Kane’s absence finally hitting the Hawks

GTY 464336458 S SPO HKO HKN USA ILRemarkably, the Blackhawks went on one of their better runs of the season following the injury to Patrick Kane in late February. They went 7-1-1 in the next nine games after losing Kane for the remainder of the regular season, beating a couple of the league’s better teams during the process. Rather than bringing the team morale down, Kane’s injury almost seemed to have reignited the Hawks. While losing arguably the team’s best player is never wished upon by anyone, Kane’s injury did allow the Hawks to land Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timmonen. Those acquisitions appeared to restore the sometimes vacant energy and confidence from the Blackhawks. Now, however, the team is searching for answers after four straight poor outings and going 1-3-0 in that stretch.

Ever since defeating the Rangers 1-0 at Madison Square Garden on March 18th, the Blackhawks have been outplayed in every game they’ve competed in. In Dallas, they were rocked 4-0. In Carolina they won 3-1, but were the worse of the two teams over the final two periods of play. The Hurricanes ended up out-shooting the Hawks 44-25 in the game. From Raleigh, the Blackhawks went into Philadelphia and lost 4-1. Then, Friday night, the Hawks returned home to face the Blue Jackets and ended up on the losing side of a 5-2 game. All four of those games were against teams who are not in a playoff position.

During this rough stretch, and really since Kane went down, the Blackhawks have struggled offensively. Since Kane’ injury, the team has averaged just over two goals per game, which is not good enough for a team fighting for a top three finish in their division. The Hawks have lacked puck possession recently, an area in which Kane may be the best in the NHL, and they have had a real tough time suppressing their shots against. When you don’t have the puck as much as you’re used to, you can expect your shots against average to rise.

While the Hawks did continue to win games in the immediate aftermath of Kane’s injury, their offense was at times not as good as the scores may have indicated. As big a reason as any as to why the team kept winning without Kane was their goaltending. Corey Crawford and Scott Darling (he recorded a 1-0 shutout at the Rangers) were playing out of this world up until recently. This somewhat covered up the fact that the Blackhawks were being outplayed by their opponents with more regularity. Just take their win in Carolina as an example of that. Now, the goaltending has seemingly come back to reality. It hasn’t been bad, but it also hasn’t been what it was over the first few weeks of March. With the Blackhawks still struggling to score and the goaltending not performing at the level that it had been, we’re seeing more losses.

The easiest solution to all of this is to simply say that the Blackhawks need to get better offensively. The question is how do they do that?

Well for one, I think the forward lines need some consistency. Blackhawks players have flat out stated that they like having some consistency with the lines. It’s tough for players to be playing with new linemates every game. This doesn’t allow them to build chemistry or familiarity with one another. While the natural reaction by Quenneville may be to switch up the lines when the team isn’t playing well, it may pay off in the long run to just stick with them. If he wants to switch them up for the second half of game in which they’re trailing, fine, but then go back to the original lines to start the next game. I think the best lines for this team are Sharp-Toews-Hossa, Saad-Vermette-Teravainen, Versteeg-Richards-Bickell, Shaw-Kruger-Nordstrom. It would certainly help out A LOT if Versteeg and Bickell broke out of their current slumps and did something to contribute to the team.

Secondly, for the Hawks to become a better offensive team, or to at least play up to their potential, they need to simplify their game. They need to take what’s being given to them by the opposition, make the smart, simple plays, and go from there. Lately they have been trying to do too much individually. Guys will get the puck and try and dangle their way out of the defensive zone or into the offensive zone, thus leading to turnovers more often than not. They have gotten away from playing that “north-south” game as Eddie Olczyk calls it. If the Blackhawks can get back to that style of play, they should start to see some better results.

Lastly, shoot the puck. The Hawks seem to be one of the most reluctant teams in the league at shooting the puck (I’m looking at you Keith). They’d often rather attempt to complete a highlight reel pass instead of shooting when they have the chance. Duncan Keith, as I just mentioned, is one of the team’s biggest culprits in this regard. I can’t even begin to list the number of times in which he’s left with a good shooting lane, but instead tries to make a slap-pass through traffic to someone standing beside the net. I will admit that this does work maybe once in 50 attempts, but that’s not good enough. Somehow though, Keith happens to rank third in the league in shot attempts during 5 on 5 play. You just wouldn’t guess that. Putting that stat aside, my point still stands.

With Kane out of the lineup until at least mid to late May, the Hawks have got to start finding ways to compensate for his absence. They were getting by without him for a couple of weeks due in large part to their goaltending and team defense, but now those have started to slip due to their lack of puck possession. If the Blackhawks can get back to the basics and do the things I just went over, among others, their offense and time of possession should see a rise in production.

This team has too much talent to be struggling this much at scoring goals. There is no denying the fact, however, that Versteeg and Bickell must step up their games and give quality minutes for this team to regain its depth and advantage in play. Those two players cannot be overlooked.

Central Division preview

Now that we’ve finished with the Pacific Division, I’ll take a look at the Central Division here. There’s a solid chance that this could once again be the NHL’s top division.

CENTRAL DIVISION 

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Chicago: The Blackhawks are coming into the 2014-15 season with high expectations yet again. This team was one goal away from advancing to their second straight Stanley Cup Final this past season, where they probably would have won their second straight Cup in no more than six games. For the first time in a long time, they will actually have a real number two center in the form of Brad Richards, which should only make Patrick Kane that much more dangerous. They traded away Brandon Bollig this offseason to make room for guys such as Jeremy Morin, Peter Regin, and maybe even Teuvo Teravainen. The lack of depth on last year’s team was a big reason for them not knocking out the Kings in the Conference Final, and it is an area that I believe they have improved on this summer just by making the room for the players mentioned above. Corey Crawford, who had a decent but not great 2013-14 season, will need to be better this year, as will Antti Raanta. I’d expect the Hawks to finish no worse than second in this division.

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Colorado: The Avalanche were without a doubt last season’s biggest surprise. After finishing the 2012-13 season with the second fewest points in the NHL, the Avs came almost out of nowhere last year and ended with 112 points. Granted, they couldn’t get out of the first round, but it was still an impressive season. This offseason, they traded away P.A. Parenteau in exchange for Daniel Briere, and signed Jarome Iginla, Brad Stuart, and Zach Redmond. They also lost Paul Stastny to the Blues. All of this sets the Avalanche up for what should be a very interesting season in Denver. If you look at Colorado’s team stats from last season, they are pretty great. If you also look at the players that performed best for them (I’m looking at you Varlamov), you might be a bit surprised. Semyon Varlamov put together a fantastic season for Colorado; one that he probably won’t duplicate this year. Their defensive corps are not great at all, to say the least, and this was proven in the Avs’ first round loss to the Wild last year. While Colorado definitely has a potentially lethal offense again, I just don’t see their defense being good enough to be anywhere close to as good as they were last season.

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Dallas: In my season preview last year, I noted that the Stars were being underrated by almost every NHL analyst at the time. I also said that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this team ended up as a playoff contender. Well, sure enough the Stars made the playoffs last season as the West’s second wild card team. This summer, they’ve only gotten better. Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky are the two biggest names to join the Stars since the end of last season, and Dallas fans have reason to be excited about that. The Stars now have two extremely good centers in Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza to go along with wingers such as Tyler Seguin (who can also play center) and Ales Hemsky. After that the names aren’t as recognizable, but the Stars are full of good role and depth forwards. On defense, Dallas really should have aggressively pursued one of the available top defensemen this offseason. As it stands now, Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley are arguably their two best d-men. In goal they still have Kari Lehtonen, who I firmly believe is one of the game’s most underrated players. Lehtonen was good last year, and he’ll need to be again this year seeing as how he will have a mediocre defense in front of him.

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Minnesota: The wild finished last season with 98 points, which I think a lot of people were surprised by. They went on to knock out the Avalanche in the first round (maybe the biggest “upset” of last year’s playoffs), and then lost to the Blackhawks in six games in the second round. Nonetheless, a successful season for the Wild. Like the Stars, I believe Minnesota has only improved since their season ended in May. They lost Matt Moulson to the Sabres via free agency, but they nicely replaced him with Thomas Vanek. On defense, they added some depth by signing Stu Bickel. Other than that, no new names on the Wild this year. So why are they better than last year? They now know what it takes to win a playoff series and their young guys gained valuable experience during last year’s playoff run. Guys like Coyle, Granlund, Haula, Neiderreiter, Brodin, and Spurgeon, all of whom are very young, should only be better this season. That’s not to mention they still have Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Mikko Koivu who are all elite players. I guess the only real question mark with this team is who will be their number one goalie to begin the season. Look out for the Wild this year.

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Nashville: Again, here’s another case of a team really improving this offseason. In exchange for Patric Hornqvist, the Predators acquired James Neal from Pittsburgh, and they also signed Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro, and Derek Roy (all three are centers). There’s no doubt that Nashville’s offense should be better this season than it was last year, as they ranked in the bottom half of the league in G/G. Defensively, they are still led by their captain Shea Weber who is also one of the NHL’s top d-men. Along with Weber, they’ll have Seth Jones entering his second professional season, as well as newcomer Anton Volchenkov, among a few others. Pekka Rinne will obviously be the team’s number one goalie again as he looks to have a bounce-back season after injuries plagued him all of last year. All in all, when you look at what the Predators have on their roster this upcoming season, there’s no reason to believe they won’t be a tough team to play against. However, because of the division they’re in, we won’t see them in the playoffs.

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St. Louis: The Blues were a popular pick to win their first ever Stanley Cup last season. Unfortunately for them, their first round opponent was none other than the defending champion Blackhawks, and we all know what happened there. Since then, the Blues lost their top goalie, Ryan Miller, but they did sign the top center on the market in Paul Stastny. They also signed defenseman Carl Gunnarsson. Other than that, we’re pretty much looking at the same team this year as the one that exited the first round of the playoffs last year. My concern with St. Louis over the past few seasons has been their lack of firepower on offense. There’s no doubt that they have a great group of defensemen and defensive forwards, but they just haven’t had that player that can take over at any given time. Paul Stastny is a step in the right direction in that department, but I’m still not convinced that this team has the offensive weapons to go deep into the playoffs. Plus, they lost Ryan Miller to the Canucks and are left with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen as their two goalies. Elliott is not going to win you a Cup, and Jake Allen really has zero NHL experience. So while I’m sure a good handful of people will pick this team to win the Cup this year, I’m still not sold on their offense and definitely not their goaltending.

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Winnipeg: The Jets are still looking to make the playoffs for the first time since coming back to Winnipeg. They finished last year as the bottom team in the Central Division with 84 points, which was the highest point total of any team to finish last in their respective division. This season, the Jets are pretty much the same team as they were a year ago at this time. Evander Kane has been the victim of many trade rumors over the last few months, so it will be interesting to see if he is still a Jet by the time the trade deadline rolls around in the spring. Their offense is not great by any means, and their defense is sub-par. Goaltending may be the Jets’ biggest weakness as Ondrej Pavelec finished last year with a .901 save percentage and a 3.01 goals against average. All of that said, the Jets do have a handful of young forwards who could take the next step in their game this year. Unfortunately for Jets fans, however, this team won’t be a contender for a few years to come most likely.

PREDICTED STANDINGS:

1. Blackhawks 2. Blues 3. Wild 4. Stars 5. Avalanche 6. Predators 7. Jets

(One through six are all legitimate playoff contenders, and they could really finish in any order. Chicago is the only clear-cut number one team in the Central.)

PREDICTED WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF TEAMS:

1. Ducks 2. Blackhawks 3. Kings 4. Blues 5. Sharks 6. Wild 7. Stars 8. Avalanche

(That’s five Central Division teams again, with the Stars and Avs grabbing the two Wild Card spots.)

Blackhawks back on top

184164326_slideThe Blackhawks closed out their annual 7-game “circus trip” by reeling off six straight victories to vault themselves back to the top of the NHL standings. Their lone loss on the trip came in their first game in Colorado. While winning six straight games is impressive on its own, winning six straight games on the road, all against Western Conference teams is even more impressive. To put into perspective how good the West is this year, the East-leading Bruins would be tied for fifth in the West. The current last place wild card team in the West, Phoenix (34 points), has more points than four Eastern Conference teams who are currently in a playoff spot. Many people believed that this road trip would say a lot about the Blackhawks and the type of team that they are this season. Well, now that the road trip is over with, I think it’s safe to say we know what type of team we’re dealing with here.

Not many teams can do what the Blackhawks just did. After losing badly in Colorado to start the 7-game road trip, the Hawks beat Winnipeg, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Dallas, and Phoenix in that order. Three of those victories were third period comeback wins in which the Hawks entered the third trailing in the game. Yet they still found a way to come out on top each time.

Some NHL analysts are beginning to say that the Blackhawks may be better than they were last season. I’m not sure that I agree or disagree with that belief, but I can see where 1306350614they are coming from. Virtually everyone on the team now has a Stanley Cup ring, with the exception of Brandon Pirri and Antti Raanta. The addition of Kris Versteeg just a few weeks back improved the depth of the Blackhawks in a strong way. Duncan Keith is playing better right now than he ever has in his career, including 2010 when he won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya continue to get better, and Hjalmarsson is becoming one of the top defensive defensemen in the game. The fourth line, while it may not be as skilled as it was a year ago, is beginning to develop some great chemistry and was arguably the team’s best line (given their level of talent) over the last 4 games of the road trip. Also, keep in mind that Bryan Bickell missed the last six games due to injury and won’t return yet for a few weeks. His presence back in the lineup will only help the Hawks.

The Blackhawks, who spent practically every second of last season leading the league in points, are back in that same position. They currently sit atop the NHL in points with 44, three ahead of the San Jose Sharks who have played two fewer games than the Hawks. In fact, the Blackhawks are actually on the same pace as they were last season in terms of points had they played the full 82 games. December will be a very telling month for the Blackhawks as this may very well be the toughest stretch of their schedule. They have to play Dallas twice, L.A. twice, and Minnesota, Anaheim, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, Colorado, and St. Louis once. I left out a couple games, but the ones just mentioned are the most notable games of the month. If the Hawks can come out of December still sitting in one of the top two spots in the West, that will be quite the statement.

Looking ahead, I see no reason why the Blackhawks can’t finish first in the NHL and win the President’s Trophy again. This is the best team in hockey, and they are, believe it or not, more motivated than ever to win the Stanley Cup. They know what’s at stake if they can win the Cup in consecutive seasons, and they will do everything they can to make that happen.

I like what Corey Crawford said in an interview just a few days back. He was asked by Bob Verdi (Blackhawks historian), “Do you like the idea that, after earning two Stanley Cups in four years, the Blackhawks have a target on their backs?” His answer? “I like the fact that when we are champions, other teams bring their game up and try to beat us. That makes us better.” That’s the right mindset to have.

 

Blackhawks Continue to Roll

160789774_slideWe are exactly a quarter of the way through the Blackhawks’ season already, and they still haven’t lost a game in regulation. The Blackhawks, 10-0-2, lead the NHL in wins, road wins, and points (22). Most people expected a few losses on this recent 6-game road trip (myself included), but the Hawks earned at least a point in each game.

The road trip started off with the Hawks losing in a shootout to the Wild, followed by another shootout loss to the Canucks. It seemed as though the offense of the Hawks was beginning to come back to reality after a torrid start to the season.

Their next game in Calgary can only be considered a miraculous win. Ray Emery played one of the single greatest games that any NHL goalie has played over the last 5 years or so by stopping 45 of the 47 shots that he faced; many of which were high quality chances. After allowing the go-ahead goal to the Flames with about 35 seconds left in the third period, the Hawks pulled Emery for the extra attacker. Following a perfect cross-ice pass by Kane to Oduya, the puck eventually found its way to the stick of Marian Hossa, who shot it in past a distraught Mikka Kiprusoff with 4 seconds left to tie the game. The Blackhawks would go on to win the game in a shootout. This was the turning point of their road trip, as the Hawks went 3-0 in their final 3 games of the trip.

Following their victory over Calgary, the Blackhawks went into San Jose to take on a then “hot” Sharks team. The Sharks made it 2-0 early in the first period, but the Hawks battled back and ended up getting a 5-3 victory. This win made it very clear who the best team in the West was.

160915312_stdFrom San Jose, it was on to Phoenix. This game was over after the first period. The Blackhawks scored twice on 5 on 3 powerplays, and ended the first leading 4-0. Many of the players credited Jamal Mayer’s early fight with Raffi Torres for their boost in energy and play. The Hawks would end up winning this one 6-2, and Joel Quenneville has called this their best game of the season so far.

Last night, the long road trip finally came to an end in Nashville. The Blackhawks again dominated this game from start to finish, often making it seem like they were playing with a man-advantage when they really weren’t. The final score ended up being 3-0, giving Corey Crawford and the Blackhawks their first shutout since April of 2011. Every other team in the NHL had at least 2 shutouts last year.

So now the Hawks come home for a 7-game home-stand, which isn’t exactly favorable for the home team. Playing at home for 7 straight games doesn’t allow the players to be around each other and bond as much as they do on the road. One can only hope that they don’t fall out of sync and turn this long home-stretch (every game against a good team, by the way) into a losing streak.

Some people, myself included, are almost scared by the Hawks’ fast start. We all know that there is no way that they can keep up this type of play for the whole season, but is this just an incredibly hot start, or is this a sign of things to come from here on out?

tumblr_mhmtvotRbX1rhgqu4o1_500While I am staying very cautious and not jumping the gun on this team, I do believe that the Hawks are as good as they have been playing thus far. This team is absolutely loaded with offensive skill, their defense is playing fantastic, and the goaltending has been just what the doctor ordered. People forget that Keith, Seabrook, and Hjalmarsson all had “off” years the past 2 seasons. This year each of those guys, along with Oduya and Leddy, are playing great and up to their potential (Leddy can still be better). Offensively, the line of Hossa, Toews, and Saad has been nearly unstoppable. Brandon Saad has been a very nice addition to the team this year and seems to be getting better each game.

And how about Patrick Kane? He is playing out of his mind right now and was just named the number 1 star of the NHL for this past week. He has at least one goal in 5 straight games and is second in the NHL in points with 19. If he keeps this up, he will without a doubt be a Hart Trophy candidate at the end of the season.

Looking forward, this 7-game home-stand is going to be a major test for the Hawks, and it all starts tomorrow night against the streaking Ducks. After the Ducks, the Hawks will play the Sharks, Kings, Canucks, Sharks, Blue Jackets, and Oilers. All of those games, with the exception of the Columbus game, are going to be tough tests for the Hawks on their home ice. Normally a long stretch of home games bodes well for most teams, but this one for the Hawks could be a bit of a trap given the fact that they are going to play some top teams and haven’t lost yet in regulation.

While we all thought we would know a lot more about this team after their 6-game road trip (and we do), I think that we will know even more following this long home-stand.