Hey Nashville, HERE WE COME

15-_DSC2491-toresizeWith the Wild losing today to the Blues down in St. Louis, the Blackhawks have now locked up third place in the Central Division, meaning a showdown with the Predators in the first round of the playoffs. There was some real concern coming into today regarding the Blackhawks and what seed they might get for the playoffs. If the Wild had won, that would have meant the Blackhawks would need to earn at least one point in tonight’s contest with the Avalanche to secure the number three spot in the division. With the way the Hawks have been playing lately, getting a point tonight is by no means a guarantee. Fortunately though, the Wild did us all a favor and lost. So tonight’s game is meaningless for the Blackhawks in terms of the standings, but not with regards to momentum.

Before we get into actual hockey talk, let me get back to Nashville for a minute.

I am confident in saying that there is no other organization in professional sports that is more concerned about an opposing team’s fan base than the Nashville Predators. The management down there is literally obsessed with trying to find ways to keep Blackhawks fans out of Bridgestone Arena (click here for evidence). Earlier this season, Hawks fans dominated the stands in Nashville during a contest between the two teams. This was after the Predators had already enacted their “Keep the Red Out” campaign last season; an attempt to limit the number of ways that Chicagoans could purchase tickets to games in Nashville. Since that game earlier this year, and really even going back further than that, the Predators front office has become fixated on finding ways to keep Hawks fans out of their stadium. In the meantime, their team on the ice was collapsing and lost their huge lead in the division.

So here we are on April 11th, less than a week before the Hawks and Preds will face off in Game One of their first round matchup. Have the Predators come up with an effective plan to keep Blackhawks fans out of their arena for the playoffs? I doubt it, and I would love nothing more than for that building to be an absolute see of red for Game One. And honestly, that’s a very real possibility.

Now back to hockey.

The Blackhawks come into tonight’s game in Colorado having lost three straight games to the Blues, Wild, and Blues again. They scored a TOTAL of three goals in those games, while only allowing six. Had they won all three, maybe they are in first in the division right now. Who knows.. Regardless, the offense is clearly struggling at the moment and desperately needs some sort of spark to get it going again.

Aside from the offense not being there, the energy doesn’t seem to be there either for the Hawks. While those two probably go hand-in-hand, they are both problems and need to be recognized as such. Last Sunday night against the Blues at the United Center, the Hawks came out flying, played a pretty decent game, but lost 2-1. Tuesday night with the Wild in town, the Blackhawks seemed to have less energy than Sunday and again lost 2-1. Then on Thursday in St. Louis, the Hawks appeared to have virtually zero energy or desperation and yet again found themselves on the losing end of a 2-1 game. In the final week of the season with a lot on the line in terms of seeding for the playoffs, one would think that this team would have played St. Louis and Minnesota with all the energy and desperation in the world. That wasn’t the case though, and fortunately for the Hawks it didn’t cost them a top three finish in the division.

Tonight, even though they have nothing left to play for, I hope to see the Blackhawks play as though it is a playoff game. They’ve got to get some kind of momentum or roll going heading into the postseason. You don’t want to end the year on a four-game losing streak and start the first round with doubts in your mind about anything. A win tonight, and a good win, should do a lot to help this team get ready for the playoffs from a mental standpoint.

NHL Update

  • With their win today, the Ottawa Senators have pulled off a semi-miracle and clinched a wild card spot in the playoffs. They went 23-4-4 over their final 31 games.
  • Ottawa getting in means either Pittsburgh or Boston won’t. That all depends on how each team does tonight.
  • The NHL’s defending Stanley Cup champion, the Kings, were eliminated from playoff contention Thursday night. Who would have guessed that would happen? The rest of the West is grateful for that.
  • The team who held off L.A. for the second wild card spot, Winnipeg, will make their first playoff appearance since the last time they called Winnipeg home.

I will hopefully get the time to post my first round predictions at some point before the first game on Wednesday. Until then, let’s just enjoy the fact that the postseason is only days away.

Blackhawks, Central Division update

15-_DSC2491-toresizeTonight the Blackhawks host the Blues in what is hands down the single biggest game of the season, so far. The Blackhawks currently sit third in the Central Division with 102 points, while the Blues are in second with 103. The first place Predators, meanwhile, have played one more game (79) than both the Hawks and Blues, but only hold a one point lead over St. Louis in the standings. Needless to say, things have become pretty crammed in this division, which makes tonight’s game between the Hawks and Blues as large as it is. If the Blackhawks win in regulation, they will own sole possession of second place in the Central. If they win in overtime or a shootout, all three teams atop the division will be tied with 104 points through the same amount of games.

I would expect tonight’s matchup at the United Center to be as close to a playoff atmosphere as a game can get without it actually being the playoffs. Both Chicago and St. Louis understand how important and crucial it can be to end up with home ice advantage in the playoffs, especially if the two teams end up playing each other in the first round. At the same time, both teams are also aiming for first in the division. With Nashville not playing their best hockey lately, it has allowed both the Hawks and Blues to realistically set their sights on winning the Central. So there are two pretty big things partially at stake tonight. I say partially because the Hawks and Blues meet again on Thursday, with that game being in St. Louis.

While winning the division seems like it should be the obvious desire for each team in the Central, it may not be. Here’s why:

With the Ducks most likely finishing as the top team in the West, that means the Central Division winner will get the number one wild card team. That team just happens to be the red hot Minnesota Wild, who look like they have that position locked up. The Wild have been arguably the NHL’s best team since they signed Devan Dubnyk a couple of months back, and I can guarantee you that no one wants them as a first round opponent.

Let’s say that hypothetically the Ducks slip up here in the last week of the season and the Central Division winner ends up as the top team in the West. They would then get the number two wild card team. If the season ended today, that team would be the defending champion L.A. Kings who always seem to become a completely different team come playoff time. Again, no one would welcome that first round matchup. The Winnipeg Jets are actually tied with the Kings in points right now (the Kings hold the tie breaker) with the same number of games played, and depending on how the final week of the season plays out, they could end up with the number two wild card spot. While I’m sure everyone would rather take on Winnipeg than L.A., the Jets are no pushover. Just ask the Blackhawks who have only beaten the Jets once this year.

So while winning the division sounds nice, the reality is that whoever wins the Central will most likely have a first round date with Minnesota, or possibly L.A. or Winnipeg.

As for the second and third place finishers in the division, they’ll play each other in the first round. If I am the Blackhawks, I think the best case scenario is taking second in the division with Nashville finishing third. Playing St. Louis in the opening round is not the best idea, especially with Patrick Kane likely out until at least the second round (although Quenneville has NOT ruled him out for round one). Pekka Rinne always has the ability to beat a team on his own, and the Hawks have struggled offensively lately, but I would still take that matchup over one with the Blues.

I hesitate even discussing a topic like this because the second you say you’d prefer to play one team over another, they beat you. That’s just how sports generally seem to work for whatever reason.

This is going to be one hell of a finish to the season over the next week. Tonight’s game between the Blackhawks and Blues means a ton to both teams, as well as the Predators. Obviously it’s still too early to say who will finish where in the standings, but tonight will give us a good idea of who may want “it” more.

NHL playoff format needs to change

139990-330-0Last season was the first year of the current NHL playoff format. Under this format, the top three teams from each division make the playoffs, as well as two Wild Card teams per conference. The purpose of this was to build more rivalries in the NHL, because under this structure the first round consists of more divisional matchups than ever before. Here’s how it works for those who don’t know or forgot:

-Division winner plays a wild card team (best division winner plays worst WC team)

-The second and third place finishers in each division play each other in the first round

This guarantees at least four divisional first round series throughout the NHL each year. By having teams from the same division meet in the playoffs, the hope from the NHL is that more rivalries are developed, thus increasing the interest and passion by the fans.

Here is the problem:

Teams such as the Rangers and Penguins, Blackhawks and Blues, and Lightning and Red Wings are all slated to play each other in the first round if the playoffs started today. It doesn’t seem right that major Stanley Cup contenders should have to face another Stanley Cup contender in the first round. This format automatically eliminates some of the best teams in the league right off the bat. Don’t you want these types of matchups in the second and third rounds?

If the playoffs started today, Vancouver (80 pts) and Calgary (77 pts) would be playing each other in round one, meaning one of those teams would advance to the second round while a team like Chicago (84 pts) or St. Louis (87 pts) is sent packing. That doesn’t seem right.

Under the previous playoff format, the number one team in each conference played the number eight team, two played seven, three played six, and so on. That makes a whole lot more sense than this.

I understand that the NHL wants to create more rivalries and cut down on travel costs with this new playoff structure, but they are punishing some of the best teams in the league at the same time by sending them home too early from the playoffs. Until this gets fixed, there are going to be great teams eliminated in the first round every season.

Hawks beat Penguins in a shootout; NHL trade deadline

15-_DSC2491-toresizeWe’re already 4 games into the Blackhawks’ 8-game homestand, and with today’s shootout win over Pittsburgh they have taken 6 of the possible 8 points so far. It may not feel like they have earned 6 points in the last 4 games, but they have, and every point is a big point at this time of year. So we’ll take it.

Today’s game really wasn’t much of an entertaining one, despite two of the league’s most exciting teams playing in it. Both teams did a really nice job of clogging up the neutral zone, forcing the other to chip-and-chase and then try and set up the offense. You might say that Pittsburgh was more successful at it than the Hawks, but they still couldn’t generate a ton of real good chances. They had a few, and Corey Crawford answered all but one of them with a save. He seems to have really found his stride again, but more on that in a bit.

Niklas Hjalmarsson was the Blackhawks’ lone goal scorer on the afternoon. A faceoff scrum in which Saad out-muscled his counterpart to get the puck back to Hjalmarsson before he bombed it at the net is what led to the goal. For Pittsburgh, it was Nick Spaling that knocked home a rebound given up by Crawford after a bad angle shot from Beau Bennett.

Each team traded powerplays, but no one could score with the man advantage. In overtime, the Blackhawks were the better team, but again, no goals were scored.

Then came the shootout. Now, I’ve always been a big critic of the “talent show” and have wanted the NHL to develop a new format for ending games. Whether it’s 3-on-3 hockey, a 10-minute overtime, etc., I don’t like shootouts. However, today’s shootout was one of the best I’ve seen. The first 4 shooters all scored, with Toews and Kane making Fleury look like a clown. Then Kris Letang went for Pittsburgh, and his bid was stopped by Crawford. It was Patrick Sharp who then had his name called to shoot for the Hawks, and he beat Fleury with a glove-side wrist shot. Game over.

Here’s a few things I took away from today’s contest:

  • The Blackhawks are still trying to find their way back to playing the way they were earlier in the season when they went on their annual Circus Trip out west. Today’s game was a better 60 (or 65) minutes than we saw against both Arizona and Vancouver, but it still wasn’t a pretty win to say the least.
  • Kyle Cumiskey logged 10:25 of ice time today, while Keith had over 28 minutes of playing time. Oduya, Hjalmarsson, and Seabrook were all over 20 minutes as well (Rozsival had 16:42 for what it’s worth). Duncan Keith, while he’s one guy who can handle loads of ice time, shouldn’t be on the ice that much. Come playoff time, you want to see your top defensemen logging minutes somewhere in the low to mid 20’s. You do that by getting quality minutes from all six d-men and by distributing somewhat equal playing time. Right now the Hawks’ fifth and sixth defensemen are generally not giving the Hawks quality minutes, thus lowering their TOI, and raising the other guys’ minutes. This needs to change for them to be successful in the postseason.
  • Corey Crawford appears to be back to his “per-concert incident” self. He made 37 saves on 38 shots today. A few of those saves were great ones that kept the game close. The Hawks will need him to stay on top of his game. You can’t win anything in the NHL without good goaltending.
  • The third and fourth lines of the Blackhawks have featured all kinds of names the last couple games now. We’ve seen line combos from Sharp, Kruger and Smith/Carcillo, to Versteeg, Kruger and Smith/Carcillo, and Bickell, Kruger and Smith/Carcillo. Shaw and Hartman are the only two from the bottom two lines that have consistently played together the last two games. Quenneville is trying to generate more offense from those lines, and until he sees something he likes, they’ll keep changing. They need to figure it out sometime soon though, or at least by April.
  • Ryan Hartman, who had a really good debut against the Devils, wasn’t too noticeable today. He had a team low 7:35 of ice time. Despite not being noticeable and not playing much, he didn’t do anything to warrant him getting scratched next game either. He seems to be really composed while on the ice and doesn’t try to force much. He just takes what he’s given and seems to have good hockey smarts. I’d like to see him continue to play while Carcillo sits in the press box.
  • Lastly, Brad Richards has kind of disappeared lately. Ever since Versteeg went down with his injury on New Year’s Day, Brad Richards has seen his game decline back to the way it was at the beginning of the season. I know he’s getting old and isn’t what he used to be, but the Hawks will need more from him come playoff time.

Today’s game resulted in 2 points for the Hawks, which ultimately is all that matters right now as they chase down the Blues for second in the division. Right now, they trail St. Louis by 2 points, but the Blues have 2 games in hand. Assuming the Hawks don’t bomb between now and April (same with the Blues), they should finish no worse than third in the Central Division, which means we’re looking at another Chicago-St. Louis first round series. While having home ice didn’t help the Blues last year in that matchup, it’s still something that both sides will want for that series. It’s not going to be easy, but if the Hawks can keep winning, they might just catch the Blues this time around.

NHL Trade Deadline

Cody FransonEarlier this morning, the Predators acquired defenseman Cody Franson and forward Mike Santorelli from the Maple Leafs in exchange for Olli Jokinen, a prospect, and a 2015 first round draft pick. Franson was arguably the best defensemen on the trade block, and now he’ll be joining what was already one of the league’s best d-corps on the Predators. He’s a big, right handed shot who likes to be involved offensively. This was a guy that the Blackhawks could have desperately used, but that’s off the table now. The move definitely makes the Predators a better team, and one that we can officially consider a Cup contender.

Because Franson was the best d-man available, teams will now use this trade as a bargaining point while trading for defensemen heading into the trade deadline. The price Nashville paid for Franson and Santorelli, who is a nice player in his own right, wasn’t all that high. This is a good thing for the rest of the league, as almost all contenders seem to be interested in upgrading their blue line. In terms of the Blackhawks, they would be smart to look for a reliable, puck-moving defenseman who can be paired up on the Hawks third d-pairing, or with Hjalmarsson. A combo of Rozsival and Rundblad/Cumiskey/Erixon won’t cut it, and who knows what TVR will be like when he returns…

Now that Franson is off the board, look for more trades to start taking place between now and March 2nd.

Blackhawks fall in St. Louis

183849298_slideComing into this one, many people were saying that these were arguably the two best teams in the Western Conference. Some were even saying that this is the year the Blues bring home their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Well after watching tonight’s game between the Blues and Blackhawks, these might be the top two teams in the West, but I’m not on board with calling the Blues Stanley Cup favorites.

It’s no secret that these two teams dislike each other. Their past battles against one another have gotten ugly a number of times, and tonight featured a little bit of that as well. Sheldon Brookbank and Chris Stewart dropped the gloves just a few minutes into the game, and it looked like there were a few more fights that were in the developing stages before the refs intervened. Adding to the ongoing bad blood between these two teams was Maxim Lapierre when he hit Andrew Shaw from behind into the side boards. He was given a two minute minor, and the Hawks scored on the ensuing powerplay. All that hit did was reinforce the fact that the Blues are loaded with a bunch of clowns who try to hurt people without caring at all. Lapierre has been known to illegally hit guys his whole career, and he is showing no signs of stopping. Barrett Jackman is also another standout loser on that team.

Tonight I thought the Blackhawks looked quite good actually. I thought they played well enough to win the game. They had a number of quality scoring chances in this one, especially early on, but Jaroslav Halak was on top of his game and kept the Hawks to just two goals. Patrick Sharp looked like he was destined for a goal in this one, but never found the back of the net.

The Hawks got two more powerplay goals tonight. That’s four in their first three games to start the season. If you compare their powerplay right now to the way it was during the playoffs, it is much better today.

The penalty kill remains a weakness up to this point. The Blackhawks allowed another powerplay goal against tonight, bringing that total to five over these first few games. Last season, the penalty kill of the Blackhawks was among the best in the league. The loss of Michael Frolik is really being felt early on in this season. Of the Blackhawks that were traded away or signed with another team this past offseason, Frolik seems to be the biggest loss.

What makes tonight’s loss so frustrating is the fact that the Blackhawks played a really good game for the first 59 minutes, and they probably should have been winning had it not been for Halak. When you play that good of a game on the road in a hostile environment, you can’t mess up like they did with 25 seconds to go and cost yourselves the two points.

Jonathan Toews had the puck to Halak’s left looking for either a pass into the slot, or a shooting lane to the net. He ended up trying to shoot and his shot was blocked. The problem here was that Brent Seabrook abandoned his spot on the blue line and decided to pinch down towards the net. When Toews’ shot got blocked, the Blues quickly transitioned from offense to defense and Alex Steen led a good rush up the ice with two other Blues players. Because Seabrook pinched on the play and wound up way out of position, only Duncan Keith was back on defense to try and defend a three on one. Steen never passed the puck and took a wicked slap shot that beat Corey Crawford for the winning goal with 21 seconds left in regulation.

Joel Quenneville was clearly upset at how this one ended based on his words to the media after the game. He called this a “brutal loss,” and said “you can’t make a mistake like that.” Jonathan Toews said that they were “robbed of two points” tonight. I’d have to agree with both Coach Q and Toews.

Moving forward, the biggest thing for the Hawks is going to be tightening up on their PK. They need to start getting more successful kills. One way to eliminate powerplay goals-against is to stop taking so many penalties. The Blackhawks were one of the least penalized teams in the league last year, and that was a huge reason for their success.

Aside from that, they really have looked good through the first three games. Tonight was definitely a tough one to swallow, but you can still take a lot of good things from tonight’s loss. Without a doubt, the Blackhawks will be more than ready for their rematch with the Blues next Thursday night back at the UC.

Thanks for reading.

NHL Western Conference Semifinals Predictions

Well, I got 2 of my 4 predictions right coming out of the Western Conference after the first round of play. I had both St. Louis and Nashville advancing, and they did. I was pretty surprised that neither the Blackhawks, nor the Canucks advanced, especially the Canucks. But that just goes to show you how important goaltending is come playoff time. All 4 remaining Western Conference teams got through the first round thanks to their goalies. I can’t remember a time when all 4 remaining Western Conference teams were based on defense and goaltending, rather than offense, although one could argue that the Kings are an offensive team.

So having said that, lets take a look at who I think will be moving onto the Conference Finals.

 

vs. 

If you want a low scoring series, then this should be a good one for you to watch. The goalie matchup here is phenomenal, with Brian Elliott of the Blues going up against Jonathan Quick of the Kings (I believe Quick will be named as a Vezina Trophy finalist tomorrow, along with Henrik Lundqvist and Mike Smith). Let’s start with the Blues in this matchup.

St. Louis is coming off of a great first round victory over the San Jose Sharks that took just 5 games. In those 5 games, the Blues held the Sharks to just 8 goals. Defense was the name of the game for the Blues in that series, and it worked about as good as they could have asked. All year long, St. Louis has been a defense-first team. Some people wondered, myself included, if that style of play would be able to get the job done in the playoffs. I didn’t think it would. Much like they did all season, the Blues proved me wrong. Even though I had them advancing to the second round, I had them doing it in 7 games. I honestly believed that their style of play would come back to haunt them in a playoff series. It didn’t, however, and they rolled over the Sharks to advance to the second round for the first time in 10 years. If they are going to advance to the Western Conference Finals, they need to step it up offensively. Yes, they averaged just under 3 goals per game against the Sharks and have the second best powerplay in the playoffs so far, but Jonathan Quick is one of the toughest goalies to score on in all of hockey. The Blues are going to need their powerplay to continue producing goals. Also, they are going to need to score a handful of sloppy goals off of rebounds. Jonathan Quick stops just about every shot that he sees, which means that the Blues MUST put bodies in front of the net to screen Quick as much as possible. This will also help create rebound opportunities.

As for the Kings, they need Jonathan Quick to continue his incredible play. Not many people thought that L.A. would upset the Canucks in the first round, let alone in just 5 games. The biggest reason for that upset was the play of Jonathan Quick in net and their team defense. The Canucks were one of the best goal-scoring teams this year in the regular season, but were held to just 8 goals total in the first round. That’s really saying something about the Kings’ defense and goaltending. We’ve known all year long that the Kings have the potential to score a lot of goals with the offensive firepower that they possess. Their problem throughout most of the regular season, however, was their inability to produce goals, which didn’t seem to make sense. They ranked second to last in the NHL in goals per game this year, just ahead of the Minnesota Wild. If you look at some of the names on the Kings’ roster such as Kopitar, Richards, Brown, Stoll, Doughty, and Carter (who they acquired at the trade deadline), you would think that this team should have been one of the best at scoring goals. Well, they decided to pick up their game in the first round against Vancouver, and it paid off. If L.A. can get their top forwards to keep producing goals and points, and if their defense and goaltending plays the way it did against the Canucks, this is going to be a very tough team to knock out of the playoffs from here on out.

-Los Angeles wins series, 4-3.

 

vs. 

I was shocked that the Coyotes were able to knock out the Blackhawks in the first round. I really did not believe that their offense would be good enough to get the job done. I also underrated the skill of Mike Smith. He put on one of the best performances I have ever seen in Game 6 against the Hawks. Nashville, on the other hand, did not surprise me with the way they played against Detroit. Their defense was simply too much for Detroit’s offense to try and score on, not to mention the play of Pekka Rinne in net. That guy is a star.

So, what does Phoenix need to do to win this series? It’s actually a pretty simple concept, but not an easy one to complete against the Predators. They need to outscore Nashville. The two goalies in this series are two of the best in the game right now, and it is going to be an extremely low scoring series because of that. The Coyotes do not have a ton of offensive firepower, but they do have a group of guys who know how to score some ugly goals. In their series with Chicago, the majority of the Coyotes’ goals came on deflections, or plays that started from behind the net. They are a very good team at winning battles along the boards, especially in their offensive zone, which lead to a handful goals against the Hawks. In Game 6 specifically, they won a few board battles behind Corey Crawford, which lead to one-timer goals with the passes coming from behind the net. Another thing that Phoenix needs in this series is for Mike Smith to stay hot. He ended the first round with maybe his best performance of the season in Game 6. If he can carry that type of play over into the second round, and if the Coyotes can muster up some ugly goals, they will have a decent chance at advancing. Another thing that Phoenix has going for them is their ability to win on the road. They were 3-0 in Chicago during the first round, which is a HUGE factor in winning a playoff series.

For Nashville, they need to keep on playing the way they have played pretty much the entire season. Even though they don’t have the big scorers like Chicago, Pittsburgh, or Detroit, they still find ways to score. They ranked 8th in the NHL this season in goals per game, which surprised a lot of people. They also ranked 1st on the powerplay this year, which again had a lot of people caught off guard. Even with those impressive offensive numbers, this is still a defensive-minded team. They have the top d-pairing in the league, in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, and a top 5 or 6 goalie in Pekka Rinne. They shut down opposing offenses by clogging the neutral zone and shutting down the passing lanes. If their defense ever does get beat, then Pekka Rinne has been there to bail them out all year long. Simply put, this is NOT an easy team to score on. Against Phoenix, the Predators need to be good on their faceoffs. The Coyotes beat up the Hawks pretty good in the first round at the faceoff dot, which helped them especially on the penalty-kill. With Nashville entering the playoffs as the number one powerplay team in the league, they will need to win the key draws on the powerplay. If they can outscore the Coyotes on the powerplay in this series, they should definitely win. Phoenix’s powerplay is one of the worst in the league, so by scoring powerplay goals against them, Nashville would be giving themselves that much more of an offensive advantage in the special teams department. While we’re on the topic of special teams, let me say this: The team that wins the special teams play in this series will end up winning the series. 5 on 5 scoring is not going to be easy for either team, which means that powerplay goals are going to decide the outcome of most of these games. With that said, Nashville has a major advantage over Phoenix in terms of their powerplay’s effectiveness.

-Nashville wins series, 4-2.