Blackhawks finally run out of gas in Game 7

2015-11-07 13.59.52It didn’t end the way the Blackhawks or any of us fans had hoped. Despite an incredible comeback to tie this first round series at three games apiece, the Hawks ran out of gas in Game 7 and lost to the Blues by a final score of 3-2. This year’s better team won, whether we want to accept that or not.

As much as it pains me to admit it, St. Louis turned out to be the deeper and better team in their opening round series against the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Blackhawks had the upper-hand in elite talent, but it was the depth-talent of the Blues that ultimately won them the series, and for just the second time since 2002, St. Louis will play in the second round of the playoffs.

Looking back on this incredible series that really could have gone either way, it was the Blackhawks’ lack of depth on the blue line that one could argue was the major difference between these two evenly matched teams. Joel Quenneville was forced to rely on rookies Trevor van Riemsdyk, Erik Gustafsson, and Viktor Svedberg throughout the series, which at times went just as poorly as you could imagine. And near the end of the series, David Rundblad was thrown into the fire. Here’s a guy that started the year with the Hawks, was allowed to go play in Europe due to his ineffectiveness in North American hockey, and was then brought back to the Blackhawks and relied upon to perform well in the most important games of the season. Needless to say, the Hawks badly needed another top four defenseman in this series, and they didn’t have one.

On top of that, their best players weren’t always their best players. Jonathan Toews was held off the scoresheet in all seven games, his first postseason in which he did not score. Patrick Kane only registered one goal (granted, it was a double overtime winner). Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were beaten more often than usual and turned the puck over too many times, and Corey Crawford had a few moments of mediocrity.

All of that, coupled with the team’s lack of defensive depth, was the right recipe for early elimination. Yet they still almost won out of sheer willpower.

No team in the NHL has played more playoff games since the 2009 postseason than the Blackhawks. Couple that with the fact that the Hawks are loaded with Olympians who have played in multiple Olympic games, and it’s fair to argue that these guys may be exhausted. They looked like it at times against the Blues. And in reality, this first round exit may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

For the first time since 2012, the Blackhawks will have a long summer by their standards. They will finally have time to rest and recover prior to next season. Also, losing this early should only ignite a fire within that locker room. For a team that may be the most competitive in the league, a first round exit like this should only motivate them more to reach their ultimate goal in the coming seasons.

Looking ahead, this should be a very interesting summer for the Hawks. They will once again be tight against the salary cap while trying to find a way to re-sign big pieces. Andrew Shaw, for instance, will be a restricted free agent this summer and will no doubt receive interest from multiple teams around the league. The Hawks will have to either find a way to pay him, or Shaw will be wearing different colors next season. They’ll also have to fill the spots currently occupied by Ladd, Rozsival, Weise, Fleischmann, and Panik. Panik, however, is the best bet of that bunch to return next year.

Then you have the Bryan Bickell situation. Bickell is still owed $4 million for one more year, which is a major killer in terms of the Hawks’ cap space. Stan Bowman worked really hard last summer and this season to trade Bickell and his contract, but there were no takers. Bowman will likely be tasked with the same challenge this summer, and whether or not he can execute it could play a huge role in the make-up of next season’s Blackhawks.

This first round exit hurts, a lot, but it’s not the end of the world. As maddening as it is to watch the Blues eliminate the Hawks, it’s important to look at the big picture.

Three times since 2010 we have watched massive parades fill the streets of Chicago thanks to the Blackhawks. They were one goal away from playing in three straight Stanley Cup Finals when they lost in overtime of Game 7 to the Kings in 2014. Despite some inevitable roster turnover again this summer, we are still living in the Golden Era of Blackhawks hockey. The fact that expectations in Chicago have become “Stanley Cup or bust” is a good thing, and something that not many teams or cities can compare to.

Dwelling on this loss for a few days, weeks, or even the summer is fine. The Hawks, had they won Game 7, may have gone on to do something special again. Who knows… But don’t get too down on this team. What they’ve done in recent years is nothing short of remarkable, and that cannot be overlooked.

Stan Bowman and the front office will again do what they can to make the Hawks as much of a contender as they can in the coming months. And given the core that is in place with this team, virtually anything is always possible.

Advertisements

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.

Game 7

bluejackets07-rgbjpg-8678ad1b3fbe2735For the second straight postseason, we’re going to witness a Game 7 featuring the Blackhawks. And, for the second straight year, the Blackhawks come into this one having won games 5 and 6 to force a seventh game. While their victory in Game 6 was about as exciting and nauseating as a game can get, it’s important to realize that all that win did was allow the Hawks to live another day and have a chance to win Game 7. Without a win tonight, Game 6 means jack squat.

Like I’ve done before, here’s what the Hawks need to do tonight in order to win and advance:

  • Corey Crawford needs to be great like he was for most of Game 6.
  • The Blackhawks’ forechecking has to be relentless. The Saad-Shaw-Kane line put on a forechecking clinic last game, so hopefully the other lines will follow their lead.
  • Look for the Kings to play Drew Doughty against Kane and his linemates. This will open up the door for the Toews line to possibly have some success. Tonight would be a good time for Bryan Bickell to show up again.
  • The Hawks cannot afford to take penalties. One or two are fine, because that’s hockey, but they can’t be stupid ones. If they do take penalties, the PK has to be good. They allowed another PP goal to the Kings in Game 6, and it almost cost the Blackhawks their season.
  • Brent Seabrook needs to forget about his whole postseason up to this point. He has not been good. The Hawks really need him to start playing like he has in past playoffs, like last year when he was a huge reason for them winning the Cup. The rest of the defense needs to be great as well. No defensive zone turnovers, no breakdowns in coverage, and no getting beat to rebounds in front of Crawford. The defense as a whole played maybe their best game of the series in Game 6 despite a few mistakes, but they’ll need to be better tonight.
  • The Blackhawks will most likely only roll three lines. The fourth line during the morning skate today was Versteeg-Handzus-Bollig. Those guys will be glued to the bench for most of the game, meaning the other three lines are going to have to somehow play 60 minutes without getting exhausted, much like last game.
  • Lastly, look for Patrick Sharp to have an effect on tonight’s game. He was everywhere in Game 6 and damn near scored a few times. Could he finally be heating up? I hope so.

As for how to handle another Game 7, do what you feel most comfortable doing. Don’t watch it with ANYONE who isn’t going to be 100% focused on the game. If need be, watch it by yourself to avoid any distractions or interruptions. That is what I’ll be doing.

Drew Doughty said following Game 5 that the Kings couldn’t let this series get to a seventh game. After Game 6, he said the Kings won’t lose Game 7. Sounds to me like he’s scrambling for things to say and trying to pick up his team while knowing there’s some doubt in that locker room. As for the Hawks, they have been extremely calm and business-like. I prefer their approach.

If you thought either of the past two games were going to make you vomit from being so nervous, then guess what? We get to go through all of that again in just a couple hours.

I can’t wait.

Game 7

169140836_slideGame 7, arguably the two best words in professional sports. Tonight, the Blackhawks and Red Wings will conclude their final playoff series as conference opponents in what only seems like a fitting way, Game 7. Many people, myself included, didn’t think that this series would ever reach this point after Detroit took a commanding 3-1 series lead with their Game 4 victory, but here we are.

Let’s take a quick look back at the first 6 games of this series:

Game 1

The Blackhawks dominated Game 1 and won by a final score of 4-1. They forchecked as well as they have all year long and pretty much did whatever they wanted to against the Wings. Whether it was tired legs for Detroit after their series with Anaheim or simply a lack of energy, they looked awful and the Hawks looked phenomenal.

Game 2

It was as though there was a role reversal in this game. The Blackhawks looked like the Red Wings of Game 1, and the Wings looked like the Blackhawks. Detroit dominated much of the game and made the Blackhawks look like they were skating in mud the whole game. The Wings controlled the puck for much of the game and never let the Hawks get anything going. Detroit won 4-1.

Game 3

Back on their home ice, the Wings again were the much better team in Game 3. They controlled most of the first two periods and jumped out to a 2-0 lead heading into the third. After a Patrick Kane breakaway goal, Andrew Shaw scored what many thought was the tying goal, but the referees ruled goalie interference and the goal was taken away. Detroit would score one more time in the third and won the game 3-1.

Game 4

The Blackhawks actually played well in this game. They played with a major sense of urgency and desperation, but it just wasn’t enough. Corey Crawford held the Wings to just 1 goal (they would add an empty netter), but Jimmy Howard shut out the Hawks. This was the first time all season that the Blackhawks had been shutout. The final was 2-0.

Game 5

The Blackhawks knew they had to win or they were done, and that’s just how they played. Surprisingly, they scored 2 power play goals, and one of which was by Jonathan Toews (his first goal of the playoffs). Similar to Game 1, the Blackhawks controlled almost the entire game and won 4-1.

Game 6

The Hawks started off with a strong start in this game and scored another power play goal about 5 minutes into the game. Detroit would answer back with the next two goals, one of which was a very soft goal allowed by Crawford. Then the third period happened. Michal Handzus got an early goal to tie the game in the third, and this propelled the Hawks to a dominating period. Bryan Bickell would score the go-ahead goal just minutes later, and Michael Frolik would score on a penalty shot to give the Hawks a 4-2 lead. Detroit scored late in the period, but that was it. Hawks won 4-3.

And that brings us to tonight’s Game 7. Both teams now have their backs against the wall knowing that it’s win or go home. I would expect the Blackhawks to continue playing with the momentum, but Detroit isn’t going to just lay their sticks down either. It will be interesting to see if Mike Babcock switches up his lines at all tonight, for instance by putting Datsyuk and Zetterberg on the same line.

Here are my keys to a Blackhawks victory in tonight’s game:

  • The Blackhawks second line. Hossa, Handzus, and Bickell all scored a goal in Game 6, and this line has provided a major advantage for the Hawks over the last 2 games. Detroit has yet to find an answer for stopping this line, and if they can’t stop them again tonight, they could be in trouble.
  • Corey Crawford. While Crawford has played pretty well all postseason, he has still given up some soft goals from time to time. I thought for sure that the bad goal he allowed in Game 6 would cost them the series. He needs to eliminate any bad goals from being scored on him tonight and come up with some big saves.
  • Oduya/Hjalmarsson. When this pairing plays well, the Hawks generally win. Now that Quenneville reunited these two as well as Keith and Seabrook, the defense has played a lot better. I am confident that Keith and Seabrook will be big again tonight, but Oduya and Hjalmarsson will be key. If they can shut down the Wings forwards, I like the Blackhawks’ chances.
  • Home ice. I honestly believe that playing on their home ice will be a huge plus for the 169490335_slideHawks. They have played their best games this postseason at home, and in this series in particular. Detroit has looked like a completely different team on the road in this series (despite Game 2). The United Center will be deafening tonight, which the Blackhawks have stated they will feed off of.

I don’t think that tonight will be like Games 1 and 5 in which the Hawks dominated on home ice, but I do believe they will be the better team tonight. Jonathan Toews has been a different player over the last 2 games, and if he steps up in a big way tonight like he did 2 years ago in Game 7 against Vancouver, the Wings will be in trouble.

If you are unsure how to handle a Game 7, you’re not alone. Here’s some tips:

-Watch the game where you feel most comfortable, whether that’s at home, in a bar, or even at the game. Watch it where you aren’t afraid to act like a 4 year old, make loud noises, or voice some profanity.

-If you’re like me, you’ll get so nervous to where you can’t eat for hours before or after the game. Don’t freak out, it’s normal.

-Have something to help you through the game. I like chewing sunflower seeds just to help my nerves. You may choose something else, but do something to help you along.

-DO NOT watch the game with anyone who isn’t a diehard fan. There is nothing worse than watching a big game with someone who wants to talk the whole time or focus on other things.

Puck drops in 5 hours. I hope we all make it through this night with out too much difficulty. Just remember, you’re not the only one who will be freaking out the whole game. All of Chicago and Detroit will be as well.

Go Hawks!