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.

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The Blackhawks’ offense must show up in Game 4

2015-11-07 13.59.52After three games of their best of seven first round series with the Blues, the Blackhawks find themselves in a 2-1 hole heading into Game 4 Tuesday night at the United Center. Through the first three games of this series, the Hawks have registered just 5 goals; one of which was an empty netter.

An area in which it looked like the Blackhawks would have the upper hand in this series, offense, has in fact favored the Blues thus far. St. Louis has been the better team in 5-on-5 play, and they lead the Hawks 51.1 to 48.9 in even strength Corsi. The Blackhawks did generate 46 shots in Game 3, 24 of which came in the second period, but they could only get just 2 goals out of it.

If the Blackhawks want to get themselves back even in this series and eventually go on to win it, they are going to need pucks to start entering the net behind Brian Elliott.

The Ladd, Toews, and Hossa line has been pretty good up to this point for the Hawks, but they have yet to tally a goal. Andrew Ladd had a great chance in the second period of Game 3, but his shot hit both posts before exiting the crease. Then you have the second line of Panarin, Anisimov and Kane, without question this team’s top line all season long. Only Anisimov has scored while Elliott was in the net, and that goal came in a 4-on-4 situation. Kane is still looking for his first goal. Between the six forwards on the Hawks’ bottom two lines, Andrew Shaw is the only one with a goal, and that came via a powerplay.

In total, the Blackhawks have ONE even strength, 5-on-5 goal through the first three games (Keith’s goal in the final seconds of the second period of Game 2). That just won’t be enough moving forward.

It is imperative that the Blackhawks’ top players show up in this series and begin making a difference. If they don’t, then it will be St. Louis moving on to the second round.

Here’s what needs to happen for the Hawks to start scoring and for their best players to actually be their best players:

  • Sustained offensive zone time. Aside from period two of Game 3, the Blackhawks have had a real tough time getting much set-up in their offensive zone. They’ve had some good shifts here and there, but nothing consistent. This needs to change. I know the Blues are one of the better defensive teams in hockey, but the Hawks simply have to find a way to put sustained offensive pressure on them. Rather than have one guy carry the puck into the o-zone time and time again, only to run into a wall of St. Louis defenders, the Hawks need multiple players entering the zone together to space out the Blues’ defense. With just the puck-carrier entering the zone, that allows the Blues to zero in on him and force him off the puck without being able to make a play. If you’ve got one or two other players entering the zone with the puck-carrier, you then don’t allow the Blues to hone in on the puck. They then have to stay spaced and account for the other players entering the zone. This may open up the opportunity to get a good cycle going and generate consistent and sustainable offensive zone time.
  • Depth. Unlike last year during the postseason, the Blackhawks are not getting much from their third and fourth lines. Granted we’re only three games into the playoffs, but this is still an issue. You may be able to win a series over a weaker team with only two lines contributing, but that won’t work against someone like St. Louis. The third line with Teravainen at center has got to get going. Brandon Mashinter, who started Game 1 on this line, is nothing but an anchor weighing down any line he’s on. He is one of the worst options you can have when trying to generate more puck possession. He was replaced by Richard Panik the last two games, while Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise have occupied the other wing. If the Hawks are to win this series, not only will they need some of their top forwards to start scoring, but this line will need to contribute offensively. They are not your typical checking third line, and instead are more of a skilled third line that if effective on offense can be a difference maker in a series.
  • Solve Elliott. This one kind of goes hand-in-hand with generating more offense and goals, but the Hawks have to figure out a way to beat Brian Elliott. You could say that he single-handedly won the Blues Game 3 by only allowing 2 goals on 46 shots against. And truthfully, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. It has not been uncommon for the Hawks to be searching for answers against the opposing goalie through the first three games of a series. If history tells us anything, it’s that this is a team that seems to figure it out in Games 4-7, making their opponent’s goalie(s) look bad in the process. One way to potentially beat Elliott is by moving the puck laterally in the offensive zone. Create one-timers. Get Elliott moving side-to-side. He’s not the quickest in that regard and can be beaten in this fashion. In order to do this, look no further than my first point: create sustained offensive zone time.
  • Crawford. Corey Crawford has been phenomenal in this series. He has yet to allow a soft goal, and has come up with some massive saves at crucial times. This needs to continue. The Blues will be going for the kill in Game 4, so Crawford and the Hawks should expect an attempted offensive onslaught right from the start. Crow will have to stand tall and make all of the necessary saves, as well as some highlight reel saves.

The Blackhawks do not want to go down 3-1 against this Blues team. Getting a win in Game 4 to even things up would be huge. To do that, it would be wise of the Blackhawks to try and execute the above points.

As I briefly touched on, the Blackhawks are historically a much better team in Games 4-7. Since 2010, their record in those games is 43-14, and they have come back to win the series 9 times after trailing in it 2-1. Needless to say, this is not an unfamiliar position for them to be in.

If the Hawks are still having trouble generating offense at the halfway point of Tuesday night’s Game 4, look for Joel Quenneville to start tinkering with the lines. In all honesty, it was a bit surprising that he didn’t do so more aggressively in the third period of Game 3.

I’ll say it right now: If the Hawks win Game 4, they will win this series.

Time to flip the switch: How the Blackhawks can get going again

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Winnipeg JetsTuesday night the Blackhawks will welcome the Central Division-leading Stars back to Chicago. Dallas currently leads the division with 95 points, while the Hawks sit in third with 91. Both teams have just 9 games remaining on their regular season schedules this year, so tonight will go a long way in determining whether or not the Blackhawks will have a legitimate chance of still winning the division. If they wish to achieve that goal, then tonight’s game becomes a must-win.

Lately the Hawks have been in a funk, to say the least. And in all honesty, it’s nothing that should come as much of a surprise. They have become a perennial mediocre team in the month of March over the past few years. Only when the “real” games begin in April do they dial it up a few notches. That being said, however, now might be the right time to begin that dialing-up process.

Following Tuesday night’s game against Dallas, the Hawks will take off on a four-game road trip out west to Calgary, Vancouver, Minnesota, and Winnipeg. None of those games will be easy, and given how the Hawks have performed on the road this year (18-14-4), it would be nice if they began flipping that switch to playoff-mode beginning with Tuesday’s tilt against the Stars. If they play the way they have for the majority of the last month on the upcoming road trip, the Blackhawks could be staring at another four-game losing streak.

To get a win tonight and to begin working their way towards that “playoff mode,” here’s what the Hawks need to do:

  • First off, the offense needs to start clicking again. The Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line was arguably the league’s best for the first four months of the season, but has since quieted down a bit. For this reason, among a few others, Joel Quenneville has begun mixing up his lines on a pretty regular basis whether in the middle of a game or heading into a game. We’ve seen Kane with Toews and Ladd while Hossa takes the second line RW spot, we’ve seen Ladd flanking Teravainen on the team’s third line, and we’ve seen a number of different combinations on the bottom two lines in recent games. All of this has been an effort to generate some offense, but it hasn’t consistently worked. At this point, I see two possible solutions moving forward. The first one is if Ladd just can’t seem to connect with 19 and 81 on the first line, move him to the third line and bump Fleischmann up to the top line. He has shown some really good skill and energy since coming to Chicago, and it may be a nice fit for everyone involved. Ladd, meanwhile, would add some really solid depth on the third line. The second option, and the one I hope prevails, is for the Blackhawks to simply wake up and “flip their switch.” We say this same thing every year, but only because it’s true every year. They are playing on auto-pilot right now, and until they begin to actually try and go all out each and every night, we’ll continue to see more mediocre performances. This team now has the depth and talent required to win a Stanley Cup thanks to the trade deadline, but until they start playing like they really want it, the losses will keep coming.
  • Secondly, Quenneville needs to figure out his defensive pairings. Right now we’re seeing guys like Ehrhoff and Gustafsson rotate in and out of the lineup while only getting around ten minutes or less of ice-time per game. Meanwhile, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Michal Rozsival are seeing their minutes increase to the high twenties despite them being arguably the two worst defensemen on the team. The bottom line is that while Q has been “resting” his top d-men as of late, he needs to start giving the appropriate minutes to the appropriate guys while at the same time figuring out who his 4-6 defensemen will be come mid-April. If it were up to me, the d-pairings would be Keith-Seabrook, Ehrhoff-Hjalmarsson, TVR-Rozsival with Gustafsson possibly taking TVR’s spot. Brent Seabrook cannot support a sub-par d-man on his pairing anymore like he maybe could have at one time. Instead, he needs a rock solid partner like Keith or Hjalmarsson. Speaking of Hjalmarsson, I like him with Ehrhoff for the fact that Ehrhoff can be a responsible defenseman, but he can also move the puck offensively better than any other d-man on the Hawks not named Keith. This pairing provides you with solid defense in Hammer, and good (not great) defense and above average offense in Ehrhoff. As for the third pairing, I say start with TVR and go to Gustafsson as soon as van Riemsdyk runs into trouble.
  • The penalty kill for the Blackhawks has been awful for most of the season in case you haven’t noticed. This is partially due to Marcus Kruger’s injury, and matters only got worse when Hossa went down. Hossa is now back, and Kruger could be coming back as soon as this weekend. Their PK was 3 for 3 against Minnesota Sunday night, but the Stars will be a much stiffer test despite Seguin not being in their lineup. Now is the time to figure this thing out and start building some positive momentum heading into April. I’m not saying the penalty kill has to be perfect every single game, but allowing a powerplay goal or more each night cannot continue. Kruger’s imminent return to the lineup should go a long way in helping solve this issue.
  • Surprisingly, the third period has become the Hawks’ enemy in recent weeks as opposed to years past. Take Sunday night for example when the Wild outshot the Hawks 16-7. Allowing 16 shots against in a period, let alone the third period, is not a good habit to fall into. Then when you consider that the Blackhawks are not generating many shots, it becomes a terrible scenario. There needs to be more urgency on offense and more reliability on defense shown by this team in the third period moving forward. If the Hawks are trailing entering the third period against Dallas or if they fall behind in the third, look for them to try and play with more urgency.

The Blackhawks are by no means a bad team or a team with huge concerns heading into the playoffs. There are, however, some concerns and weaknesses that need to be shored up starting now. The Hawks could really use home ice advantage in the playoffs this year as they have been very average on the road this season. The only way to earn home ice in the playoffs at this point is to start winning hockey games.

Expect the Stars to come out flying tonight as they look to unofficially eliminate the Hawks’ chances of winning the division. On the flip side, the Blackhawks know how big this game is with regards to their hopes of winning the Central, and it would be disappointing to see them come out as anything other than energized and ready to go.

*Update: Scott Darling will be in net again tonight as Crawford continues to recover from an upper-body injury.

First half surprises in the NHL

Columbus Blue Jackets  v Florida PanthersBelieve it or not, we are already over halfway through the NHL season. The standings are starting to take shape, but there is still way too much hockey left to come to any solid conclusions as to how they will for sure look in April. There have definitely been some surprises thus far, both good and bad, as well as some not so surprising occurrences. Today we will take a look around the league at some of those surprises, as well as offer up some predictions as to how the rest of the season will unfold.

Let’s get to it.

SURPRISES

The Good

  • How about the Florida Panthers? They just had a 12-game winning streak snapped in Vancouver, and through 43 games Florida sits atop the Atlantic division with 57 points (tied for fourth league-wide). This is due in large part to their defense and starting goaltender, Roberto Luongo. Only one team in the NHL has allowed fewer goals than the Panthers, which is a key statistic. Over the last six seasons, each team to have won the Stanley Cup ranked in the top five in the NHL in fewest goals against. So despite Jaromir Jagr continuing to defy his age, the biggest story coming out of Sunrise, Florida should be the Panthers’ ability to keep the puck out of their own net.
  • This may or may not be a surprise to some people, but the Washington Capitals are a NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitalsvery good team. They currently rank second in the league in goals-scored per game, and are tied for first in fewest goals-against per game. Oh, and they lead the NHL in points with 67. Needless to say, the Caps seem to have everything clicking at the moment. Throw in the fact that Alex Ovechkin just notched goals number 500 and 501, and yeah, it’s been a pretty good half-season in the nation’s capital.
  • The Dallas Stars. Most people had them pegged as a playoff team, but not everyone thought they would be this good this fast. They own the league’s top offense and arguably the NHL’s best line. As of this moment, they lead the Central division with 62 points. They have hit a bit of a rough patch over the last week or so, but every team is entitled to one or two of those over the course of a long season. The biggest question with Dallas is whether or not their defense and goaltending will be strong enough come playoff time.
  • Again, some might not see this as surprising, others may. The Chicago Blackhawks are rolling right now and are winners of seven straight games. Despite another offseason that saw a major roster overhaul, this team has picked up right where they left off a year ago and own the third highest point total in the NHL. Rookie sensation Artemi Panarin, who leads all rookies in goals, assists, and points, has become a huge part of the team and is a huge reason why Patrick Kane is having a career year. The trio of Panarin, Anisimov, and Kane is as good as any league-wide and has carried the Hawks at times this season. Also, Corey Crawford is having his best season in the NHL and leads the league with 6 shutouts. While the Hawks may still be an addition or two away from being a Cup-favorite, they’re still a scary team to play against.

The Bad

  • The Columbus Blue Jackets are an absolute mess. This was a team that many people had making the playoffs, but that looks to be impossible at this point. To recap their season so far, they have fired their head coach, hired John Tortorella out of desperation, and recently traded their top player, Ryan Johansen, to the Nashville Predators. The Jackets sit dead last in hockey with 34 points and are showing no signs of turning things around. Yes, they did acquire Seth Jones in exchange for Johansen, but that move won’t help them this year. Even with a history of losing in Columbus, this year’s losing ways were not anticipated.
  • Who predicted the Penguins would be having this much trouble, especially after the addition of Phil Kessel? We have come to know the Penguins as a perennial playoff team over the last eight years or so, but this year does not look as promising. Pittsburgh struggled out of the gate, following their captain’s lead, but have somewhat turned things around in recent weeks, as has Sidney Crosby. Still, they cannot seem to put any consistent, successful play together and are stuck winning a game then losing a game, and so on. Could this be the year they miss the postseason?
  • A lot like Pittsburgh, the Tampa Bay Lightning got off to a slow start to the season 130107_gq_trout_aand have since found it difficult to find any consistency in their play. This was last season’s best offensive team, but now they rank 17th in goals per game. Their captain, Steven Stamkos, has been surrounded by trade rumors all season. Whether or not his contract situation is affecting his play, there is no denying that he is having an “off year” by his standards. Yes, the Lightning have dealt with some injuries, but now is the time for them to start turning their season around if they want to make another deep playoff push.
  • Ready for another underperforming team? You got it. The Ducks might just be the most surprising team in the league so far, and not in a good way. Their 41 points are good for fifth in the Pacific division, and their 78 goals scored are dead last in the league by quite a bit. Much like the two previous teams we discussed, Anaheim has been unable to consistently play “their” game. However, they do have some things going for them. They are the league’s ninth best team in fewest goals-against per game. If they can keep that up, the law of averages suggests that they’ll find their offense and start to pile up the W’s.

Alright, so there are this year’s biggest surprises to this point as seen through these eyes. Now, here are some quick predictions.

PREDICTIONS

  1. The Ducks will make the playoffs as one of the top three teams in the Pacific division. If they miss the playoffs, Bruce Boudreau will get fired at season’s end.
  2. The Penguins will also make the playoffs, but as a wild card team. There’s too much talent in that locker room for them to not make it.
  3. Steven Stamkos will not get traded this year, but he also will not sign an extension with the Lightning.
  4. Going off those lines, a big name in Winnipeg will get dealt. Whether that’s Byfuglien, Ladd, or Trouba is tough to say. One will go though, that’s for sure.
  5. And lastly, we’ll see the Panthers drop in the standings. They’re a good team, and probably a playoff team, but they won’t win that division.

Thanks for reading.

Blackhawks take crucial Game 4

stanley_cupgm4It was a must-win game for the Blackhawks, and they stepped up to the challenge and won Game 4 by a final of 6-5 in overtime against the Bruins. For me at least, that was about as uncomfortable as I have felt while watching the Blackhawks play this year. It felt like no lead was safe, and in fact that’s just how it was. Every time the Blackhawks scored, the Bruins had an answer. Twice the Hawks had 2-goal leads of 3-1 and 4-2, but they couldn’t hang on to either of them. I feel like if they would have played 5 more minutes of overtime after Seabrook scored, the Bruins would have tied the game. That’s just the way things were going.

Many people were saying that the Blackhawks wouldn’t win this series unless Jonathan Jonathan Toews, Patrick KaneToews found the back of the net. Well, he scored his second goal of the postseason in Game 4 and played one of his best games yet during these playoffs. Patrick Kane, who had been held scoreless since Game 5 against L.A., also scored in Game 4. I don’t think it is any coincidence that Kane and Toews both scored after being reunited on the top line. Those two simply have a chemistry between them that is at times unparalleled by any other duo in the league.

As for the lines last night as a whole, I think it’s safe to say that Quenneville will be sticking with them from here on out. The Blackhawks scored 6 goals last night, which is impressive, but they did it against arguably the league’s best defensive team, which is even more impressive. At the same time, however, the Bruins did score 5 goals against the Blackhawks, who are not a bad defensive team in any way, shape, or form.

Corey Crawford is being blasted today by many people from sports radio show hosts, to TV analysts, to NHL writers. Some people, and they are ignorant people, are even suggesting that Joel Quenneville should bench Crawford for Game 5 in place of Ray 170887798_slideEmery. I love how so many people are over-reactionary. Corey Crawford had a bad game. He’s not perfect. In fact, he’s probably the main reason as to why the Blackhawks are this far into the playoffs. Name one other game this postseason in which you can confidently say Crawford played bad. Name one Blackhawks’ loss this postseason that you can blame on Crawford. My guess is you can’t. The guy had a bad game. That stuff happens. And you know what? The Blackhawks still won Game 4. It’s not like he gave up 5 goals and the Hawks lost 5-1. If you are going to blast Crawford, then you should blast Tuukka Rask as well.

All anyone has been talking about since Game 2 of this series ended is how Tuukka Rask is the hands down Conn Smythe winner if the Bruins win this series. Sure, he’s played good, but he hasn’t done anything that we’ve never seen before. Part of the reason why his numbers were good through the first 3 games of this series is because the Blackhawks were terrible offensively in games 2 and 3. Rask gave up 6 goals in Game 4 and the Bruins lost the game (on home ice). Why isn’t that getting more attention than it is?

Moving forward, the Blackhawks do need to be a lot better defensively. There were too many instances in Game 4 where they didn’t clear the puck when they should have, when they didn’t have anyone boxing out in front of Crawford, and when they allowed Boston’s point-men to have open looks at the net (for example, Johnny Boychuk’s goal). Crawford did give up a few bad goals, there’s no denying that, but the Hawks’ defense also hung him out to dry on a couple of those.

One thing that has me a little worried right now is the Blackhawks’ penalty kill. This was possibly their biggest strength during the regular season and first 3 rounds of the playoffs, but now it looks like a weakness. The Bruins already have 4 power play goals through the first 4 games of this series, and the Blackhawks don’t seem to have an answer. While I’d like to think that the PK will turn itself around and that the Bruins’ season-long bad PP will return, part of me thinks that the Bruins found a weakness in the Hawks’ penalty kill and that they’re exploiting it. One solution for the Blackhawks is to stop taking penalties.

Marcus+Kruger+Boston+Bruins+v+Chicago+Blackhawks+RhnZy62kcoUlAside from the penalty kill, I am pretty confident looking ahead to Game 5 back in Chicago. This is now a best of 3 series with 2 games being at the United Center where the Hawks have played well all year. In Game 4, the Blackhawks were the clear-cut better team. The only reason that game was close was because A) Crawford had an off night, and B) the Bruins had some lucky bounces. You could also say that the Blackhawks played their worst defensive game of the postseason, and I’d bet they won’t do that again. The Blackhawks controlled much of the puck possession and dominated in shots-on-goal. They played their game instead of letting Boston play their own game. They used their speed to a major advantage, and they’ll need to keep doing so. In Game 5, I hope to see the Blackhawks come out again and play like it’s another Game 7. They need to give everything they’ve got until there is no more hockey left to play.

Like I said before, I am pretty confident right now about the Blackhawks’ chances in this series. They’ve got 2 of the remaining 3 games on their home ice, and they have proven that they can beat Boston. They got their worst defensive effort out of the way, and yet they still won that game. If the Hawks really want to win the Cup, then they need to continue playing like it. When they do that, they are almost unbeatable.

Blackhawks must win Game 4

170770455_slideThere have only been a couple of times this year when the Blackhawks have faced some major adversity. The first being when they fell into a 3-1 hole against Detroit in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, and the second being right now at this very second. Currently, the Blackhawks trail the Bruins 2-1 in the Stanley Cup Final, which probably doesn’t seem like a huge deal to a casual fan. However, I am here to say otherwise. Tonight’s Game 4 is a MUST win for the Blackhawks.

After losing Game 2 at home to the Bruins, the Blackhawks’ main goal heading into Games 3 and 4 in Boston was to win at least one of them. Even though they lost Game 3, they can still achieve their goal by winning tonight.

With a win in tonight’s game, the Blackhawks will even the series up at 2 apiece and regain home-ice advantage in the series heading back home for Game 5. What more could you ask for at this point? If they lose tonight, however, they will go down 3-1 to a Boston team that will almost certainly finish off the Hawks in one of the next 2 games and not let them back into the series, unlike Detroit. That is why this Game 4 is a must win.

Tonight’s game will say a lot about the Blackhawks’ character and what they’re made of. They absolutely need to play all 60 minutes like it is Game 7. They need to give 110% 170770149_slideevery second of every shift. They need to go all-out and win the board battles, win the foot races to the puck, win the area in front of the crease, and win the battle of desperation. They have done this before against Detroit when they went down in the series 3-1, and they did this in the third period of Game 4 against the Kings, in L.A. If they cannot do these things tonight, they will lose. Boston plays like the best team in the NHL when on their home ice, and therefore you must play a nearly perfect game of hockey to beat them at the TD Garden. They will be going for the “kill” tonight against the Blackhawks, and the only way to stop them is by playing the way I just described a few sentences ago.

Obviously, the Blackhawks know the situation that they’re in, and they know that they have to win tonight. Joel Quenneville stated yesterday, “Very important game tomorrow night. We have to win tomorrow night.” You don’t often hear him say those words. When faced with this type of situation in these playoffs, the Blackhawks have stepped up and answered the bell. Hopefully they can do it again tonight.

LINE CHANGES

170769196_slideWith Marian Hossa being absent from the lineup in Game 3, Joel Quenneville put Ben Smith in his spot. This set off a chain reaction of line changes throughout the game, and subsequently the Blackhawks never looked comfortable the whole night. They were playing with guys that they normally wouldn’t (Kruger-Toews-Frolik as an example), and they seemed out of rhythm.

This morning, Marian Hossa missed the team’s morning skate, but Coach Q stated afterwards that Hossa is “fine,” and they expect him to play tonight. That is a very encouraging sign for the Hawks and us fans.

As for the what the lines may look like tonight, here you go:

Bickell-Toews-Kane

Sharp-Handzus-Hossa

Saad-Shaw-Stalberg

Kurger-Bolland-Frolik

These were the line-rushes at today’s morning skate, minus Marian Hossa. Finally, Quenneville has apparently opted to reunite Bickell, Toews, and Kane like he did late in the series against L.A. That line was dominant. The second line of Sharp, Handzus, and Hossa was pretty darn good too. Sharp and Hossa have always had some chemistry, but Hossa and Handzus seem to have generated some as well over recent weeks.

170197762_slideWe will now get to see how Boston will try and handle the duo of Toews and Kane. Kane is much better with Toews as his center because of Toews’ speed, and Kane is a lot more effective with fast line mates than he is with slow ones like Handzus. These line changes should also benefit Bryan Bickell as well, because now a lot more focus will be placed on his two line mates rather than himself.

I am confident that the Blackhawks will play a much better game tonight than they did in Game 3. This team has stepped up when they have needed to all year, and I don’t anticipate anything different tonight.