example.

Down 2-0 in the game with less than two minutes remaining in regulation, the Hawks struck twice in just over a minute to tie the game and send it to overtime. Once in OT, it took only one minute and fifty-three seconds to score again and earn that second point. With the win, their record on this Circus Trip improved to 3-1-1, with the sixth and last game slated for later tonight against the Kings.

Regardless of the amount of personnel changes on a year-to-year basis, the Blackhawks’ attitude and character remains unchanged. With guys such as Toews, Seabrook, Keith, Hossa, Kane, and Hjalmarsson leading the way, that winning mentality, visible confidence, and natural competitiveness will always be present throughout the team.

It means nothing to this group if they are trailing by a couple of goals in a game, regardless of the amount of time left on the clock. They have overcome that a countless number of times. It does not faze them if they are behind a game or two in a playoff series. We have seen them come back and win a number of series after trailing at one point or another.

The leaders of the Blackhawks have been through just about every imaginable situation under the sun, and they know better than any other group how to use that to their advantage and teach any “new guys” along the way.

This year’s Hawks may not be as deep or formidable as any of the three teams they had that won the Cup, but the overall team mentality and character remains the same. That is why with the right additions via call-ups, signings, and/or trades, the Blackhawks have and will continue to find themselves as serious Stanley Cup contenders.

As of this moment, the Blackhawks sit at 13-8-2 on the year and hold a three point lead for the top Wild Card spot in the West (yes, it is still very early in the season). This current six game road trip was bound to either put them in a very unfavorable spot in the standings, or give them a shot of adrenaline and some momentum as they enter the winter months of the season. With a win in L.A. tonight, they could come home with a 4-1-1 record on the trip looking like their old selves again. And even if they lose, it’s been a rather successful six games given how they started the season on the road.

The bottom line in all of this is that the Blackhawks we have come to know will remain unchanged in terms of character, drive, and competitiveness as long as their current core remains intact. All it takes is some correct tinkering of the roster here and there where the salary cap allows to turn them back into a serious Cup contender.

Blackhawks’ young guns helping team ease through some early setbacks

10-171460575-smallThe Blackhawks have been dealt a tough hand early on here in the 2015-16 season. After being forced to dump a lot of salary over the offseason, resulting in multiple new faces in the lineup on opening night, the Hawks are now having to deal with injuries to some key players. It was already going to take a while for the new guys and the mainstays to gel together, but throw in the injuries to Keith and Hossa, and that whole gelling process gets even tougher.

Duncan Keith is expected to be out of the lineup until at least early December after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Marian Hossa recently suffered an undisclosed injury that held him out of the lineup Monday night against the Kings. Michal Rozsival has been sidelined ever since Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals last May, and is still at least a week or two away from returning. In their spots, the Hawks’ youngsters have had to step up.

Monday night’s lineup against the Kings saw Ryan Hartman, Tanner Kero, and Marko Dano make up the Hawks’ so-called third line. Three rookies with very little previous NHL experience.

On the blue line, rookie Victor Svedberg has been asked to play a large role in Keith’s absence, as has Trevor van Riemsdyk, who including this season has 20 games of regular season NHL experience. The Hawks also recently recalled Erik Gustafsson to add depth to their defensive unit. All three d-men played in the Blackhawks’ last two games, with those being the first two career games for Gustafsson.

Add in that Artemi Panarin, another rookie, has been a regular in the Hawks’ lineup this year, and you start to realize just how challenging a first twelve games of the season this has been for the Blackhawks.

When you take a step back and look at how the team has performed so far though, you can’t really help but be pleasantly surprised given the circumstances. Monday night’s 4-2 win over L.A. was a perfect example.

The Blackhawks were going up against one of the NHL’s best teams, who oh by the way was on a 7-game win streak, and managed to mount a three-goal third period to come back and win the game by a pair. Granted, that late charge was led by Patrick Kane, but the rookies, specifically the ones on the blue line, hung in there quite nicely and played a big role in the win.

Guys like TVR and Svedberg have transitioned very nicely to their increased roles and more minutes of playing time, which has been huge for Quenneville and the rest of the Hawks. While Hartman, Kero, and Dano didn’t have much of an impact against the Kings, they held their own for the most part.

This is something we’ll likely continue seeing this year as the Hawks try and find the right pieces to fit in on their ever-changing third line. As for the defense, Gustafsson likely won’t stick around once Rozsival returns, and when Keith gets back, some minutes will be cut from Svedberg and TVR.

All in all, despite a record of 7-5-0, there have been some encouraging signs shown by the Hawks through the first twelve games. This may not be a team playing in June for the Stanley Cup right away next summer, but the youngsters are showing signs of promise for the long run.

Blackhawks Lose Keith for 4-6 Weeks

2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game SixThe Blackhawks have announced that Duncan Keith will miss 4-6 weeks following surgery to repair “a right knee meniscal tear.” It is unknown when or how the injury occurred, as Keith didn’t miss a shift in the Hawks’ last game against Columbus. Keith is the one player this team could not afford to lose for any lengthy time.

Defense has been the Blackhawks’ biggest problem early on this season as expected. Their blue line was already thin with Keith in the lineup. Now with him gone, they’ll have to play van Riemskyk, Svedberg, AND Rundblad. They may choose to recall Ville Pokka in addition.

It had been reported that Stan Bowman was on the hunt for a defenseman to acquire via a trade over the last couple weeks. With news of Keith’s injury, one would have to believe that Bowman is now pursuing a trade much more aggressively.

With Keith likely headed to LTIR (Long Term Injured Reserve), that will open up over $5.5 million in cap space for the Hawks while he’s out. That’s more than enough space for them to add a contract to the roster in the form of a defenseman. The problem is that when Keith comes back, his contract will go back to counting towards the Hawks’ cap hit, which would make trading for someone now a future problem. They aren’t going to trade for a player who has any kind of hefty salary, as that would force them to dump salary yet again in another six weeks.

So, given that information and the situation the Hawks are now faced with, I’d be surprised if they pulled off any significant trade. I think it’s much more likely for them to go ahead and sign a free agent veteran defenseman, like Lubomir Visnovsky who was cut by the Hawks before the season began. He didn’t look bad at all in camp and would be a cheap addition.

All in all here, this is horrible news for the Hawks. Keith is the one guy they couldn’t lose, and now he’s gone for 4-6 weeks. Playing in the Western Conference was already going to be tough enough, and now the Hawks will have to do it without their top d-man.

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!

Cumiskey in, Rundblad out for Game 2

10-171460575-smallDuring today’s practice, Joel Quenneville had Kyle Cumiskey skating on the Blackhawks’ third defensive pairing with Johnny Oduya in place of David Rundblad. Rundblad made his playoff debut in Game 1, but it didn’t go so well for him as he was one the ice and partially responsible for two of the Ducks’ four goals.

This lineup change shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has followed the Blackhawks closely. Quenneville has been known to tweak his lineup when things aren’t going well. That’s not to say that things literally aren’t going well for the Hawks (they played a solid first game of the series), but David Rundblad had a tough time adjusting to the uptempo, playoff style of hockey in Game 1; his first career postseason game. Therefore he is being replaced.

While this will also be Cumiskey’s first playoff game of the spring, there is reason to be a little optimistic about his presence in the lineup.

What Cumiskey brings is speed. At five feet, eleven inches tall, he’s not the biggest or strongest guy on the ice, but he is one of the fastest. In a series like this against a quick team in Anaheim, the more speed on the back end, the better. One way to think of Cumiskey is by thinking of Nick Leddy. Remember him? Good. Nick Leddy is one of the fastest skating defenseman in the NHL. While with the Hawks, Leddy was a key component of the Blackhawks’ fast paced style of play. He would regularly carry the puck up the ice himself and get it into the offense zone where the forwards would take over. The Hawks have always been a better team when their d-men can be quick with the puck and skate it into the offensive end.

I’m not saying that Kyle Cumiskey is another Nick Leddy, because he’s not. But if Cumiskey can be that extra speed on the back end that the Hawks have somewhat lacked this season, then that’s a good thing. Duncan Keith has been the fastest blue liner on the ice for the Hawks, and he’s really the only one who can and will carry the puck up the ice and into the offensive zone. If Cumiskey can provide at least a little bit of the same, that should only play into the hands of the style of hockey that the Blackhawks like the most. They are most effective while playing a fast, north-south brand of hockey.

I guess the only big question with Cumiskey is his defensive responsibility. Can he be reliable in the Hawks’ defensive zone and not lose his man in front of the net or turn the puck over? Again, his quickness should only help him cover more ground in the Hawks’ own end, but his decision making will have to be on par. The problem with Rundblad that resulted in Cumiskey being inserted into the lineup is that Rundblad seems incapable of making quick decisions. He’ll hold the puck too long before passing, or he’ll decide to try and thread the needle with a pass instead of making the simple play and clearing the zone.

While it looks right now as though the Hawks’ defensive pairings will be Keith-Hjalmarsson, Timonen-Seabrook, Oduya-Cumiskey, I wouldn’t expect those to stick. Quenneville has continuously switched up the d-pairings mid-game this postseason, and I see no reason why that would change now. Cumiskey should see more ice time than Rundblad, but whether or not that ends up happening remains to be seen. If he does, then the Blackhawks will be back to using basically five and a half defenseman like they were before the Rozsival injury.

Game 2 is a big one for the Hawks. Coming home tied 1-1 in the series is much different than being down 2-0. Given how well the Blackhawks have played at home this postseason, heading home 1-1 could give them a big advantage.