Post Trade Deadline Blackhawks Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Blackhawks Stanley Cup will require a trade

NHL: JAN 03 Senators at BlackhawksTuesday night’s game between the Blackhawks and Hurricanes in Raleigh will be the last game that the Hawks play in advance of this upcoming weekend’s All Star Game. With a win, the Blackhawks would head into the break with a record of 34-15-4 (72 points), which is a lot better than I would have predicted back in October. While their record and recent 12-game winning streak indicate this is one of the NHL’s top teams, I’m here to dampen the mood just a bit.

To better understand where I am coming from, here is a look at the current line combinations for the Blackhawks:

Shaw-Toews-Hossa

Panarin-Anisimov-Kane

Desjardins-Dannault-Teravainen

Panik-Rasmussen-Sekac/Mashinter/McNeill

As things stand right now, the top two lines are good, with the second line being arguably the best in the NHL. The problem lies within the third and fourth lines.

Depth is one of the single biggest keys to winning a Stanley Cup. Look at any team in recent years who has hoisted the Cup at season’s end and you will notice that they all got quality production from all four lines. When it gets to be mid-May and the playoff matchups get tougher and tougher, teams need their bottom two lines to contribute. Relying on your top six forwards to do all or most of the scoring simply will not work. Look no further than the 2014 Blackhawks who saw their season end in overtime of Game 7 in the Western Conference Final at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings. That team had three quality lines, and that was it. Had they had a fourth line, they would have defeated L.A.

Getting back to this year’s Blackhawks, they are getting sporadic and limited production from their bottom six forwards. They traded for Richard Panik and, more recently, Jiri Sekac to try and help with this problem, but that won’t be enough.

If the Blackhawks really want to become a serious Stanley Cup contender this season, it would be in their best interest to trade for a left winger that can play on the top line with Toews and Hossa.

Andrew Shaw has done a nice job since being promoted to the “Lottery Line,” but he’s not your long-term solution. Acquiring a more skilled left winger who compliments the games of Toews and Hossa would allow Quenneville to move Shaw down to the third line with Dannault (who will likely stick as the third line center from here on out) and Teravainen, creating a much more threatening line in terms of offense.

Shifting Shaw to the third line would then move Desjardins down to the fourth line, where he belongs, alongside Panik and Marcus Kruger. Kruger should be back for the playoffs assuming he does not suffer any setbacks. Getting Kruger back under these circumstances would give the Hawks four lines that possess the potential to do damage to their opponents. Again, that is crucial come playoff time.

As for who exactly Stan Bowman should target to play with Toews and Hossa, I am not really sure due to the fact that I don’t have inside information that lets me know which players are being dangled as trade bait by which teams. But, I can say with certainty that this hypothetical player must be skilled offensively, yet responsible and trustworthy defensively. If he is not the latter two, Quenneville will not play him.

Keep in mind that any trade that takes place would require some salary cap maneuvering by Stan Bowman, which may or may not include trading away someone from the NHL roster.

So while the Blackhawks are definitely a good team, they are simply too top-heavy at the moment. Adding a left wing who can play on the top line would instantly give the Blackhawks some much needed scoring depth. And heck, while Bowman’s at it he may as well try and upgrade the defense as well. That’s a whole other conversation, however.

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 are true champions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackhawks on the verge…again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Also, WIN IT FOR KIMMO!

Disappointing loss in Game 3 for the Blackhawks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackhawks drop Game 2

15-_DSC2491-toresizeAfter a surprisingly low scoring first game of the series between the Blackhawks and Lightning, we finally got what we were all expecting in Game 2: a fast paced, relatively high scoring track meet. Each team traded goals throughout the game until Tampa Bay struck for their fourth goal roughly half way through the third. The Blackhawks could not answer, and the game ended 4-3 in favor of the home team. Series tied 1-1 heading to Chicago.

All things considered, the Hawks shouldn’t be too upset about coming home with the series tied at one. Their goal heading into the first two games in Tampa was to win at least one and gain home ice advantage in the series. They did just that. The disappointing thing is that Game 2 was definitely winnable, but they let Tampa Bay off the hook. Had the Hawks pulled off another victory last night to go up 2-0 in the series, this thing would be all but over.

So here’s what I took away from Game 2:

  • Corey Crawford did not have his best game. There’s no doubt about that. Tyler Johnson’s goal to make it 3-2 should have never happened, but it did. Crawford looked a bit shaky pretty much the whole night while allowing four goals. Having said that, aside from Johnson’s goal, you can’t really blame Crawford too much for the other three. On Tampa’s first goal of the game, Crawford was heavily screened and never had a good look at the shot. Their second goal, scored by Kucherov, was another crazy redirect giving Crow no chance of making a save. And their fourth goal came via another deflection, only this time the puck hit Andrew Desjardins’ stick. While Crawford did admit that he needs to be better, I don’t think there’s anything to be concerned about here. Tampa Bay has scored some crazy goals this series, and there’s not much Crawford could do.
  • Toews, Kane, and Saad were held quiet again in Game 2. Give Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and the Cedric Paquette line credit for shutting these guys down. Towards the end of the game, Quenneville did elect to place Kane back on the second line while moving Hossa back up with Toews and Saad. With the series now shifting to Chicago where the Hawks will have the last change, it’ll be interesting to see if Q goes back to the Toews, Kane, and Saad line knowing he can now dictate the matchups. My guess is we will see this for at least the first period of Game 3. If that line is still not producing, then we’ll see Hossa back with Toews, and Kane with Richards. One thing to note is that in the 2010 Final against Philadelphia, Toews and Kane did nothing in games 1 and 2. They then woke up and came up big in games 3-6. In the 2013 Final against Boston, neither player did much of anything until Game 4. Those two both scored that game and were unstoppable the rest of the way.
  • Ben Bishop left Game 2 in the middle of the third period for about a minute, then returned to the ice. After a couple minutes back in the game, he left again, only this time he didn’t return. I thought for sure he was just sick or something like that, but it’s sounding more and more like this could be an injury. If that’s the case, there’s a good chance he’ll be on the bench Monday night meaning Andrei Vasilevskiy will get the start in goal. Vasilevskiy has 8 career NHL wins as a rookie this year. If he’s in net, the Hawks will need to quickly figure out how to beat this guy. We’re already two games into this series, so there’s no more time for a “feeling out” process. While this kid has some major talent and upside, this is still a tough spot for him to be called upon. The Blackhawks need to take advantage of that right away.
  • The back-to-back penalties that Patrick Sharp took in the third period Saturday night were obvious penalties that had to be called. The Hawks killed off the first one, but weren’t quite able to do the same on the second. He took full responsibility for this, but the fact of the matter is that the Hawks can’t do that again. You can’t take two straight penalties in the third period of a tie game.
  • Kyle Cumiskey may have played his last game of the series last night. He committed a costly turnover right before the Lightning’s first goal and wound up with a team-low 5:08 of ice time. Joel Quenneville said today that Trevor van Riemsdyk “could play” in Game 3, meaning he probably will. Depending on how well he plays in Game 3, he may not leave the lineup the rest of the way. David Rundblad had a better Game 2 than he did in the first game of this series, so odds are he’s not going anywhere.
  • After a very effective Game 1 performance, Kris Versteeg wasn’t as noticeable in Game 2. Like with TVR, Quenneville stated that Bryan Bickell “could play” Monday and that he thinks he’s healthy. If that’s the case, Bickell will be back for Versteeg in Game 3. This could open up more space for Patrick Kane if Q elects to play Kane on the second line.
  • Teuvo Teravainen is really, really good. He’s got a goal in two straight games to start the series now, with last night’s goal coming on the powerplay. He should be a fixture on the second PP unit from now on. His improved play has made not only the powerplay, but that third line even better. If only Patrick Sharp would show up and start scoring…

The Blackhawks made it clear that they are now looking forward to coming home for the next two games and feeding off the fans at the UC. Just like the Lightning did on their own ice, I’d expect the Hawks to come out flying to start the game Monday night. If they can get an early lead and build on it, they’ll be in good shape.

It will be pretty interesting to see which matchups Q will chase now that he gets the last change, but I’d have to believe he’ll try and get the Toews line out against any d-pairing besides Hedman and Stralman. No coach is better at getting favorable matchups on the ice than Q.

Game 3 is a big one. If the Hawks win that, then all the pressure in the world again shifts to Tampa Bay for Game 4.

Blackhawks Game 1 thoughts; Game 2 preview

10-171460575-smallThe truth of the matter is that the Blackhawks are coming into tonight’s Game 2 in Tampa Bay knowing very well that they need to step it up from the way they played throughout most of Game 1. The Lightning are coming into tonight’s game feeling pretty good about themselves after their Game 1 performance, or so it seems. Then you have what the national media is saying, and that sounds similar to what the Lightning are saying: “Tampa proved they can hang with and beat the Blackhawks based on how they came out in Game 1.”

Here’s what I’m saying:

We all fully expected, or at least should have expected, the Lightning to come out of the gates just as they did in the first game of this series. They had tons of energy, an overload of adrenaline, were playing at warp speed, and dominated most of the first period. This was to be expected.

The media and maybe even the Lightning players seem to believe that if the Lightning can just do that again for the rest of this series, they’ll win and be fine.

Since no one in the media seems to be saying it, I’ll say it: There is NO WAY that Tampa Bay can play with that much energy for an entire 60 minutes, let alone for the remainder of this series. It’s physically impossible. If you go back and watch the replay of the first period from Game 1, it won’t take more than two minutes to realize that the Lightning were jacked up on adrenaline (first game of the SCF, and on home ice) and using every ounce of energy they had in them. It’s not possible for a team to play that way for an entire game, or four, five or six. Counter my argument as you’d like, but I’m sticking by my words.

The second half of Game 1 was largely controlled by the Blackhawks, who were finally able to net two goals in a 1:58 span late in the third period to tie and win the game. They responded to Tampa’s fast start like the experienced champions that they are and walked away with a big win. All the pressure in the world now rests on the Lightning’s shoulders heading into Game 2.

Tampa Bay knows very well that they most likely cannot recover from a 2-0 series deficit with the series shifting to Chicago for games 3 and 4, thus making Game 2 a rare must-win.

On the Blackhawks’ side of things, they know that they didn’t play anywhere close to their best game in Game 1, yet still found a way to win. That in itself should give them some added confidence heading into tonight’s game.

So, what do we need to see from the Hawks tonight to get a 2-0 series lead?

  • More production from the top two lines. The Toews-Kane line was pretty ineffective for the most part in Game 1. They just couldn’t seem to get much going. Credit Cedric Paquette and his line for doing a nice job defensively against Toews and Kane. Their performance seems to have given Paquette some extra confidence heading into tonight, as he has stated he plans on “chirping” at Toews to get him off his game. (Yeah, good luck with that Cedric. Just ask Ryan Kesler how well that worked out for him…) I am definitely expecting more out of the Hawks’ top lines tonight. Rarely do they put together back-to-back bad games. If Quenneville sticks with Toews and Kane on the top line, those two and Saad are bound to get something going.
  • Continued production from third and fourth lines. The Hawks’ third line 15-_DSC2491-toresizeregistered both goals in Game 1, with Teravainen getting the first, and Vermette the second. I talked a lot about each team’s depth leading up to Game 1 and how that’s where the Blackhawks had the biggest advantage over Tampa. It proved to be true on Wednesday, and if the Hawks get more production from their bottom two lines tonight and as the series progresses, the Lightning will be in trouble.
  • Hold the “Triplets” in check again. The now famed “Triplets” line of the Lightning was hardly noticeable in Game 1. Tyler Johnson was held to just one shot the whole night, and that line never got much of anything going. This line has produced more goals than any other line for the Lightning this postseason, so limiting them is a death blow to Tampa. Again, as I said in my series preview, if the Hawks could find a way to just limit, not even shut down, one of Tampa Bay’s top two lines, the Hawks would be in good shape. They did just that in Game 1 and walked away with the victory.
  • Get good “D”. The Blackhawks’ top four defensemen played a pretty solid game Wednesday night from the end of the first period on. The fifth and sixth d-men had a bit more trouble. Specifically David Rundblad. This was the shakiest we have seen Rundblad since Game 1 against Anaheim last round, only this time it didn’t cost the Hawks. It looks like he’ll be back in there again in Game 2. Hopefully he got his “jitters” out of the way in Game 1 and will be more confident tonight. As for Kyle Cumiskey, he still has done nothing to warrant being taken out of the lineup. His in-zone coverage has been pretty good, his passing has been above average, and his speed is always a threat. He needs to simply keep doing what he’s doing.
  • Win some faceoffs. The Blackhawks were abysmal at the faceoff dot through the first half of Game 1. They won just 30 percent of the faceoffs in the first period, and ended the game having won 47 percent. Those numbers need to improve. Odds are that Jonathan Toews will not have another bad night in draws (45% in Game 1), but you never know. On the powerplay in Game 1, the Hawks lost all four faceoffs that they took. People wonder why they often have trouble getting the PP set up, and if you look at the fact that they went 0-4 at the dot with the man advantage, that should tell you something. Losing the draw means the opponent will clear the zone and dump the puck into your own end. Winning the offensive zone faceoffs on the powerplay, and at even strength, allows you to immediately set up in the offensive zone without having to get the puck in over the blue line.
  • Lastly, get the powerplay back on track. The Hawks’ powerplay is converting just over 18 percent of the time right now, which isn’t good enough given the personnel they have on the ice. They scored a couple big goals in Game 7 in Anaheim on the PP, but went 0-3 with the man advantage Wednesday night in Tampa. Given the fact that the Lightning have a pretty lethal powerplay and will eventually get a powerplay goal or two, the Hawks need to match that by doing the same. Had the Hawks scored even just once with the man advantage in Game 1, they would have had a much more comfortable victory. They have got to figure this thing out and start making Tampa pay for their penalties.

As I already said, Game 2 is a huge game for the Lightning. They cannot afford to go down two games to nothing with the series shifting north to Chicago where the Blackhawks are nearly unbeatable right now. At the same time, this is also a big game for the Hawks for the exact same reason. They know that if they get a win tonight, Tampa Bay will be backed up against a wall fighting for their life just three games into the series. Heading home up 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Final is a scenario any team would dream of.

Like was the case in Game 1, I’m expecting the Lightning to come out flying again in Game 2. The Hawks just need to hold their ground and weather the early storm. There’s no way the Lightning can play a full 60 minutes the way they played the first period on Wednesday, so getting through the first ten minutes tonight either tied or with the lead could be big for the Hawks.

Blackhawks need strong start in Game 1

15-_DSC2491-toresizeFinally, after three days off since Game 7 against Anaheim, the Blackhawks will begin their track-meet with the Lightning tonight in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay. Ever since the Hawks prevailed over the Ducks on Saturday to punch their ticket to the next round, all we’ve been reading and hearing is how both teams are fast, the Blackhawks have better depth, and the Blackhawks also have more experience. All of that is true, but now we finally get to see it all play out on the ice.

As I mentioned and you may have heard, the Blackhawks have been on this stage before in recent years and won. Twice. The Lightning, despite having won the Cup in 2004, have not. Only four of their players have ever played in the Stanley Cup Final, and all four lost. Needless to say, the Blackhawks have the major advantage when it comes to experience between the two teams. It is imperative that they use that to their advantage tonight, and for the remainder of the series.

Because of that experience factor, I would expect the Blackhawks to come out as the more calm, cool, and collected group of the two once the puck drops tonight at roughly 7:00pm CT.

Winning the first game of the Stanley Cup Final usually proves to be big, as the winner of Game 1 has gone on to win the series 58 times out of the 75 series played. Whether or not that statistic really means anything is up to you to decide. Still, this is obviously a big game that the Hawks would like to win. Here’s how they can do just that:

  • Survive the first ten minutes. You would have to imagine the Lightning will come out of the gates flying tonight being on their home ice. And when I say flying, I’m not totally joking. This is one of the fastest teams in all of hockey and they use their speed to their advantage. It will be important that the Blackhawks weather the storm in the first ten minutes and come out of the first half of the period tied or winning. This is where the Hawks’ experience could really pay off in a hurry. They know better than anyone how to handle a situation like this.
  • Limit at least one of Tampa’s top two lines. This one goes for the whole series actually, but it stands just as true for Game 1. We’re not sure yet which lines of the Hawks will be matched up against which of the Lightning, but whichever two end up seeing the majority of the Lightning’s top two lines will need to quickly find a way to slow at least one of them down. Tampa Bay almost solely relies on their top six forwards to do all of their scoring, so shutting down or at least limiting just one of their top lines should give them problems. Putting pressure on their bottom six to score is just what the Hawks want.
  • Get productive minutes from Rundblad and Cumiskey. It would appear that these two will remain in the lineup for Game 1, meaning it will be the first time either of them have played in the Stanley Cup Final. If both Rundblad and Cumiskey can play the way they did in games 6 and 7 against Anaheim (smart, composed, responsible), they’ll have done their jobs and given Joel Quenneville just what he’s looking for.
  • Receive a solid outing from Crawford. As I mentioned a bit before, the Lightning will, or at least should, come out going a hundred miles per hour to start this game tonight looking to score the first goal. Odds are that the Blackhawks will need to weather a storm or two early on, meaning Corey Crawford has to be on his game. He’s come up big in big games before, so I’m not too concerned about him being able to do it again.
  • 1st line needs to stay hot. Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane ripped apart the Ducks ever since being put together on the top line in Game 6 of the WCF. It would be huge if they could pick up right where they left off and do the same tonight. Putting heavy pressure on Tampa Bay right away will give the Hawks some momentum and plant a seed of doubt into Tampa’s heads. If this line, or any line of the Hawks for that matter, can come up with the game’s first goal, that will be a huge lift moving forward in the game. Tampa Bay is 9-0 (I’m pretty certain…) this postseason when scoring first, so getting the first goal tonight could be big for either team.

Both teams are going to be pretty jacked up to start tonight’s game, but both will probably go through a bit of a “feeling out” process as well. Neither of these teams are real familiar with the other and so they’ll both probably wait for someone to make the first move before going into attack mode. We could be in for a 2-1 or 3-2 score tonight. Having said that, however, of Tampa’s five home losses this postseason (that’s a lot), four of them have been by four goals. So we could just as well get a 6-2 Blackhawks victory.

The bottom line here is that it will be important for the Blackhawks to play a solid first ten minutes of this game to help set the tone for the remainder of the game. Tampa Bay has not been a good home team during these playoffs, so taking advantage of that tonight could prove to be big.

How the Blackhawks can win the Cup

10-171460575-smallMy series preview and prediction have already been posted, meaning it’s now time to take a closer look at the Blackhawks and what they need to do to bring home Lord Stanley for a third time in six years.

The Hawks are coming off of what many are calling one of their toughest series in the Toews-Kane era. The Ducks were arguably the deepest team that the Blackhawks have faced in a seven game series in recent years, as well as one of the biggest. Anaheim, or more specifically Ryan Kesler, was sure that there was no way any human being could withstand the physical pounding induced by the Ducks and still win the series. Well, that may be true because the Blackhawks aren’t really humans. They are more along the lines of indestructible machines that don’t seem to care what style of hockey you play. They’ll simply adjust and still find a way to win.

Over the course of the Western Conference Final, we saw what kind of team the Blackhawks truly are this year. Not to take anything away from Nashville or Minnesota, but neither team really pushed the Hawks to their limit in nearly each game of the series like the Ducks just did.

In beating Anaheim, we learned/rediscovered the fact that this group of Blackhawks players never backs down when faced with adversity and has too much experience, leadership, and heart to lose. We also learned that this Hawks team is the deepest team in the NHL at the forward position; a huge reason for their victory over the Ducks.

Duncan Keith, as if trying to remind us all of his superhuman abilities, logged more minutes against Anaheim than in any previous playoff series he had played, yet only seemed to get stronger as the series prolonged. If the playoffs ended today, he’d be a top three candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.

Looking ahead now to their date with Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup Final, here’s what the Blackhawks must do to win:

  1. Four-line production. I’ve said it a couple times already, and I’ll say it again. The Blackhawks need to keep getting production from all four lines. Their bottom two 1383642_616596775058148_1814435643_nlines are what kept them alive in the WCF before Toews and Kane were reunited on the top line and took over the show. Assuming the lines from Game 7 stick heading into Game 1 with Tampa, it would be safe to think the Hawks’ top line will continue producing, and possibly at an even higher rate than they already have been due to there being no more Ryan Kesler on the other side. The second line of Bickell, Richards, and Hossa looked pretty solid in Game 7 (despite Bickell sitting with an injury most of the night), and this line could be a key to victory for the Hawks in this series. With Hossa starting to get hot and Richards looking more and more like his old self, rolling two formidable lines could be huge against Tampa. The third and fourth lines of the Hawks just need to keep doing what they’ve been doing. Keep in mind that the Hawks just knocked off Anaheim without Patrick Sharp scoring a single goal in the series. If he gets going now, look out.
  2. Stabilize Tampa’s top six. Nearly ALL of Tampa Bay’s scoring in these playoffs has come from their top two lines. The leading scorer on either of their bottom two lines, Ryan Callahan, has a grand total of just FOUR points this postseason. If the Blackhawks can take away some of the scoring from even just one of the Lightning’s top two lines, Tampa will be in trouble and their bottom six will be forced to produce. It’s hard to win the Stanley Cup while getting production from just two lines.
  3. Keep up the good D. Despite using basically four and a half defensemen against the Ducks, the Blackhawks’ blue liners still played a really solid series. Duncan Anaheim Ducks v Chicago Blackhawks - Game SixKeith is playing out of this world right now and is looking like the planet’s best d-man yet again. Brent Seabrook has been just what he’s needed to be defensively this postseason, while also coming up with big goals along the way. Niklas Hjalmarsson keeps blocking shots and is arguably the Hawks’ best d-man in the defensive zone, which is saying something. Johnny Oduya is having an incredible postseason, which has allowed Quenneville to pair him up with Hjalmarsson and Seabrook at any point in time. As for the fifth and sixth d-men, it’s now Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad filling those slots. Kimmo Timonen and Michal Roszival started the playoffs as the Hawks’ last two defensemen, but have since been benched and injured respectively. Given Tampa’s lack of size and good speed, Kyle Cumiskey may very well see his role increase this series. He’s quick and likes playing a fast game. If David Rundblad can simply do what he did in games 6 and 7 against Anaheim, he’ll be fine.
  4. Win or play to a draw on special teams. The Blackhawks’ powerplay has been rather ineffective for much of these playoffs, despite getting a couple big goals in Game 7 against the Ducks. When given a man advantage in this series, the Hawks have got to at least generate chances and momentum, and preferably score. Too many times have they given their opponent momentum by getting nothing going on the powerplay. That can’t continue happening now. As for the penalty kill, the Blackhawks have gotten better in that area recently, but will be going up against a usually potent powerplay of the Lightning. Killing off penalties, as usual, will be key. If the Hawks can win or at least come out even in special teams against the Lightning, I like the Blackhawks’ chances due to their depth advantage at even strength.
  5. And the obvious one, Corey Crawford. If you don’t have good goaltending right now, you’ve got no shot. Crawford has been on this stage before, whereas Ben Bishop has not, and Crawford needs to play that way. By that, I mean he needs to play this series like he’s been here before. He has come up huge for the Hawks already on a handful of occasions this postseason, including a couple times against the Ducks (most notably games 2, 6, and 7). His .919 save percentage is just one point behind Bishop, but given where that number was at after the first round, Crawford has clearly turned his game around. As I said in my series prediction, Crawford’s rebound control has been phenomenal at times this postseason, including, yet again, games 2 and 7 against the Ducks. When he is absorbing the puck and not giving up rebounds, he is nearly unbeatable. If he can keep up his play in net, it’ll be on the guys in front of him to get the job done, and that’s a good thing.

Something I didn’t mention above is that the Lightning love playing with speed going north and south. The Blackhawks are one of the best teams at defending that. If you go back and look at Game 7 against the Ducks, for example, Anaheim tried continuously to move the puck through the neutral zone with speed, only to run into a wall of defenders or have the puck stripped. Considering that playing with speed through the neutral zone and getting odd man rushes is such a huge part of Tampa’s offense, if the Hawks can slow them down in that regard, the Lightning could be in trouble.

On the flip side, the Blackhawks also like playing with speed going north and south through the neutral zone. Anaheim, one of the league’s best defensive teams at the forward spot, had serious trouble stopping the Hawks from playing that way. Tampa Bay, who probably doesn’t have the caliber of defensive forwards that Anaheim does, will most likely also have trouble, and maybe more, stopping the Blackhawks from using their speed going up the ice with the puck. If the Hawks can be the ones to dictate the pace of play and use their north-south speed to their advantage, they’ll be in good shape.

Another thing that I haven’t touched on is the experience factor. I’m sure some of you are now rolling your eyes and saying that this aspect of the game gets blown out of proportion. If you think that way, that’s perfectly fine. However, you cannot overlook the fact that the Blackhawks have been here twice in the last six years and walked away hoisting the Cup both times. This team knows better than any other team how to handle big games, pressure, and adversity. That type of experience pays big dividends, as evidenced by the way the Hawks blew out Anaheim in Game 7. I’m not saying the pressure will ultimately make Tampa Bay crumble, but it may wear on them more than it will the Hawks.

Looking at this matchup on paper, which is all we can really do at this point, the Blackhawks have a decent advantage in my eyes. Yes Tampa is fast and probably faster than anyone the Hawks have faced, but their lack of depth and experience will prove to be too costly against a Hawks team that is loaded with forward depth and experience in this round. If the Blackhawks can take one of the first two games in Tampa Bay, it will put the Lightning under a lot of pressure to win one of the first two games in Chicago, where the Blackhawks are nearly unbeatable. Whether or not that pressure proves to be too much for this young and inexperienced Tampa team remains to be seen.

I’m saying Blackhawks in six.