Blackhawks finally run out of gas in Game 7

2015-11-07 13.59.52It didn’t end the way the Blackhawks or any of us fans had hoped. Despite an incredible comeback to tie this first round series at three games apiece, the Hawks ran out of gas in Game 7 and lost to the Blues by a final score of 3-2. This year’s better team won, whether we want to accept that or not.

As much as it pains me to admit it, St. Louis turned out to be the deeper and better team in their opening round series against the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Blackhawks had the upper-hand in elite talent, but it was the depth-talent of the Blues that ultimately won them the series, and for just the second time since 2002, St. Louis will play in the second round of the playoffs.

Looking back on this incredible series that really could have gone either way, it was the Blackhawks’ lack of depth on the blue line that one could argue was the major difference between these two evenly matched teams. Joel Quenneville was forced to rely on rookies Trevor van Riemsdyk, Erik Gustafsson, and Viktor Svedberg throughout the series, which at times went just as poorly as you could imagine. And near the end of the series, David Rundblad was thrown into the fire. Here’s a guy that started the year with the Hawks, was allowed to go play in Europe due to his ineffectiveness in North American hockey, and was then brought back to the Blackhawks and relied upon to perform well in the most important games of the season. Needless to say, the Hawks badly needed another top four defenseman in this series, and they didn’t have one.

On top of that, their best players weren’t always their best players. Jonathan Toews was held off the scoresheet in all seven games, his first postseason in which he did not score. Patrick Kane only registered one goal (granted, it was a double overtime winner). Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were beaten more often than usual and turned the puck over too many times, and Corey Crawford had a few moments of mediocrity.

All of that, coupled with the team’s lack of defensive depth, was the right recipe for early elimination. Yet they still almost won out of sheer willpower.

No team in the NHL has played more playoff games since the 2009 postseason than the Blackhawks. Couple that with the fact that the Hawks are loaded with Olympians who have played in multiple Olympic games, and it’s fair to argue that these guys may be exhausted. They looked like it at times against the Blues. And in reality, this first round exit may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

For the first time since 2012, the Blackhawks will have a long summer by their standards. They will finally have time to rest and recover prior to next season. Also, losing this early should only ignite a fire within that locker room. For a team that may be the most competitive in the league, a first round exit like this should only motivate them more to reach their ultimate goal in the coming seasons.

Looking ahead, this should be a very interesting summer for the Hawks. They will once again be tight against the salary cap while trying to find a way to re-sign big pieces. Andrew Shaw, for instance, will be a restricted free agent this summer and will no doubt receive interest from multiple teams around the league. The Hawks will have to either find a way to pay him, or Shaw will be wearing different colors next season. They’ll also have to fill the spots currently occupied by Ladd, Rozsival, Weise, Fleischmann, and Panik. Panik, however, is the best bet of that bunch to return next year.

Then you have the Bryan Bickell situation. Bickell is still owed $4 million for one more year, which is a major killer in terms of the Hawks’ cap space. Stan Bowman worked really hard last summer and this season to trade Bickell and his contract, but there were no takers. Bowman will likely be tasked with the same challenge this summer, and whether or not he can execute it could play a huge role in the make-up of next season’s Blackhawks.

This first round exit hurts, a lot, but it’s not the end of the world. As maddening as it is to watch the Blues eliminate the Hawks, it’s important to look at the big picture.

Three times since 2010 we have watched massive parades fill the streets of Chicago thanks to the Blackhawks. They were one goal away from playing in three straight Stanley Cup Finals when they lost in overtime of Game 7 to the Kings in 2014. Despite some inevitable roster turnover again this summer, we are still living in the Golden Era of Blackhawks hockey. The fact that expectations in Chicago have become “Stanley Cup or bust” is a good thing, and something that not many teams or cities can compare to.

Dwelling on this loss for a few days, weeks, or even the summer is fine. The Hawks, had they won Game 7, may have gone on to do something special again. Who knows… But don’t get too down on this team. What they’ve done in recent years is nothing short of remarkable, and that cannot be overlooked.

Stan Bowman and the front office will again do what they can to make the Hawks as much of a contender as they can in the coming months. And given the core that is in place with this team, virtually anything is always possible.

Lack of depth has Hawks down 3-1; Shaw goes overboard

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-St. Louis Blues at Chicago BlackhawksTuesday night’s Game 4 between the Blackhawks and Blues at the United Center was about as close to a must-win game for the Blackhawks as a game can get without it technically being a must-win. And given the Hawks’ history in crucial games (43-14 record in games 4-7 under Joel Quenneville), there was some reason for optimism. Unfortunately for the Hawks, history meant nothing as they lost the game 4-3 and now trail St. Louis in the series 3-1.

The frustrating thing about this series is that the Blackhawks haven’t played bad. They certainly have not been playing at the elite level we’ve become used to seeing them reach in recent years, but each of the four games in this series really could have gone either way. A better bounce here or there, and the Hawks could be the ones up 3-1.

Despite all of that, it has become quite evident over the last four games that the Blackhawks’ depth is nowhere close to what we thought it might be following the trade deadline. The additions of Ladd, Fleischmann, and Weise looked like solid upgrades at the time. The Hawks badly needed to add forward depth, and they did just that. Unfortunately for them though, Fleischmann and Weise (and to an extent, Ladd) have not performed the way Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville had hoped. As a result, Dale Weise has only seen action in one playoff game thus far, while Tomas Fleischmann has played in each game but has nothing to show for it. In fact, he only got 5:13 of ice time in Game 4 and never touched the ice in the third period.

You can also credit the lack of depth on the Blackhawks’ blue line for this 3-1 series deficit. Christian Ehrhoff was acquire at the trade deadline along with the aforementioned three players, but he quickly wound up in Q’s doghouse and has yet to play in this first round series. Instead, it’s been a couple of rookies getting minutes as the team’s sixth defenseman, and that hasn’t exactly worked out too well.

And as if that wasn’t enough, maybe the biggest reason the Hawks find themselves in this hole is due to the fact that their top forwards have yet to score a goal. Kane, Toews, Hossa, and Ladd are all scoreless through the first four games. Each of them has had some golden chances to strike, but no one has yet. In a series this tight, the fact that the Hawks’ best scorers have been held scoreless is as big a reason as any as to why they are now facing elimination. The Blues on the other hand are getting goals from at least their top player.

I’m not ready to write off the Blackhawks in this series. I think anyone to do so would be a fool no matter how low your hopes may be. In the Joel Qunneville/Toews and Kane era, the Hawks have found themselves in a 3-1 series hole four separate times. Three of those times they battled back to force a seventh game, and won one of those Game 7’s. Heck even last year, the Hawks trailed Anaheim 2-1 and 3-2 only to come back and win the series. In the Stanley Cup Final they fell behind Tampa Bay 2-1 and won three straight games to clinch the Cup.

This team won’t go quietly. They are led by winners and world class competitors. I’m not saying that they’ll for sure force a seventh game or that they will even win Game 5. But don’t write them off until they are officially eliminated.

I don’t want to talk too much about the specifics of Game 4 because I’ll get too upset again, but the actions of Andrew Shaw need to be mentioned here.

First of all, with your team trailing by one goal with just over two minutes left in regulation, the absolute last thing you can do is take a penalty and put your team shorthanded. Not only did Shaw take a penalty, but it was about as dumb of a penalty as you’ll see. You can’t just level a guy after the whistle in a game in which the referees already made it clear they weren’t going to put up with anymore extracurricular stupidity. As a result, the Hawks had to play out the final two minutes shorthanded and weren’t able to get the crucial 6-on-5 advantage with the goalie pulled. I’m not saying this is what lost them the game, but it sure as heck did not help.

Secondly, there is video showing Shaw allegedly using a gay slur towards a referee while sitting in the penalty box following the previously mentioned stupid penalty. After the game, Shaw was asked if he used the slur and his response neither admitted to it nor denied it. He answered by saying “I don’t know what I said.” If he did in fact use a gay slur, which it sure looks like he did based on the video, then the Blackhawks need to send a message before Game 5. This cannot be tolerated. You can argue that Shaw said it “in the heat of the moment,” but that’s no excuse. If it’s those words coming out of your mouth in a tense moment, then odds are those “words” are a regular part of your vocabulary.

I’ve played sports my whole life and have been so angry to the point where all I wanted to do was punch or throw something. Cuss words come out here and there, but to start throwing out slurs is not common or acceptable.

The Blackhawks have already messed up a couple of times this season with regards to how they handled the Patrick Kane and Garrett Ross situations. They have yet to own up to those. Now is their chance to finally do the right thing and suspend Shaw for at least the next game. Don’t wait for the NHL to conclude its investigation as they announced Wednesday morning. Do this on your own. Send a stern message that this organization won’t tolerate such behavior. For a team that has made it a point to reach out to the local gay community by bringing the Stanley Cup to the Pride Parade in recent years, they need to show that they will not accept something like this. My gut says that the Blackhawks front office won’t do a thing to Shaw, but who knows? Maybe the third time is the charm.

Aside from that, Shaw went on to further embarrass the Blackhawks by trying to start a fight after the final horn blew. Yes he took a shot to the mid-section from Alex Steen while lined up for the faceoff, but don’t lose your mind and go crazy trying to fight anything and everything that moves.

The Hawks’ image was severely hurt in the final minutes of Game 4, and mostly due to Shaw’s actions. He is set to be a restricted free agent this summer, and it was already being widely speculated that the Blackhawks would not re-sign him. After Tuesday night’s actions, Shaw may have made the Hawks’ decision for them.

Again, this series isn’t over. It does not look good for the Blackhawks, to say the least, but you can’t rule this team out until they are officially eliminated.

Previewing the Blackhawks’ Potential First Round Playoff Mathups

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at St. Louis BluesHeading into Tuesday night’s matchup between the Blackhawks and Coyotes at the United Center, the Hawks sit third in the Central Division with 99 points, while the Stars and Blues are tied atop the division with 105. The Blackhawks do have a game in-hand on both Dallas and St. Louis, but that won’t matter unless the Hawks get two points against Arizona. Given how the standings currently look, let’s breakdown who the Hawks may meet in the first round of the playoffs, and who they should prefer to meet.

We’ll start with Dallas.

If the playoffs started today, we would see a St. Louis – Chicago showdown in the first round. With the Blues and Stars tied for the top spot in the Central and each with two games left on their schedules, a lot can still take place, however. Heck, even the Hawks aren’t mathematically eliminated from winning the division. If St. Louis were to end up taking the division title, we would get a Stars – Blackhawks first round series.

This regular season, the Hawks went 1-4 against Dallas, and all of their losses were of the ugly sort. Needless to say, the Stars gave the Blackhawks some problems this year. While some may be inclined to think much of the same would occur in a playoff series between the two teams, that won’t exactly be the case.

Dallas is the league’s best offensive team with two of the game’s best scorers in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. They’ve also got the likes of Patrick Sharp, Jason Spezza, and even John Klingberg, who developed into one of the NHL’s best offensive d-men this year. They are a deep team at forward and can roll four lines rather effectively.

Defensively, Dallas has some depth as well. The emergence of Klingberg as an elite offensive defenseman has been huge for the Stars, as has the addition of defensive specialist Johnny Oduya. Jason Demers is expected to be out of the lineup for a couple more weeks with a shoulder injury, and when he returns, Dallas has three decent defensive pairings.

The Stars’ biggest knock is their ability, or sometimes lack thereof, to keep pucks out of their own net. While their defense is built with recognizable names, they aren’t exactly the best group when it comes to actually playing defense. Like Klingberg, this is a defensive unit that is stronger in the offensive zone than they are in the defensive zone more often than not. Add in their goaltending, which ranks in the bottom five in total save percentage and allows an average of 2.80 goals per game, and you begin to understand that this is purely an offensive team.

Dallas ranks fourth in the NHL in CorsiFor (CF%) percentage (number of shot attempts a team generates, whether on goal or not, compared to their opponent), which means they’re a team that plays with possession of the puck more frequently than they do not. This is just how they want it given their issues defensively and in net.

In a potential Blackhawks – Stars series, the key for each team would become puck possession. The Stars need the puck so that their offensive weapons can do their thing. The Blackhawks, on the other hand, would need the puck to prevent the Stars’ forwards from doing what they do best: scoring goals. While the Hawks rank in the middle of the pack in CF%, they still own the ability to be one of the league’s best puck possession teams. Given how the Blackhawks seem to dial up their intensity come playoff time, it’s not out of the question that they could be the better possession team in this potential series.

As for St. Louis, they are somewhat the opposite of Dallas in terms of their team strengths.

Unlike the Stars, the Blues pride themselves on defense and goaltending. That is why they rank fifth league-wide in fewest goals against per game, and first in team save percentage. Their defense is led by a top four that is very solid in the defensive zone, unlike Dallas, who have two goalies behind them in Brian Elliott and Jake Allen that both own save percentages in the .920’s. Defense is without question the strength of the Blues.

Aside from the strong defensive capabilities, this team also ranks top ten in CF%. It’s a tough combination to try and go up against. However, despite the strong possession and Corsi numbers, St. Louis is 14th in goals per game. Therein lies their biggest problem.

It seems to be the case every year with the Blues: they have a strong defensive team, but not enough offensive firepower to advance deep into the postseason. You can rank as high as you want in CF%, but if you’re not putting the puck in the net, it will eventually come back to bite you. Granted, the Blues are in the top half of the league in goals per game, but their offensive depth is what could hurt them yet again.

When you look at their individual statistics, Vladimir Tarasenko leads the team with 71 points. Next is Alex Steen with 51, followed by three players in the 40s. Their bottom two lines are not very productive offensively, which usually spells trouble in the playoffs. It is due to this weakness that the Blues have not made it past the second round of the playoffs in any of the previous four seasons, while being eliminated in the first round each of the past three years. Obviously anything could theoretically happen this time around, but the 2015-16 Blues look, on paper, awfully similar to the previous four Blues teams to have made the postseason only to be quickly eliminated.

So looking at the two most likely candidates to face the Blackhawks in the first round, which one should the Hawks prefer?

While I hate “wishing” for a specific opponent (that usually ends poorly), I believe the Blackhawks would be better off getting the Blues in round one. Here’s why:

  1. The Hawks defense can be vulnerable, to say the least. Losing Johnny Oduya was a killer, and the Hawks are still trying to find his replacement on the team’s second d-pairing. Also, Corey Crawford has missed the last 9 games due to injury. Although he is expected back for Game 1 of the first round, who knows how much rust he’ll have to clean off himself. Given those two factors and the fact that Dallas is league’s best offensive team, I’d rather go up against a team like the Blues that isn’t as offensively strong. The Blackhawks’ offense and depth can be good enough to beat a solid defensive team.
  2. There is a certain “familiarity” that the Blackhawks have with the Blues. They’ve recently gone up against each other in the playoffs and know the tendencies that the Blues have on both sides of the puck. Joel Quenneville is no stranger to playing the matchup game against Ken Hitchcock, and he usually wins that battle. Bottom line here is that it would be easier for the Hawks to draw up a gameplan against the Blues than it would be to draw one up against a Stars team that despite playing in the same division, the Hawks are not as familiar with.
  3. Lastly, and feel free to take this one for whatever it may or may not be worth, the Stars have owned the Blackhawks this season. They have a 4-1 record against the Hawks and made Chicago look relatively bad in each of those four Dallas victories. Needless to say, the Stars would head into a series against the Blackhawks with loads of confidence. Again, that might not even be a factor, especially against a Hawks team that could care less about what happened in the regular season, but you never know. The Stars going 4-1 against the Hawks this year has to mean something, even if only a little.

There are pros and cons to playing the Blues and Stars in a seven game series. All I’m doing here is trying to highlight those factors and determine which ones are more important than the others when looking at potential playoff matchups.

With just three games left for the Blackhawks (2 for both the Blues and Stars), the Hawks’ best hope is to win out and have both St. Louis and Dallas lose their last two games. This would vault the Hawks into first in the division and guarantee them home ice advantage for at least the first two rounds. The next best option is to have the Blackhawks win their last three games, while just one of St. Louis or Dallas lose their final two. This would allow the Hawks to finish second in the Central and have home ice in round one. Keep in mind that the Blackhawks play the Blues on Thursday, and then St. Louis finishes their schedule at home against the Capitals. If both St. Louis and Dallas win just one more game, however, or if the Hawks lose one, the Hawks are guaranteed third place.

The push for a better playoff seed begins Tuesday night against Arizona for the Blackhawks. Marian Hossa, Andrew Shaw, and Corey Crawford are all out due to injury, while Duncan Keith serves the third game of his six-game suspension.

Here we go again: Game 7

15-_DSC2491-toresizeFor the third straight postseason, the Blackhawks will be playing a Game 7 as they take on the Ducks tonight in Anaheim at 7:00pm CT. Two years ago, it was the Blackhawks defeating the Red Wings in overtime at the United Center to advance to the Western Conference Final. Last year, 363 days ago to be exact, the Kings sent the Hawks home in overtime, yet again, of Game 7 at the United Center. Joel Quenneville recently described that loss as “the worst of our lives.” Tonight, the Blackhawks have the chance to redeem themselves and earn a trip to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in six seasons.

This series between the Ducks and Hawks has been one for the ages. We’ve seen two multiple overtime games, one single overtime game, and three other relatively close games. Each team has one road victory and has proven that they are worthy of winning this series.

For the Blackhawks to win this game, they will need to draw upon the things that they accomplished in their Game 6 victory. Those things, among others, include:

  • Rolling all four lines
  • Getting big performances from the star players
  • Playing responsible, tight defense
  • Winning the board battles
  • Good goaltending from Corey Crawford
  • Playing with energy and intensity

Game 6 was a clinic by the Hawks. They didn’t come out guns blazing like Anaheim was expecting them to. Instead they seemed to sit back, wait for Anaheim to make a mistake, and then pounced. Once they finally “pounced” and scored the game’s first goal, they took their game to the next level and scored two more times within just a few minutes. They earned a 3-0 lead in the game (which was brought to 3-2 by the Ducks) and never looked back. Tonight, we need more of the same.

Scoring first will be big yet again. It isn’t necessarily imperative, but it would sure be nice. Getting the game’s first goal will not only give the Hawks momentum, but it will put the Ducks on their heels and quiet the Anaheim crowd (not that they’re that loud anyways). The Blackhawks are a much better hockey team while playing with the lead than they are when playing catch up.

Quenneville appears to be sticking with his nuclear line of Saad, Toews, and Kane to start the game. This line was rather dominant in Game 6, and there’s no reason why that should change tonight. The only difference now is that Bruce Boudreau and the Ducks will have the last change. Odds are that Boudreau will want Ryan Kesler matched up against the Toews line, which is something he wasn’t able to do very often in Game 6. Kesler was doing an okay job of defending Toews and his mates through the first five games, but with Kane now a part of that trio, it’s a new animal to try and handle. If this line gets off to a good start, things should be looking alright for the Hawks.

The key to tonight’s game could lie with the Blackhawks’ second line of Bickell, Richards, and Hossa. This line had a difficult time getting much going last game (despite producing the Hawks’ second goal) and often found themselves pinned in their own end for long stretches of time. While Hossa is an elite two-way forward, Bickell and Richards are not. It will be key for these guys to put together good shifts and not get stuck playing defense the whole night. Odds are that they will probably see a lot of the Getzlaf-Perry line.

As for the Hawks’ third and fourth lines, those guys continue to put pressure on Andersen and the Ducks’ defense with regularity. Those two lines have come up with a number of big goals in this series, and another one or two (or more) tonight wouldn’t hurt.

Defensively, Duncan Keith will need to dig deep yet again and lead the way. His performance in Game 6 was one for the ages, and if he can do anything close to that again tonight, the Blackhawks will be in good shape.

David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey both turned in good performances last game, and they’ll need to do so again tonight. Granted, Quenneville won’t be able to protect them as much as he could at home by giving them offensive zone starts all the time, but if these two can play solid games, then they’ll have done their job.

In net, Corey Crawford now owns the best save percentage of any goalie to make the Conference Finals. He has turned in clutch performances in big playoff games before, and the Hawks will need him to do it again. Expect the Ducks to come out of the gates going 100 miles per hour tonight, meaning Crawford will have his work cut out for him. It is imperative that he makes some big time saves without letting in any soft goals.

Most seventh games end up being rather low scoring as neither team wants to take too many chances that could lead to disasters going the other way. I’m not saying tonight will be the same, but don’t be surprised if it is. Anticipate seeing both teams play conservative games similar to what you see in overtime. I’ll be shocked if the Ducks try and play a super physical game tonight because that can lead to players being caught out of position. Their goal in being as physical as they were through the first six games was to wear the Blackhawks down for Game 7. Now that we’re at Game 7, the Ducks will probably ease off the physicality aspect of their game with the hopes that their hitting earlier in the series did it’s job (I doubt that it did).

As I am writing this, my heart is already trying to escape my body, and we’re still an hour and a half from puck drop. Game 7’s, while they are the most entertaining games for fans, are the worst for fans of the two teams playing. It is literally three straight hours of feeling like you’re going to throw up. Luckily for us Blackhawks fans, we’ve become quite experienced in these types of huge games (as have the Hawks’ players) and know how to handle them better than most other fan bases.

Given what this roster of Blackhawks players has gone through in past postseasons whether they’ve won or lost, I am confident that they will come out as the more prepared team tonight and deliver a victory.

Takeaways from Blackhawks’ Game 5 loss; Looking ahead

10-171460575-smallThe storylines now surrounding Game 5 between the Blackhawks and Ducks are pretty straight forward and don’t need much more recognition. Anaheim struck three times in the first period to take a 3-0 lead in the game, only to have the Blackhawks come storming back and tie it with less than a minute left in regulation thanks in large part to the miracle that was pulled off by Jonathan Toews. The game would head to overtime, again, and the Ducks’ Matt Beleskey scored the game winner just 45 seconds in. Ducks 5, Blackhawks 4, with the series headed back to Chicago for a now must win Game 6 for the Hawks.

Here’s what you should know about why the Blackhawks lost the pivotal fifth game:

  • First and foremost, that opening period was dreadful. It was probably the single worst period of the season for the Blackhawks. They came out flatter than the Great Plains and watched Anaheim skate circles around them with the puck. It was embarrassing to say the least. The Hawks managed just three shots on goal in the period, with their first one coming late in the frame. Only they know why they came out so slow and disinterested, and we can only hope we never see that again. As a result, the Ducks netted three goals and probably could have had a couple more.
  • The Blackhawks had a lot of trouble clearing the puck out of their own zone/getting the puck in deep to Anaheim’s end, and this directly resulted in at least three goals for the Ducks. The two most notable instances of this were the Ducks’ fourth and fifth goals. On their fourth goal, Kimmo Timonen chipped the puck to Patrick Sharp along the half boards to Corey Crawford’s right. Instead of then moving the puck into open ice up the middle and out of the zone, Sharp tried to get it out along the boards. The Ducks held it in and pulled off a spectacular goal thanks to some incredible passing. On the fifth and game-winning goal, Bryan Bickell had the puck just over the center ice line and simply needed to dump it into the Ducks’ end so that the Hawks could get a line change. Instead of making the sure and safe play, he chose to take a slap shot (presumably directed at Frederik Andersen) that hit a Duck defenseman, dropped right to the stick of Jakob Silfverberg, and the next thing you knew Anaheim had a two on one going the other way. Game over. Those plays cannot happen if you’re Sharp and Bickell.
  • Speaking of Bryan Bickell, how awful has he been? He’s getting out-muscled along the boards with regularity and is providing next to nothing for the Hawks. There’s no way that the coaching staff isn’t noticing this. Maybe his costly turnover in overtime last night will finally get him benched. In his defense, it looks like he’s playing injured and that could have something to do with his ineffectiveness. If that’s the case, he shouldn’t be playing. Dress Versteeg, Nordstrom, or even Ryan Hartman. Someone who can actually contribute to the team. At this stage of the series, Joel Quenneville should be putting his absolute best lineup on the ice.
  • No one should be blaming Corey Crawford for this loss. He had no chance on either of the Ducks’ first two or last two goals, and was likely screened on their third. He came up with some huge saves in the first period and never really looked bad in the game. It was his teammates that hung him out to dry.
  • Lastly, the powerplay of the Hawks wasn’t good enough. They were 0/2 with the man advantage. They did generate a few chances, but never found the net. They have GOT to start scoring on the powerplay if they want to come back and win this thing. Not to keep picking on Bryan Bickell, but he shouldn’t be on the second PP unit. I know he’s a big body that can park in front of the net, but he can’t do anything else. Teuvo Teravainen, who just keeps getting better and better, should take his spot. He’s a play-maker creates scoring chances, and that’s what the second unit is lacking.

Looking ahead to Game 6, the Blackhawks really should have some confidence in themselves. If they had even shown up just a little bit in the first period of Game 5, they probably win the game. They dominated the final 40 minutes and found a way to tie the game after trailing 3-0 at one point.

Jonathan Toews did another Jonathan Toews thing by scoring two goals in the final two minutes to tie the game. It was truly a miraculous finish to regulation. I’m not a huge believer in momentum carrying over from one game to the next, but the fact that the Blackhawks were able to outplay the Ducks over the final two periods and erase a 3-0 deficit in Game 5 should make them feel pretty good about themselves heading into Game 6 on home ice.

The Blackhawks are not a team that gets rattled or “scared” while facing elimination. Jonathan Toews even said following last night’s loss that the Hawks almost seem to play better when their backs are up against the wall. We’ve seen them come back in series multiple times before, and I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if they find a way to do it again now. If you’re looking for someone who might be scared, look in the direction of Frederik Andersen. He was awful in Game 5, and maybe his confidence is diminishing. If I’m the Hawks, I’m shooting early and often in Game 6.

Knowing that with a loss they’ll be sent packing, I am fully expecting the Blackhawks to come out with everything they’ve got on home ice Wednesday night. Win that game and force Anaheim to defend home ice in a Game 7 yet again. In case you forgot, the Ducks were in this exact same position last year against L.A. in the second round. The Kings took Game 6, and then proceeded to blow out the Ducks in Anaheim in Game 7.

It won’t be easy, but there’s no reason why the Blackhawks should doubt their chances of coming back and winning this series.

Keys to a Blackhawks Game 5 victory

15-_DSC2491-toresizeAfter winning a crazy Game 4 in double overtime to even this best of seven series at two games apiece, the Blackhawks will take the ice in Anaheim tonight in Game 5 looking to bring a 3-2 series lead back home for Wednesday. Both of the Blackhawks’ victories in this series have come in multiple overtime games, something this team has become accustomed to in recent years. In fact, the Hawks are the first team in NHL history to win four multiple overtime games in one postseason. This is a resilient group that doesn’t seem to ever be fazed by adversity.

After losing Game 2 of this series in triple overtime, many thought that the Ducks would be somewhat demoralized and surely lose Game 3. That did not happen as they went on to win that game by a score of 2-1. After losing Game 4 in double overtime, now their second multiple OT loss of the series, one has to wonder if Anaheim will be down on themselves heading into tonight’s game. Odds are that they’re not, but losing two games in this series in the fashion that they did is not easy to overcome. With the series now shifting back to California, however, one should assume that the Ducks have forgotten about Game 4.

In this series, each team has had extended stretches in which they have controlled the game. Both sides are probably thinking that they’ve been the better team than the other. The truth of the matter is that these are two very evenly matched teams, and frankly, this series could go either way at this point.

So heading into tonight’s fifth game, let’s take a look at five keys to a Blackhawks’ victory.

  1. Score first. The team that has scored the first goal in the game has won each game this series. That’s not to say this will continue, but playing from behind is much more difficult than playing while ahead. With this game being in Anaheim, the Blackhawks do not want the Ducks getting the first lead. Anaheim thrives on home ice while winning.
  2. Good special teams. The Blackhawks’ powerplay has been both good and bad this series. The two games in which they’ve notched a powerplay goal, they’ve won. Anaheim is a team that clearly likes to be physical and get involved in extra-curricular nonsense. Those two traits often lead to more penalties for them compared to their opponent. If the Ducks are going to continue taking bad penalties, the Blackhawks have to make them pay. Scoring at even strength against this team is no easy task, so taking advantage of being up a man will be big. Also, the Hawks’ penalty kill has been better during this series than either of the first two. It goes without saying that killing off their penalties is hugely important, especially at this stage of the series. If the Blackhawks can win the special teams play tonight, they should win the game.
  3. Continue rolling four lines. Arguably the biggest strength of the Blackhawks is the fact that they have four lines that can generate offense while being responsible defensively. After messing up his lines in Game 3 (a game in which the Hawks’ offense looked lost), Quenneville went back to his original lines from games 1 and 2 for Game 5. The result? Four lines that put heavy pressure on the Ducks’ defense and Frederik Andersen. The two overtime goals scored by the Hawks in this series have come from their fourth and third lines respectively. They need all four lines to continue doing what they’ve been doing. The Toews line seems to have picked up some momentum recently, and hopefully they can carry that into tonight.
  4. Get good minutes from the defensemen. So much has been made of the fact that the Hawks are really only using four d-men right now. While no one can deny that their top four defensemen are logging heavy minutes, I will say that those four guys are not as worn out as the media and Ducks players are making them sound. That being said, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya need to keep up their strong efforts. Getting productive minutes out of Cumiskey and Timonen will be key as well.
  5. Corey Crawford. He always seems to step up in big games and deliver. With so much at stake in this game, there’s no question that Anaheim will come out flying tonight, and Corey Crawford will need to make some big saves. We’ve seen him do it many times before, and he’ll need to do it again.

The Ducks have done a lot of talking over the past couple days about how they know they’re wearing down the Blackhawks with their physical play. They’re doing so much talking about that subject that it almost seems like they’re doing whatever they can to make themselves feel good about where they’re at. I am really starting to wonder if they haven’t become distracted by the fact that the Hawks are taking so many hits without really showing any symptoms of being worn down.

Also, I’ve never seen a team more concerned with trying to get in the heads of their opponent than the Ducks. Every single time Ryan Kesler is on the ice, he’s either chirping or doing something else towards a Blackhawk to try and get in their head. It’s almost as though he’s more worried about that than he is the actual game. The same can be said of Corey Perry.

The Ducks are a team that tends to lose their cool when things aren’t going well (much like the Blues). If the Blackhawks get a late lead in this game tonight and are controlling the play, it’s definitely realistic to think Anaheim might start taking dumb penalties out of frustration. If this happens, the Hawks need to make them pay.

This is a pivotal game and one that would be massive for the Hawks to win. As I’ve said many times, there isn’t another team in hockey more equipped to handle the pressure of and win big games.

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.