Epic win for the Blackhawks in Game 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cumiskey in, Rundblad out for Game 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackhawks drop Game 1

10-171460575-smallSo after nine days off since eliminating the Minnesota Wild, the Blackhawks finally got back into game action this afternoon against the Ducks. Many people wondered whether the long layoff would help or hurt the Hawks, and I think it’s safe to say after one game that it did not hurt them. You may look at the score and see that Anaheim won the game by a score of 4-1, but that isn’t an accurate reading as to how this first game actually went.

The first period was absolutely dominated by the Hawks. They were faster, smarter, and simply better than Anaheim in almost every facet of the game. Yet Hampus Lindholm converted on a nice set-up by Jakob Silfverberg to put Anaheim on the board just under nine minutes into the game. After the first period, the Ducks led 1-0, but were being outshot 16-7.

The second period saw a lot of the same. The Blackhawks controlled the play, put Frederik Andersen under some intense pressure, and didn’t allow many chances for the Ducks. However, after David Rundblad failed to clear the puck from the Hawks’ zone, Kyle Palmieri scored to give the Ducks a 2-0 lead with 15:43 left in the period. Then with under a minute remaining in the second, Brad Richards made a nice play to strip the puck from Francois Beauchmin at the Anaheim blue line and proceeded to skate in on Andersen and score. This was a huge goal at the time as it put the Hawks within one heading into the third.

In the final period, Anaheim slowed the game down a bit and never really gave the Blackhawks much to work with at even strength. The Ducks would end up getting goals from Nate Thompson and Jakob Silfverberg (empty netter) to seal the deal.

So, what should we take away from the first game of this series?

  • First and foremost, the Blackhawks were the better team in Game 1. They dominated most of the game and forced Frederik Andersen to make some unbelievable saves, which he did. If the Hawks can control the games moving forward like they did today, they’ll see some better outcomes. It’s not often that a team gets outplayed like the Ducks did and wins.
  • The Hawks MUST get better on the powerplay. They were 0-3 in the game, including two straight powerplays at the beginning of the third period while only down one goal. They generated a few nice chances while on the man advantage, but for the most part weren’t getting much going. They need to quit trying to make the perfect passes and simply shoot the puck. Get some rebounds out of Andersen and knock home a dirty goal. The playoffs are all about getting the “greasy” goals from in front of the net.
  • Anaheim’s top line of Maroon, Getzlaf, and Perry was relatively quiet in Game 1. Yet they still won the game. If the Blackhawks continue keeping the Ducks’ top line off the score sheet, they should be alright. That doesn’t mean they can forget about Anaheim’s bottom two lines. Those lines haven’t produced much in the playoffs, but they did today and have the potential to do it again.
  • The Blackhawks got some solid play out of all of their forward lines today. The only problem was that they simply couldn’t catch a break. While I don’t think it’s necessary for Quenneville to panic and start switching up the line combos, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do so if Game 2 starts off on the wrong foot.
  • Kyle Cumiskey should start preparing as though he will be dressing on Tuesday night. David Rundblad got beat on the Ducks’ first goal and then turned the puck over in his own end leading to Anaheim’s second goal. It was a pretty awful first 30 minutes of the game for him. He did make a couple nice plays after that, but his tendency to commit costly turnovers is so obvious that Quenneville would be totally justified in benching him. Cumiskey played great down in Rockford this season and brings a ton of speed to the back end. This is something to keep an eye on.
  • Lastly, I thought Corey Crawford was fine today. He never really saw the first goal and had no chance on the second. The third could have been stopped, but again it was not an easy save to make. As long as Crow makes the necessary saves, the Hawks should still be alright.

Overall, I wouldn’t get too worried about this loss. The Blackhawks were the far better team. If they keep turning in performances like this one, they’ll see some victories pile up. Their goal in heading out to California was to win one of the first two games. That can still happen on Tuesday. And judging by how hostile the Honda Center was today, let’s just say the atmosphere shouldn’t do anything to impede the Hawks from winning a game out there (I’ve never head an NHL arena so quiet for a playoff game. There are stadiums around the league that are three times louder for regular season games.).

Game 2 is Tuesday. The Blackhawks need a victory, and I’m rather confident they’ll get it.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Finals predictions

FINALLY we have a final four in the NHL. Chicago and Anaheim have been patiently waiting for the Rangers-Capitals series to end, and now it finally has. Quite a comeback by New York against a very good Washington team.

On to the predictions.

144 vs. TampaBayLightning_LOGO

With the Rangers coming off a seven game series and Tampa Bay coming off a grueling six gamer, it’s safe to assume each team is probably dealing with some undisclosed injuries. And, it goes without saying each team could use some rest. All that aside, however, this should be a good series. New York is playing some excellent team defense this postseason while also receiving more great goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist. Against a fast team like Tampa, the Rangers are going to need that defense and goaltending to continue while also trying to clog the neutral zone.

As for the Lightning, it will be interesting to see if their overall inexperience in late playoff series will become a factor. Only two players (Stamkos and Hedman) remain from the 2011 team that lost in seven games to the Bruins in the ECF. One of the guys I just mentioned, a certain number 91, picked up a huge goal in Game 6 against Montreal. If he is beginning to heat up, that will be huge for the Lightning. I don’t see them beating New York without Stamkos being effective. The same goes for their goalie, Ben Bishop.

All in all, I’m expecting a lengthy series here. In the end, however, I think the Rangers are the deeper team with more big game experience.

-New York wins series, 4-2.

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO vs. 56

Unlike the two teams in the other Conference Final series, the Blackhawks and Ducks come into this one as the two most rested teams remaining. The Ducks have played just nine games this postseason, while the Hawks have played ten. The last time the Blackhawks played was May 7th, and there might not be a team who needed the time off more than them. Their top four defensemen have had to log big minutes through the first two rounds, and they will play even more now that Michal Rozsival is done for the year. They will need more solid defense and continued stellar goaltending in this matchup. Also, their stars need to continue being just that, while also getting production from all four lines like they did in the first two rounds.

The Ducks have two of the game’s best players in Perry and Getzlaf, and if they aren’t producing against Chicago, Anaheim will be in trouble. They have four good lines, but they haven’t gotten the production from them that they would have liked so far. The Ducks lucked out by getting the easiest schedule through the first two rounds, and I am anxious to see how they respond to an elite team like the Hawks. Their defense will be heavily tested, as will Frederik Andersen. Like Perry and Getzlaf, unless Andersen is very good, the Ducks could be in trouble.

Depth, team defense, and late playoff experience will decide this series. As I said in the series preview post regarding these two teams, Chicago has the edge in all three of those categories.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

Blackhawks – Ducks preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all of that, here’s my prediction.

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

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

Hawks in six.

What the Blackhawks should expect in Game 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stanley Cup Playoffs: 2nd round predictions

Alright, so I went 6-2 with my first round predictions this year. Not bad, but not great. I should have known better than to actually think the Blues would get out of the first round. Their annual disappearing act in round one is something everyone should witness. My other hiccup came via the Calgary-Vancouver series. I had Vancouver in seven. Give credit to the Flames for playing as well as they did in what was the first career playoff series for a lot of their players.

The second round features some really intruiging matchups. Hopefully they live up to expectations. Due to time constraints on my end between now and the first games Thursday night, this is going to be a quick post.

144 vs. 161

New York is coming off a fairly easy first round win over Pittsburgh while the Caps needed seven games to oust the Islanders. For me, the forward depth of these two teams is comparable with New York probably having the slight edge. It’s the defensive depth that separates one team from the other here.

-New York wins series, 4-2.

si34dm1f9jex9eoexq9l1svqk vs. TampaBayLightning_LOGO

Montreal began playing with fire against the Senators in round one after going up 3-0 in the series. It took a home loss in Game 5 to wake them back up and shut out the Sens in Game 6 to advance. As for Tampa Bay, they’ll be coming into this series fresh off of a Game 7 win at home over Detroit. They possess major speed and a guy named Steven Stamkos. The Habs have Carey Price, though. Expect a back and fourth series here with home ice ultimately being the deciding factor.

-Montreal wins series, 4-3.

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO vs. jesus-clip-art-2

Not many people saw a sweep coming from the Ducks against Winnipeg. If it wasn’t for their ability to mount multiple third period comebacks, that series would have gone the distance. While Anaheim did play well, their habit of trailing heading into the third is not a good one. Calgary, on the other hand, played a hell of a series against Vancouver. Despite their season-long poor possession numbers, they found a way into the playoffs as well as into the second round. They’ll need all four lines and Jonas Hiller to be great in this one.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-2.

56 vs. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

I already posted my preview of this series, so here’s a recap. This is the third straight year these two have met in the playoffs, with the Blackhawks winning the first two series. The Hawks didn’t play great in their victory over Nashville, but got clutch performances from their star players. Corey Crawford, as well as the same star players on this team, will need to play great this series. For Minnesota, they’re feeling pretty good about themselves right now after knocking out the Blues. Devan Dubnyk has to perform at a Vezina-type level, and the bottom two lines for Minnesota need to contribute for them to advance. In the end, Chicago just has too many weapons.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

Blackhawks – Wild preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hawks in six.

Blackhawks can’t let up now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keys to a Blackhawks’ series victory over Nashville

15-_DSC2491-toresizeTwo months ago this matchup didn’t quite seem possible, as the Predators appeared to be running away with the Central Division crown. Then came their downfall that landed them as the second seed in the Central, leading us to a rematch of the 2010 Western Conference Quarterfinals. The Blackhawks haven’t necessarily been playing well either, and have lost four straight games heading into the playoffs. Putting all of that behind us, there are many factors that come into play when trying to determine a winner in this series.

I said it in my “predictions” post that I think the Hawks will win this series in six games. Obviously it could go four, five, or seven games, but regardless I still think the Blackhawks will advance. The questions is, how will they advance?

-First of all, Patrick Kane is back and will be playing in Game One. That right there is a huge advantage in favor of the Hawks, who badly need to get their offense and powerplay back on the right track. I think we all know just how valuable a player Kane is, so I won’t elaborate anymore on him.

-Secondly, the Hawks’ defense has to be playing at the top of their game. Kimmo Timonen will be back to start the series after missing the last handful of games to close out the regular season, and his presence on the team’s blue line gives them more depth and reliability. That means nothing, however, if his partner (likely Rundblad or Rozsival) continues to be a liability. In the top four, we pretty much know what we’re going to get for the most part. Seabrook always seems to have the ability to stink, as does Oduya, but hopefully those two play the way they have lately and like they did in 2013. If it were up to me, I’d have the d-pairings look like 2-7, 4-27, 44-32. Keith and Seabrook, and Oduya and Hjalmarsson all seem to play better when they are paired that way.

The Blackhawks finished the year as the second best team in hockey in goals against per game, which says a lot about their team defense (and goaltending, which we’ll get to). The problem that the blue liners of the Hawks have had is their giveaways in their own zone and the neutral zone. More often this year than in years past we’ve seen Blackhawks defensemen pass the puck right to the opposition at the Hawks’ own blue line or in the neutral zone, leading to incredible scoring chances for the other team. This cannot continue to happen. Mistakes like these are usually mental ones and can be eliminated or at least cut back on.

While the Predators don’t present the best group of forwards in the league by any means, they’re still good and can take advantage of mistakes. I’m not too worried about the actual defensive play of the Hawks’ top five d-men, but they cannot afford to turn the puck over.

-Corey Crawford is coming off of arguably his best regular season since becoming the team’s number one goalie, earning his second career Jennings Trophy, and he’ll need to keep it up for the next couple months. He and his backups are a HUGE reason why the Blackhawks ended with over 100 points this year, so hopefully he can keep that up as well as get some more goal scoring from his teammates in front of him.

-Line combinations always are, and will continue to be a huge part of the playoffs. Right now, unfortunately, Joel Quenneville has his lines messed up. In the team’s last two practices, including today, the line combos were Saad-Toews-Hossa, Versteeg-Richards-Kane, Bickell-Shaw-Sharp, Nordstrom-Kruger-Teravainen. As you may have noticed, Antoine Vermette is missing from those line combos. Yes, that’s the same guy that the Hawks traded away a first round pick and arguably their top defensive prospect for at the trade deadline. And yes, he’s still one of the league’s best players at winning faceoffs. Yet he appears to be a healthy scratch for Game One.

The first question that pops into my head is why did they trade for him if he’s going to sit for Game One of the playoffs? I’m guessing that’s a common question among fans right now, but it’s not really a good one. A better question is what makes Joakim Nordstrom and Kris Versteeg more valuable than Vermette? Nordstrom is a fourth line player who is smart and reliable on the penalty kill. Guess what? So is Antoine Vermette, who’s also a better all-around player. As for Versteeg, he has been the worst Hawk over the last month and a half and has provided next to zero production for the team over that span. What makes him so irreplaceable? What Quenneville is probably thinking is that with Kane now back, he can reunite that trio of him, Versteeg, and Richards that was so successful back in December. If it works, great. If not, Versteeg should either be in the bottom six or scratched.

Another negative to Vermette apparently being benched is that you now have to play Andrew Shaw at center. Granted, even with Vermette in the lineup this has still recently been the case because Quenneville inexplicably decided to put him at wing. By having Vermette in the lineup and at center, the correct position, Andrew Shaw is moved to the wing where he has been his most effective throughout his career with the Blackhawks. As a wing, Shaw is able to be more involved on the forecheck and doesn’t need to take faceoffs. After acquiring Vermette back in March, the Hawks had Shaw on the wing and he instantly started playing his best hockey of the year. Go figure!

I am extremely hopeful that Quenneville will come to his senses and put the playoff experienced, veteran center Antoine Vermette back in the lineup for Game Two. Better yet, maybe he’ll still play him tomorrow and hope that these last two practices served as a “wake-up call” for Vermette who really does need to step up his game. Best case scenario, the lines for Game One would be Sharp-Toews-Hossa, Saad-Vermette-Kane, Versteeg-Richards-Bickell, Shaw-Kruger-Teravainen.

I’m not saying that the Blackhawks can’t win with the current line combinations, but I also think they’d be a lot better off with Vermette in the lineup on a nightly basis.

This series has the potential to be a really good one. In the end though, I think the Blackhawks are simply too deep and have too much offense (provided they start clicking) for Nashville to handle in a seven game series. I also think that the Blackhawks’ defense and goaltending will triumph over the Nashville forwards.

I hope I’m right…