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.

Switch flipped?

15-_DSC2491-toresizeAfter four consecutive underwhelming performances against non-playoff teams that led to a grand total of two points, the Blackhawks have reeled off two straight victories against a couple of the toughest teams in the Western Conference. On Sunday night, it was the Jets that watched the Hawks “go through the motions” for the first 40 minutes of the game before turning it on in the third period and pulling off a last second win on the road. Then last night at the United Center, the Kings fell victim to a rather dominant performance by the Blackhawks that ended with a final score of 4-1 in favor of the home team. Just like that, the Hawks went from being in a Wild Card spot to one point behind the Blues for second in the Central, and four behind the Predators for first place with one game in hand.

Their victory over the Kings may very well have been the best all around performance we’ve seen from the Blackhawks this season, and it came without arguably their best player in the lineup. Right from the opening puck drop, you could see that the Hawks were playing with more energy and desperation than they have in quite some time. They were relentless on the forecheck and kept L.A. pinned in their own end for long stretches at a time. All four lines contributed with either goals or strong shifts that seemed to wear down the Kings.

It is performances like the one we saw last night that make you believe this team, the Hawks, still have all the potential in the world to roll right through the playoffs to the Stanley Cup. When they come out playing with energy and desire like we saw against L.A., I’m not sure that there’s a team in the NHL that could win four out of seven games against the Blackhawks.

Scott Darling proved a big point to me last night. After letting in possibly his softest goal of the season right at the end of the first period, he bounced back in the second and third periods by making a number of big saves without letting in another goal. This showed me that he is strong mentally and won’t let one hiccup lead to another and another. He was quoted after the game as saying something along the lines of “The guys told me not to worry about that goal and that they would get it back for me.” Sure enough, the Hawks struck twice in the first couple minutes of the second to get a 3-1 lead in the game. When a goaltender feels that his team has his back and has confidence in him, that almost always propels him to stronger performances on the ice. The same goes for Corey Crawford, who will undoubtedly be the team’s starting goalie for the playoffs.

With the Hawks now coming off of back-to-back huge wins and 80 straight minutes of solid hockey, they cannot let up. They absolutely need to continue to build off of these last two games and use them as building blocks moving forward. With two more games remaining against the Blues, and one against the Wild, the Blackhawks will need to put forth their best effort to beat those teams and secure a good seed in the playoffs. Second place in the Central is certainly not out of reach by any means. Nor is first for that matter. At the same time however, if they falter in the final two weeks of the season, they could be looking at a Wild Card spot to open the playoffs. My point again: don’t let up.

Patrick Kane update

Kane skated during the Hawks’ optional practice yesterday morning and apparently did everything but take contact and slap shots. Quenneville said afterwards that Kane continues to look real quick and solid on the ice, and that “good news” could be coming soon. Does this mean that the 12-week recovery period may be less? We can only hope.

Blackhawks-Ducks preview

130107_gq_trout_aTonight the Blackhawks play host to the red hot Anaheim Ducks, who are currently tied with Montreal for the league’s lead in points with 14. The Blackhawks come into this game having lost two of their last three games, while the Ducks enter the night fresh off a lopsided loss to the Sharks on Sunday snapping their seven game win streak. These two teams have been pegged by many to be the top two teams in the Western Conference this season, and tonight will be our first look at how they match up with one another.

Before I get to talking about the Hawks, a couple of story lines surrounding the Ducks heading into tonight’s game are Ryan Kesler, John Gibson, and the play of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

This will be Kesler’s first game against the Blackhawks as a member of the Ducks, and it is the first time he’ll be facing the Hawks since their supposed pursuit of him this past summer. Kesler’s presence in the Anaheim lineup makes the Ducks one of the deepest teams in all of hockey at the center position, something the Blackhawks tried to improve upon this offseason with the acquisition of Brad Richards. Kesler, as we all know, is one of the game’s best two-way forwards, as well as one of the most physical and toughest guys to play against. Going back to his days in Vancouver, Kesler has a very deep disliking for the Hawks, so it’ll be interesting to see if that carries over into tonight’s action.

As for John Gibson, he’ll be the Ducks’ starting goalie tonight. He has made a total of 5 starts in his NHL career (2 this year). With this being such a big game for both teams early on in the season, I thought we’d be seeing Frederik Andersen between the pipes for the Ducks, but I guess Bruce Boudreau wants to give Gibson a chance to prove himself against one of the league’s best teams.

Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are tearing it up right now. Both players have 12 points through their first 9 games, and Corey Perry leads the NHL with 9 goals. To compare, Patrick Sharp leads the Blackhawks with 3 goals and 8 points. As a result of Getzlaf and Perry’s hot starts, among some other things, the Ducks are averaging 3.22 goals per game this year. Tonight will be a huge test for the Blackhawks in trying to stop those two.

Okay, now to the Hawks.

It has been somewhat of an up and down start to the year for them, and they currently sit at 5-2-1, which is good for fourth in the West. The biggest positive that we’ve seen from the Blackhawks up to this point has been their ability to keep the puck out of their own net. They are third in the league in goals against per game (1.75) and penalty kill percentage (92%). What needs to improve is their powerplay, which has only converted 20% of the time this year (good for 15th in the league). Their lack of production with the man advantage is a huge reason why they are only averaging 2.62 goals per game so far, which leaves them ranked 16th in that category.

It hasn’t just been the powerplay that has disappointed thus far. The Blackhawks, believe it or not, are 24th in the NHL in 5 on 5 goals this year. They’ve only scored 11 times at even strength, which is very troublesome for a team with so much talent. Last game against Ottawa was the first time the Blackhawks scored during the second period this season. If it wasn’t for their great goaltending and defense, their record could look a lot different.

940-couture-loganSpeaking of the goaltending, Scott Darling will be making his second straight start tonight. He got his first ever win in his first ever NHL start against the Senators on Sunday, winning 2-1. He stopped 32 of the 33 shots that he faced and did a real nice job of cutting down the shooting angles and moving side to side from post to post against the Senators. He is 6’6″, 232 pounds and looks even bigger when standing in the crease. Hopefully he can continue using his size to his advantage. If he puts together another solid outing tonight, it’ll be interesting to see which direction the Blackhawks decide to go with their backup goalie once Crawford returns to the lineup. While Raanta has a ton of talent, his lack of size and vulnerability of getting pushed around in the crease puts him at a disadvantage when compared to Crawford and Darling.

The lines will look a little different than they did last game. As of now, Quenneville has them as Bickell-Toews-Hossa, Saad-Shaw-Kane, Sharp-Richards-Versteeg, Smith-Kruger-Morin. I like seeing that second line reunited. Saad does not belong on the third or fourth line, which is where he had played the last two games, and I love him being paired with Patrick Kane.

Tonight should definitely be a good test for both the Ducks and Hawks, as both teams will be using this game as a measuring stick to see where they currently stand. If you’re looking for something else to watch for in tonight’s game, keep your eyes on Marian Hossa. He currently has 998 career points, leaving him 2 shy of a huge milestone.