Post Trade Deadline Blackhawks Update

Yes, I’m still alive and well here. I know you’ve been worried. You know who else is alive and well? The Blackhawks. They are winners of seven straight games, and have won their last eight road games, which is a new franchise record. They also sit second in the Central Division while owning the league’s third highest point total (89). In a season that I and many others viewed as a stepping stone toward competing for the Cup again in the next two years, the Hawks have, to this point, shocked me.

Coming into this 2016-17 season, it was well known that the Blackhawks were going to have to play multiple rookies each and every night thanks in large part to the salary cap. As has been the case for the last 7-8 years, the Hawks are tight up against the league’s cap due to the fact that they have to pay high annual salaries to some of the NHL’s best players. The only difference this year, however, is that rather than being able to sign some veteran players to cheap one-year deals, the Hawks were forced to build their depth from within their own organization. Enter the likes of Ryan Hartman, Tanner Kero, Nick Schmaltz, Dennis Rasmussen, and Michal Kempny (signed as a free agent last summer).

You never want to have to place a lot of faith and confidence in a bunch of rookies to help guide your team to the postseason. There is simply too much of the “unknown factor” that comes into play in that scenario. There’s no telling how a rookie or other relatively inexperienced players will handle the pressure of being asked to produce right off the bat. That becomes even more true in the playoffs when the intensity on the ice and in the stands rises to levels that cannot be duplicated in the AHL or junior leagues.

However, the Blackhawks’ rookies have exceeded expectations thus far, and that’s an understatement. Ryan Hartman (15G, 11A) is making this city forget about Andrew Shaw. He’s producing offensively, he has been responsible defensively, and he brings some size and grit that can prove to be quite valuable in May and June.

Tanner Kero, while not a big generator of offense, is becoming Marcus Kruger 2.0. His value on the penalty kill has grown all season.

Nick Schmaltz got off to a slow start back in the fall and was sent down to Rockford to gain confidence and work on shooting more often, and ever since being brought back up to the NHL he has been an entirely different player and now sees time on the team’s first line alongside Jonathan Toews when everyone is healthy.

Heading into the trade deadline, it was clear that the Hawks could have used a top six winger, preferably LW, to play on Toews’ left, but again the salary cap (amongst other reasons) prevented that from happening. While Schmaltz has played well lately, I’m not sure he’s the permanent answer for that top line spot. In the playoffs, you want a guy with some experience to be playing in a role like that.

The Blackhawks did, however, reacquire Johnny Oduya prior to the trade deadline passing. This could potentially be a huge move. With Oduya now back in play for the Hawks, they can roll out the exact same top four defensemen that we saw during the 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup runs. All of a sudden, the Hawks’ defensive corps is one of the strongest in the league heading into March and April.

So overall, here are some of my key observations as we near the end of the season and the beginning of the playoffs:

  • Depth. The Hawks seem to have it. As I stated, the rookies are all playing quite well and are either meeting or exceeding expectations. Depth, and goaltending, are the single biggest factors come playoff time.
  • Speaking of goaltending…Goaltending. Once again Crawford and Darling are both playing like No. 1 netminders. It’s Crawford’s job without question, but in case of an injury or a sudden drop in his performance, it’s good knowing Darling is there waiting in the wings.
  • Defense. This might be the strongest group of defensmen that the Blackhawks have had in quite some time. Not only do they have an elite top four with the addition of Oduya, but their fifth and sixth d-men (Campbell, TVR, Kempny, Rozsival) are strong and reliable as well, especially when playing bottom-pairing minutes.
  • Richard Panik. Here’s a guy who was hardly seeing ice time with the Maple Leafs before getting dealt to the Hawks last season, and now he’s playing right wing on the first line with Jonathan Toews. He sits seventh on the team in points (17G, 19A). If he can keep up this level of play in the playoffs, that will be huge.
  • Special Teams. It’s obvious, but the Hawks need to be better here. The penalty kill is substantially better than it was at the beginning of the year (especially with Oduya now in the mix), but it can still be better. As for the powerplay, it should be a top ten powerplay with the amount of talent on the Hawks’ roster. To win in the playoffs, you need a strong PK and a powerplay that will make the opponent pay for its mistake(s).
  • And lastly, Health. The Hawks cannot afford to keep getting bit by the injury bug come playoff time. A sidelined Toews, Kane, Panarin, Keith, Hjalmarsson, or Hossa could be detrimental to this team’s Stanley Cup hopes.

I’ll say it again. I’ve been extremely surprised by the Blackhawks this season. I honestly believe that what we’re seeing is a result, to some degree, of getting an entire summer of rest last year. Just look at Marian Hossa for proof. This team is skating with energy and seemingly a full tank of gas right now, which is something we did not see at this same time of year last season. Exiting after the first round last April could very well have been a massive blessing in disguise.

Moving forward, I think this team has the potential to win the Western Conference and play for their fourth Stanley Cup since 2010. I also believe that the Blackhawks could be knocked out as early as the second round of the playoffs. It will all come down to their depth, which right now seems to be good. But, anything can happen, and that is especially true when talking about a team with multiple rookies in its lineup on a nightly basis.

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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.

The Blackhawks’ offense must show up in Game 4

2015-11-07 13.59.52After three games of their best of seven first round series with the Blues, the Blackhawks find themselves in a 2-1 hole heading into Game 4 Tuesday night at the United Center. Through the first three games of this series, the Hawks have registered just 5 goals; one of which was an empty netter.

An area in which it looked like the Blackhawks would have the upper hand in this series, offense, has in fact favored the Blues thus far. St. Louis has been the better team in 5-on-5 play, and they lead the Hawks 51.1 to 48.9 in even strength Corsi. The Blackhawks did generate 46 shots in Game 3, 24 of which came in the second period, but they could only get just 2 goals out of it.

If the Blackhawks want to get themselves back even in this series and eventually go on to win it, they are going to need pucks to start entering the net behind Brian Elliott.

The Ladd, Toews, and Hossa line has been pretty good up to this point for the Hawks, but they have yet to tally a goal. Andrew Ladd had a great chance in the second period of Game 3, but his shot hit both posts before exiting the crease. Then you have the second line of Panarin, Anisimov and Kane, without question this team’s top line all season long. Only Anisimov has scored while Elliott was in the net, and that goal came in a 4-on-4 situation. Kane is still looking for his first goal. Between the six forwards on the Hawks’ bottom two lines, Andrew Shaw is the only one with a goal, and that came via a powerplay.

In total, the Blackhawks have ONE even strength, 5-on-5 goal through the first three games (Keith’s goal in the final seconds of the second period of Game 2). That just won’t be enough moving forward.

It is imperative that the Blackhawks’ top players show up in this series and begin making a difference. If they don’t, then it will be St. Louis moving on to the second round.

Here’s what needs to happen for the Hawks to start scoring and for their best players to actually be their best players:

  • Sustained offensive zone time. Aside from period two of Game 3, the Blackhawks have had a real tough time getting much set-up in their offensive zone. They’ve had some good shifts here and there, but nothing consistent. This needs to change. I know the Blues are one of the better defensive teams in hockey, but the Hawks simply have to find a way to put sustained offensive pressure on them. Rather than have one guy carry the puck into the o-zone time and time again, only to run into a wall of St. Louis defenders, the Hawks need multiple players entering the zone together to space out the Blues’ defense. With just the puck-carrier entering the zone, that allows the Blues to zero in on him and force him off the puck without being able to make a play. If you’ve got one or two other players entering the zone with the puck-carrier, you then don’t allow the Blues to hone in on the puck. They then have to stay spaced and account for the other players entering the zone. This may open up the opportunity to get a good cycle going and generate consistent and sustainable offensive zone time.
  • Depth. Unlike last year during the postseason, the Blackhawks are not getting much from their third and fourth lines. Granted we’re only three games into the playoffs, but this is still an issue. You may be able to win a series over a weaker team with only two lines contributing, but that won’t work against someone like St. Louis. The third line with Teravainen at center has got to get going. Brandon Mashinter, who started Game 1 on this line, is nothing but an anchor weighing down any line he’s on. He is one of the worst options you can have when trying to generate more puck possession. He was replaced by Richard Panik the last two games, while Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise have occupied the other wing. If the Hawks are to win this series, not only will they need some of their top forwards to start scoring, but this line will need to contribute offensively. They are not your typical checking third line, and instead are more of a skilled third line that if effective on offense can be a difference maker in a series.
  • Solve Elliott. This one kind of goes hand-in-hand with generating more offense and goals, but the Hawks have to figure out a way to beat Brian Elliott. You could say that he single-handedly won the Blues Game 3 by only allowing 2 goals on 46 shots against. And truthfully, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. It has not been uncommon for the Hawks to be searching for answers against the opposing goalie through the first three games of a series. If history tells us anything, it’s that this is a team that seems to figure it out in Games 4-7, making their opponent’s goalie(s) look bad in the process. One way to potentially beat Elliott is by moving the puck laterally in the offensive zone. Create one-timers. Get Elliott moving side-to-side. He’s not the quickest in that regard and can be beaten in this fashion. In order to do this, look no further than my first point: create sustained offensive zone time.
  • Crawford. Corey Crawford has been phenomenal in this series. He has yet to allow a soft goal, and has come up with some massive saves at crucial times. This needs to continue. The Blues will be going for the kill in Game 4, so Crawford and the Hawks should expect an attempted offensive onslaught right from the start. Crow will have to stand tall and make all of the necessary saves, as well as some highlight reel saves.

The Blackhawks do not want to go down 3-1 against this Blues team. Getting a win in Game 4 to even things up would be huge. To do that, it would be wise of the Blackhawks to try and execute the above points.

As I briefly touched on, the Blackhawks are historically a much better team in Games 4-7. Since 2010, their record in those games is 43-14, and they have come back to win the series 9 times after trailing in it 2-1. Needless to say, this is not an unfamiliar position for them to be in.

If the Hawks are still having trouble generating offense at the halfway point of Tuesday night’s Game 4, look for Joel Quenneville to start tinkering with the lines. In all honesty, it was a bit surprising that he didn’t do so more aggressively in the third period of Game 3.

I’ll say it right now: If the Hawks win Game 4, they will win this series.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: 1st Round Predictions

And just like that, the best time of the year is finally back. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to begin Wednesday night after a long and grueling regular season. Some teams steam rolled their way into the postseason as others backed their way in while relying on help from other teams around the league. Nonetheless, we’re in for a couple months of heart-stopping hockey.

Each year I take some time to make my predictions for every playoff series, and this year is no different. This is one of my favorite topics to write about, so let’s get to it.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h vs. 6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h

Season Series: Panthers won, 2-1

It’s not the most marquee matchup on tap in the first round, but that doesn’t mean this won’t be an exciting one. These are two relatively young teams that built from the ground up over the past few years and now get to try and prove themselves in the postseason. The Islanders were in the playoffs just last season and were eliminated in a tough seven game series against the Capitals. This is a team that is looking to finally get over that first round hurdle and advance to the second round. They are led by what can be a potent top two lines featuring John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Frans Nielsen, but after that they take a bit of a dip in production. Defensively, the Islanders have a pretty solid unit led by Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, and company. In net, they’ll likely be turning to Thomas Greiss as Jaroslav Halak is sidelined with an injury. This could end up being the biggest factor in this series as Halak has been a pretty good postseason performer in his career and has the talent to steal any game. With him out, lots of pressure shifts to Greiss and Chris Gibson if called upon.

On the Panthers’ side of things, this team may have been the best surprise of the year from start to finish. Dale Tallon, the architect of Chicago’s 2010 Cup-winning team, is working his magic again in south Florida. His compilation of young talent mixed with skilled and experienced veterans such as Jagr, Campbell, and Luongo have proven to be a solid formula all year long and led the Panthers to the Atlantic Division crown. The additions of Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell have worked out quite well so far and give the Panthers decent forward depth from nearly top to bottom. On the blue line they have a solid top three defensemen, but after that they go downhill just a bit. They will need their top two defensive pairs to stay strong for them to remain the better team in this series. Even if the Florida defense does begin to falter, they have one of the game’s top goaltenders standing between the pipes to back them up.

Ultimately, the Panthers are the better team in this series in nearly every aspect, most importantly in net. The Islanders will need to play their best hockey of the year to reel off four more wins.

-Florida wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Islanders – 84.5% PK; Panthers – 2.44 GAA

DRW Logo vs. TampaBayLightning_LOGO

Season Series: Tied, 2-2

On the one hand we have a Red Wings team that just clinched their twenty-fifth consecutive playoff berth. On the other, a Lightning squad looking to return to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year. First things first though for the latter of the two. Detroit will not be an easy out. They are no longer led by head coach Mike Babcock, but the same mentality still exists in that locker room. Guys like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Richards, and Kronwall who have all been here before many, many times know what it takes to win in the playoffs. When you add in the youth of players such as Dylan Larkin, this team has a nice combination of experience and fresh legs. And despite them barely making the postseason, the Red Wings have pretty good forward depth, which is always a must in the postseason. They ranked 8th this season in goals scored per game. Defensively they ran into some trouble while finishing 17th in goals against average, but this team still has the ability to turn in strong defensive performances. What once seemed like a foregone conclusion is now anything but: who starts in goal for Game 1? Given the minutes Jimmy Howard played down the stretch, don’t be shocked if it’s him in net and not Petr Mrazek, who started 49 games this year.

As for the Lightning, they are returning to the playoffs with *mostly* the same team they had last year at this time. The two big differences, and they’re big ones, are the absence of captain Steven Stamkos (blood clot) and defenseman Anton Stralman (broken leg). Neither player is expected to return to the lineup this spring, although the odds are better for Stamkos. The question with this team now is whether or not they can overcome those two losses to still be successful in the playoffs. You can’t replace Steven Stamkos from within, although Jonathan Drouin was recalled to take his roster spot. And in the case of the Lightning, they have no actual replacement for Stralman either. Can they still win a series? Of course. They still have some really solid forward depth that can score at a frequent pace, and they still have Victor Hedman leading the defense. Also, they own one of the league’s best netminders in Ben Bishop who can single handedly win a series. While losing Stamkos and Stralman hurts, big time, it’s not the end of the world for Tampa Bay, or at least not in the first round.

I think we’ll see a very competitive series between these two much like we did a year ago. In the end, I think goaltending is the deciding factor. You could say that in just about any series, but with uncertainty for the Wings in that area and the opposite for the Lightning, it will play a big role in this series.

-Tampa Bay wins series, 4-3.

STAT TO KNOW: Red Wings – 22nd in penalty minutes; Lightning – Bishop 2.06 GAA (1st in NHL, minimum 40 GP)

161 vs. 161

Season Series: Tied, 2-2

This could potentially end up being the best series of the first round in the East if everything goes right. Beginning with the team from Philly, the Flyers rode a hot wave through the last month or so of the season to earn themselves the East’s last wild card spot. They have been getting production all year long from the likes of Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds, as was expected. What wasn’t necessarily expected was the sudden emergence of Brayden Schenn as a point-producer (career high 59 points), or Shayne Gostisbehere as one of the league’s best offensive d-men as a rookie (46 points). Offensive depth has been an issue for the Flyers this year, but the increased and added production from those two players are a huge reason why this team is in the playoffs. To now go on and win in the playoffs, they’ll need contributions from top to bottom. This is a team that ranked 22nd in goals per game, so they’ll either need pucks to start going in the net more regularly, or their defense (12th in GAA) will need to get even better, which isn’t out of the question. Steve Mason, who started 17 of the team’s final 18 games in net, is another major reason this team made the playoffs. He has had spurts here and there where he is incredibly tough to score on. The Flyers will need that to happen again starting now.

Taking on the Flyers is this year’s President’s Trophy winner, the Washington Capitals. The Caps closed out their season with a whopping 120 points and really don’t appear to have many flaws in their game. To find support for that statement, look no further than the fact that Washington ranked second league-wide in both goals per game and fewest goals against per game, and led the NHL with a +59 goal differential. That’s a deadly combination regardless of how you look at it. Alex Ovechkin reached the 50 goal plateau for the seventh time in his career, and Evgeny Kuznetsov led the team in points with 77. Offensively, this may be the deepest and most dangerous team in hockey. While that’s all nice, the Capitals are one of the strongest defensive teams in the league as well. They are fully healthy on their blue line, led by a top four of Alzner, Niskanen, Orpik, and Carlson, and have a young d-man in Dmitry Orlov who took his game up to another level this year on both sides of the puck. Then you have that guy standing in the blue paint who tied Martin Brodeur for the single-season win record with 48 to go with only 9 regulation losses. Braden Holtby also finished 6th in goals against average, and 8th in save percentage. Needless to say, Washington is pretty stacked everywhere you look.

Having said all of that, the Flyers are a tough team to play against almost every night. They have virtually zero pressure on them as everyone expects the Capitals to play deep into the postseason. The Philly faithful also give the Flyers one of the best home-ice advantages in hockey. I’m expecting this series to be a close one, with the possibility of a huge upset.

-Washington wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Flyers – 5th in shots per game; Capitals – 5th ranked PP, 2nd ranked PK

144 vs. 174

Season Series: Penguins won, 3-1

It feels like these two meet every year in the playoffs, and here we are again. The Rangers, Eastern Conference champions just two seasons ago, and runner up last year, are looking to make another deep playoff push this spring. They added Eric Staal at the trade deadline, which has worked out pretty well to this point, and own one of the deepest forward groups of any team in the playoffs. That being said, their top six is not as lethal as most other teams’ top six. They don’t have an Ovechkin, Kane, Perry, Giroux, and so on. They do have Rick Nash, but he once again underperformed this year and, despite last year, does not have a great track record in the postseason. What tends to win games for the Rangers this time of year is their defense and goaltending. Unfortunately for them, they’ll be without their top defenseman and captain, Ryan McDonagh, for at least the beginning of the first round. This means guys like Girardi, Marc Staal, Yandle, and Klein will pick up more minutes and be heavily relied upon against a potent offense in Pittsburgh. Henrik Lundqvist will for sure have his hands full in net, but like we’ve seen in the past, is more than capable of getting the job done.

For Pittsburgh, they’ll be without Evgeni Malkin for likely the whole first round. He is about four weeks into what is supposed to be a six to eight week recovery from an “upper-body” injury. Despite his absence, the Penguins caught fire in the final weeks of the regular season and landed second in the Metropolitan Division. Sidney Crosby, after a slow start to the season, finished third league-wide in points (85) and is looking like his old self again. The Penguins also have Phil Kessel this time around, who has been a big part of Pittsburgh’s offensive success this year (3rd in NHL in goals per game as a team). Where Pittsburgh gets thin is their bottom two forward lines and 4-6 defensemen. It could be repeated a million times and still be a valid point: depth is crucial in the playoffs. In Pittsburgh’s case, they lack good enough depth to be considered a strong Cup contender. Add in that Marc-Andre Fleury is recovering from a concussion (he could play Game 1), and the Penguins may be in trouble.

This series is a tough one to decide on. You’ve got a deep team in the Rangers who are without their top d-man and captain going against a not as deep, but top heavy team in the Penguins. If New York can keep Crosby in check, they’ll win the series for sure.

-New York wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Rangers – 26th in PK%; Penguins – 2nd in CF%

WESTERN CONFERENCE

New_Dallas_Stars vs. New_Dallas_Stars

Season Series: Stars won, 4-1

Finally we get a matchup of the old North Stars versus the North Stars’ Minnesota-replacement, the Wild. Minnesota comes into this one as losers of five straight games to close out the regular season. If it wasn’t for Colorado losing their last six games of the season, this could be a different matchup. But here we are nonetheless. It was revealed within the last few days that Zach Parise, Minnesota’s leading scorer in the regular season, could miss an indefinite amount of time due to aggravating a herniated disk in his back. This is about the worst news the Wild could have gotten as there is no way they win a series without Parise. But, to try and move on they’ll need big contributions from players like Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, Jason Pominville, etc. There’s no easy way to replace a Zach Parise-type player. Also, add in that Vanek may not even play in the first round and that Erik Haula is “iffy” for Game 1, and you begin to see a big problem for Minnesota. They’ll have to heavily rely on their defense and Devan Dubnyk to slow down the Stars’ offense.

Speaking of the Stars, they finished the year as champions of arguably the best division in hockey while leading the NHL in goals scored. Jamie Benn ended the season with 89 points (good for 2nd in the league), and Tyler Seguin, despite missing 10 games, finished with 73. However, it is unclear whether Seguin will be ready for round one due to an Achilles injury that has kept him sidelined since March. Even if he does miss this series, or the majority of it, the Stars should still be in good shape. What Dallas has to worry most about is their goaltending. Their team save percentage is .904, which is tied for the 4th worst in the NHL. It will likely be Kari Lehtonen starting in Game 1 for the Stars over Antti Niemi, but nothing is official as of yet. Luckily for Dallas, they are going against a Minnesota team that finished 18th in goals per game and will be without their top scorer. While Dallas doesn’t have a ton of postseason experience, the addition of players such as Sharp, Oduya, and Spezza who have all either won the Cup or played deep into the postseason should help them get through some rough patches.

The Wild are already in a hole in this series due to injuries, and they’ll need lots of fortunate occurrences to come out on top.

-Dallas wins series, 4-1.

STAT TO KNOW: Wild – 27th in PK%; Stars – 4th in PP%

56 vs. st-louis-blues-logo

Season Series: Blues won, 3-2

This series may be the single best matchup in the entire first round of the playoffs. The two teams met five times in the regular season, and three of those times the game was decided in overtime or a shootout. For the Blackhawks, they’ll be without Duncan Keith for Game 1 as he finishes up his six game suspension. Other than that, everyone else is ready to go. Their second line of Panarin, Anisimov, and Kane cooled off a bit in March, but has since regained their early season form. Kane ended the year leading the league in points and finished with 46 goals. Panarin led all rookies in goals (30), assists (47), and points (77). Those two alone can win a series if they continue to fire on all cylinders. The top line of Ladd, Toews, and Hossa started to increase their production until Hossa went down with back-to-back injuries, but now they’re all healthy and will need to create offense yet again. Where Chicago has the potential to make themselves the Cup favorite lies within their bottom two lines. If they get production from their fourth line again like they did last spring with the same three players, and if their third line continues to create chances like they have been as of late, they’ll be an extremely tough out for any team. Their weakness is their defense. They have yet to find a way to fully replace Johnny Oduya and have had a revolving door on their bottom pair. Corey Crawford will likely be tested in this one, and he’ll somehow have to regain his mid-season form to help his team advance.

The Blues come into the first round with everyone back and healthy. They finished the year ranked 4th in fewest goals against average, and 1st in team save percentage. Obviously, this is a team that relies on keeping the puck out of their net to be successful. When you look at their forward lines, you definitely notice that they have really good depth, but they lack that top-end firepower. Sure, Tarasenko was a 40-goal scorer this season, but after that they do not match up with Chicago in terms of offense. Where St. Louis is going to win or lose this series is defense. Can they stop Chicago’s offense, or limit it, for four games out of seven? We’ll see. They definitely have the defensive corps and goaltending to do it, but actually doing it successfully for a whole playoff series is not easy. If they can shutdown the Blackhawks’ 2nd ranked powerplay, St. Louis will have a good shot at winning this series. However, while the Blues do have the league’s third best penalty kill, they have a tendency to end up in the box as they ranked 9th in penalty minutes this year. In what will be a physical series, the Blues are going to have to not be dumb and take stupid penalties that will give the Blackhawks more powerplay time.

I’m expecting a bruising series here, and one that could potentially go seven games. In the end though, Chicago’s ability to score along with their experience in the playoffs should put them over the top.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Blackhawks – 2nd in PP%; Blues – 5th in Faceoff %

NHL-Nashville-Predators-Logo-Wallpaper vs. ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO

Season Series: Predators won, 2-1

What we have here is a matchup of two of the NHL’s best teams over the course of the second half of this season. Nashville started the year pretty slow, then they acquired Ryan Johansen in exchange for Seth Jones and everything seemed to turn around. They rank near the middle of the pack in most offensive and defensive categories, yet they still have decent forward depth and one of the league’s best sets of top four defensemen. Given the Ducks’ offensive capabilities, the Predators will need that defense to elevate their game to the next level. Pekka Rinne, who had a subpar season by his standards, cannot take a night off at this point. His team will need to ride on his shoulders from time to time in this series. If Nashville can get timely scoring, especially from their top guys such as Forsberg and Neal, they’ll have a shot in this series.

For Anaheim, they simply just need to play their game. They have the edge in talent and depth over Nashville, they’re one of the top teams in possession (52.4% Corsi rating), and they are the top team on both the powerplay and penalty kill. They have suffered some injuries to players such as David Perron, Rickard Rakell, and Kevin Bieksa, and it’s unclear which, if any, of those players will see ice time in this series. Where they could run into problems is on defense. The Ducks run a little thin in this department, and a good offensive team could potentially give them trouble.

On paper, the Ducks should have this thing locked up. They have the talent and statistical edge over Nashville. However, anything could always happen.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Predators – 1st in fewest shots against/game; Ducks – 1st in PP% and PK%

crestonwht_rgb vs. third_jersey_logo

Season Series: Sharks won, 3-2

Who doesn’t love another good rivalry in the first round? Next to Chicago – St. Louis, this is the next most heated matchup of the opening round. The Sharks weren’t even really supposed to be a playoff team this season, but General Manager Doug Wilson kept his core players intact and it has paid off so far. Joe Thornton (82 points) had what many are calling a Hart Trophy-worthy season if not for Patrick Kane, and he was closely followed by Joe Pavelski (78) and Brent Burns (75). What was most impressive about the Sharks this season in both a good and bad sense was the fact that they led the NHL in road victories with 28, but had the fewest home wins (18) of any team to make the playoffs. For a team that has always had a great home ice advantage, their home woes this season are mind boggling. Will it be an issue in the playoffs? Maybe, except that they do not have home ice advantage in this series, which may benefit them. Aside from that, the Sharks rank 4th in goals per game and 10th in goals against average. Their blue line is surprisingly deep, and they have two solid goalies. Martin Jones appears ready to get the Game 1 start, but if he falters early look for James Reimer to replace him.

Standing in the Sharks’ way is the team that has won two of the last four Stanley Cups: the Kings. This is what Los Angeles lives for. They aren’t a great regular season team, but as soon as the playoffs begin, they become one of the best teams in hockey. They have the depth at forward and the right goaltender to go all the way, but for once it’s the defense that may hurt them. That’s not to say that their defensive unit is a bad one by any means, but they aren’t what they were during their previous two Cup runs. Aside from that, L.A. did lead the NHL in possession numbers this season and ranked 3rd in shots per 60 minutes of play. If they can find their playoff form again after a year off from the postseason, look out.

The Sharks always give L.A. problems. They were up 3-0 on the Kings two years ago in the playoffs, but ended up losing four straight. I’m not saying that exact same thing will take place again, but the Kings are in for a tough series.

-Los Angeles wins series, 4-3.

STAT TO KNOW: Sharks – 4th in goals per game; Kings – 1st in possession

Chicago Sports: 2015 Year in Review

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Just like that, we’ve made it through 2015 and are about to enter 2016. I have to say that 2015 was a pretty great year looking back on it both for me personally, and from a Chicago sports perspective (at least for the most part). This is the first time I have done this, but I’m looking forward to recapping the past year of Chicago sports. Enjoy.

Bears

6cphie5heyvfwn6lbzfowe61h2015 had a bit of a rough beginning for the Bears. They missed last year’s playoffs and began their offseason by firing general manager Phil Emery, head coach Marc Trestman, and most of the coaching staff. Ryan Pace was brought in to turn things around as the new GM, and one of his first moves was making former Broncos head coach, John Fox, the Bears’ new head man. Adam Gase and Vic Fangio both left San Francisco to be the Bears’ new offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively, giving the Bears one of the league’s best coaching staffs.

Kevin White was selected as the Bears’ number one pick in the 2015 NFL draft with the hopes of building a formidable receiving core between him and Alshon Jeffery, but White missed the entire 2015 season due to injury. Following White’s lead, the Bears could not stay healthy this season. This forced lineman to switch positions and backup players to become starters. Not that there was much optimism surrounding the Bears’ heading into 2015 season, but the injuries they suffered kept them from finishing with a better record. As it stands right now, the Bears are 6-9.

Looking ahead to 2016, it may be reasonable to expect a better Bears team than the one we saw this season, but the playoffs should still be out of the picture. However, I look at Ryan Pace as an up and coming Theo Epstein-type GM, and I have confidence that he’ll turn this thing around sooner than later.

Blackhawks

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Tampa Bay Lightning at Chicago BlackhawksThe Blackhawks solidified themselves as a modern day dynasty in the NHL by winning their third Stanley Cup in six seasons in 2015. Things were not looking so bright, however, when Patrick Kane suffered a broken clavicle near the end of February that required surgery. He was ruled out for possibly twelve weeks.

What the Kane injury did that some people overlooked at the time was open up $6.5 million in salary cap space for the Blackhawks. By placing Kane on long-term injured reserve, his cap hit vanished. Stan Bowman took advantage of this and went ahead and traded for the likes of Antoine Vermette, Andrew Desjardins, and Kimmo Timonen. Obviously the Hawks went on to make the playoffs, and as a surprise to everyone, Patrick Kane was in the lineup for Game 1 of Round 1 against the Nashville Predators; about a month or so ahead of schedule.

The Blackhawks would go on to defeat the Predators in six games, sweep the Minnesota Wild, and knock out the Anaheim Ducks in seven to win the Western Conference and advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

In the Cup Final, the Hawks took games 1, 4, 5, and 6 to win their third Cup in six years, but it was the first time since 1938 that they won it on home ice. Duncan Keith won the Conn Smythe as the playoff MVP by unanimous vote. Andrew Desjardins and Antoine Vermette both played pivotal roles for the Hawks throughout the postseason, and without them it could be argued that they would not have won the Cup.

So far in this 2015-16 season and following some significant roster changes over the summer, the Blackhawks sit third in the Central Division with 46 points through 38 games played. Patrick Kane leads the NHL with 53 points and set the Blackhawks’ and American-born record with 26 consecutive games with at least one point, a streak that ended just a couple of weeks ago.

Moving forward, there is no question that the Hawks could use an addition on the blue line as well as at the left wing position. If they can somehow upgrade in those areas, we could be looking at another deep playoff run in a few months.

Bulls

The Bulls ended their 2014-15 season with a 50-32 record, which was good for third in the Eastern Conference. In the playoffs they beat the Milwaukee Bucks in six games before getting knocked out in six games by Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Following the end to their season, the Bulls’ front office decided it was time to let head coach Tom Thibodeau go. The two sides never seemed to be on the same page during Thib’s time in Chicago despite his .647 win percentage in five seasons with the Bulls. As a replacement, Fred Hoiberg was lured away from Iowa State to become the new Bulls head coach.

In the NBA draft, the Bulls took Arkansas forward Bobby Portis with their top pick, and he has been a pleasant surprise so far this season. The Bulls as a team are 18-12 through 30 games this year, which isn’t bad, but their 130107_gq_trout_aapparent off-the-court problems seem to be overshadowing what is taking place on the court. To make it simple, the Bulls are a dysfunctional group of players. Derrick Rose has gradually been losing his place as the face of the team to Jimmy Butler, and the two of them are rumored to have issues with one another.

As the season progresses into 2016, there is a chance we see Pau Gasol get traded away has he has already stated he would like to explore free agency in the summer. Whether or not that happens, the Bulls will still be in the playoffs come April, but won’t get too far as long as Cleveland remains intact. The future is not as bright for the Bulls as it has been in recent years.

Cubs

Next to the Blackhawks winning the 2015 Stanley Cup, the Cubs were the best sports story in Chicago this year. After finishing the 2014 season with a record of 73-89, manager Joe Maddon and starting pitcher Jon Lester were brought in during the fall of 2014. Instantly, Maddon instilled playoff expectations in his team and a completely new vibe.

The Cubs started their 2015 season with four of their top prospects (Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber) all in the minor leagues, but soon brought up both Bryant and Russell by the end of April. As the spring gave way to summer, the Cubs took off and just about steamrolled their way through the remainder of the regular season.

Kris Bryant wound up hitting .275 with 26 home runs and 99 runs batted in, and took home Rookie of the Year honors this past fall. Anthony Rizzo led the team with 31 homers and 101 runs batted. Kyle Schwarber was called-up a little over mid-way through the season and ended up with 16 dingers and 43 RBI in just 69 games.

On the other side of things, Jake Arrieta put together the best second half to a season by a starting pitcher in MLB history, and ended the regular season with a 1.77 earned run average while leading the MLB with 22 victories (and just 6 losses). He threw his first career no-hitter on August 30th, and won the National League Cy Young Award.

130107_gq_trout_aThe Cubs finished the season with 97 wins, good for third best in baseball, and beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Wild Card game. In the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cubs took games 2, 3, and 4 to win the series and advance to the National League Championship Series for the first time since 2003. They would end up getting swept by the Mets, but that is beside the point. The Cubs showed the baseball world that they are the real deal by winning 97 games and moving on to the NLCS behind their young bats and top of the rotation.

So far this offseason the Cubs have only gotten better. They have, to this point, signed John Lackey, Ben Zobrist, and Jason Heyward, giving them one of the best starting rotations in the National League and arguably the best lineup in baseball.

Expectations have not been this high for the Cubs in a long, long time, and 2016 is shaping up to be an unbelievably exciting year on the North Side.

White Sox
The Sox brought in Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, and Adam LaRoche heading into the 2015 season with the hopes of making a surprise run in the AL Central. Unfortunately for them, things did not go as planned.

The team went 76-86 on the season and finished
second to last in their division. Jeff Samardzija was a major disappointment as he ended the year with a league-worst earned run average of 4.96. Chris Sale, who got off to a great start to the year, did not have a great finish, but still wound up with a respectable 3.41 ERA and the third most strikeouts in the Major Leagues.

On the offensive side, Jose Abreu put together another stellar year with a MLB: Chicago White Sox at Cleveland Indians.290 average, 30 home runs, and 101 runs batted in. Much like Samardzija, Adam LaRoche was extremely underwhelming with a .207 average and just 12 home runs and 44 RBI.

So far this offseason, the White Sox seem to be working towards competing in 2016 instead of rebuilding. They recently acquired Todd Frazier from the Reds in a three-team deal, and Frazier will no doubt be a huge upgrade at the hot corner for the Sox and in the middle of their order. As of now, the Sox are being linked to Yoenis Cespedes as a possible landing spot for the free agent outfielder. If they can sign him, they’ll all of a sudden have a threatening lineup.

The White Sox still need another quality starting pitcher to be considered a real threat in the Central. As things stand at this moment, they shouldn’t be considered a playoff threat. That could change with a couple of good signings though.

So there you have it. Chicago sports in 2015. Overall, it was a pretty good year for the city with three of their five teams making the playoffs and one walking away as a champion. Not every sports town can make the same claim as often as Chicago can.

2016 in Chicago looks to be an intriguing year sports-wise. Given the current rosters of each team, here are my predictions for the upcoming year (these are subject to change if more roster moves are made):

Bears: 8-8; third in NFC North; miss playoffs

Blackhawks: 101 points; third place in Central Division; advance to second round of playoffs

Bulls: 48-34; third place in Central Division; advance to second round of playoffs

Cubs: 102-60; NL Central Division Champions; (I refuse to predict a playoff outcome)

White Sox: 80-82; fourth in AL Central; miss playoffs

Blackhawks are true champions

10-171460575-smallFor the third time in six seasons, the Blackhawks can call themselves Stanley Cup champions. With their impressive 2-0 shutout victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night, the Hawks have cemented themselves as the greatest NHL team of the salary cap era, and some people are choosing to use the word “dynasty.” Whether or not you agree with that label is a discussion for another day. For now, let’s just focus on how great, fun, exciting, legendary, etc., this team is.

The pursuit of this Stanley Cup victory really began as soon as the L.A. Kings knocked the Hawks out of the playoffs last season in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Final. The Blackhawks were one shot, one goal away from advancing to the Stanley Cup where anything could have happened. Instead, they were sent packing far too early for their liking. A bad taste was left in their mouth, and an even stronger hunger left in their minds to get right back to that same spot and change the outcome. They did just that this go around by defeating the Anaheim Ducks in Game 7 of this year’s WCF.

Once they reached the Stanley Cup Final just a couple of weeks ago, this team knew that they would not walk away empty handed again. They had too much reason and too much desire to let that happen. Essentially, the Blackhawks knew that they would win the Cup this year, only they’ll never tell us that.

As if losing to the Kings last spring wasn’t enough motivation, the Hawks received plenty more of it this year that propelled them to winning a third Cup in six years. They endured one of the toughest regular seasons a team could possibly imagine. Just before Christmas, they lost their assistant equipment manager, Clint Reif, to an all too sudden death. The players and coaches all considered him to be just as much a part of that team as anyone else, and his loss hit the Hawks harder than any of us can imagine. Then not long after, former teammate Steve Montador suddenly passed away, again pushing the players’ emotional capacities to the limit.

This team was already on a mission to win the Cup this year to avenge their Game 7 loss last year. After the deaths of two people extremely close to the team, the Blackhawks were not going to be denied the Cup. They were going to win it for those who would not be there to experience it, and they did just that.

Looking back on this playoff run, it’s really amazing to think about how good this year’s Hawks really were. Take this series against the Lightning for example. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp combined for three goals in the series, yet they still won in six games. Contributions were made up and down the lineup to get the Hawks another Cup, whether it was Antoine Vermette, Teuvo Teravainen, Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw, etc. This was a true team full of champions, and now, that’s just what they are.

130107_gq_trout_aDuncan Keith, the unanimous vote-getter for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, put together his best ever stretch of play. He finished the playoffs having played more minutes than anyone else, and it wasn’t even close. Keith finished the postseason with close to ninety more minutes than the next closest player, which is astounding. To add icing on the cake, he scored the game winning goal Monday night.

And how about Corey Crawford? The guy loses his starting job prior to Game 3 of Round 1, only to get it back for Game 6 and never relinquish it. He closed out the playoffs with a shutout to win the Stanley Cup. Had it not been for his early struggles in the first round, Crawford would have had a strong case to be the Conn Smythe winner.

10-171460575-smallAs the seconds ticked down to zero at the end of Game 6 Monday night, it was hard to believe what was happening. For the first time in most of our lifetimes, the Blackhawks were winning the Stanley Cup on home ice in front of their own fans. It was a surreal imagine that I’ll never forget. And although Stanley itself was a little late getting to the party due to sever weather earlier in the evening, it didn’t really matter. The party was on.

Watching Jonathan Toews accept the Stanley Cup from Gary Bettman for the third time, but the first at the U.C., presumably sent chills down the spines of all of Chicago. USP NHL: STANLEY CUP FINAL-TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING AT S HKN USA ILAs Toews then passed the Cup onto Kimmo Timonen, it was tears that took over for the chills. A man who nearly lost his life just a year earlier, who had no clue if he’d ever put on another pair of hockey skates, was holding the greatest trophy in sports above his 40-year old head for the very first and last time. It was truly one of the great moments in Stanley Cup history.

Joel Quenneville solidified himself as one of the single greatest coaches the sport has ever witnessed, winning his third Stanley Cup as the Blackhawks coach. What’s truly remarkable about Quenneville in all of this is that he has now won the Cup here in Chicago with three different coaching staffs. That is a testament to him and to the men he chooses to stand beside him behind the bench.

This year’s Chicago Blackhawks may not have been the best of the three teams they’ve had win the Stanley Cup over the last six years, but they were the toughest. Regardless of what adversity they faced during the regular season and these playoffs, they found a way to overcome it and came out as champions. They started this run five years ago as a bunch of “kids” who were too young and too dumb to realize what they had just done. Now, they are legends who will be looked upon as a modern-day dynasty. For those who just won the Cup for a third time with the Blackhawks, they will forever be the faces of this great organization, and rightfully so. And for a few of them, they’ll be seeing their number hang high above the United Center ice one day, as well as a bronze statue placed outside the stadium for the rest of time.

Enjoy this one, as it may be a while until the Blackhawks ever get back to this point due to imminent salary cap casualties. For now though, the Blackhawks are Stanley Cup champions.

Blackhawks on the verge…again

10-171460575-smallWith Saturday night’s Game 5 victory over the Lightning in Tampa Bay, the Blackhawks have put themselves in position to do something they haven’t done since 1938: win the Stanley Cup on home ice. Saturday night marked the second time in three games that the Blackhawks have defeated Tampa Bay at Amalie Arena, and they did it by playing their best all around game of the series.

The first four games of this Stanley Cup Final saw the Lightning begin each game as the better team, only to have the Blackhawks get better as the game progressed. One could even argue that Tampa Bay was the better team over the course of the first four games. Saturday night’s game flipped the script, however, as the Hawks came out in the first period as the much better team. They dominated in Corsi, ending the period with a 26-14 15-_DSC2491-toresizeadvantage, and also led in shots 14-5. The first period ended with the Blackhawks also winning on the scoreboard by a score of 1-0 thanks to a major mishap between Ben Bishop and Victor Hedman.

Over the years, the Blackhawks have shown that they know how to take their game to that next level when they need to. They know when they have the chance to put their foot on their opponent’s neck, and they always seem to do so. Saturday night was no different. With the series tied 2-2, the winner moving to within one victory of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup, the Hawks knew it was time to elevate their game and scratch out a win. Add in the fact that a win in Game 5 would mean a chance to lift the Cup on home ice in Game 6, and that team had more motivation to play their best than they probably knew what to do with.

So that’s where we’re at now. The series headed back to Chicago and the Blackhawks knowing that with a win Monday night, they’ll be celebrating a championship on home ice for the first time in 77 years.

Here’s what needs to happen in Game 6 to ensure that the aforementioned does take place:

  • Get another great start. For the first time in this series, the Hawks were the better team in the first period during Game 5. This needs to happen again in Game 6. The United Center is going to be absolutely insane with noise, and the Hawks players need to feed off of that right from the get go. Getting a quick one or two (can we dream?) goal lead would be huge and put the Lightning in a very tough spot.
  • Keep it up Crawford. Corey Crawford has arguably been the MVP of this series, and he turned in yet another fantastic performance Saturday night. He definitely seems to have a boat load of confidence right now and is playing his best hockey of the year. With Tampa Bay likely to come out in full desperation mode, Crawford should expect to be tested with some quality scoring chances. It will be on him to make the necessary saves and some “highlight reel” saves.
  • Solid PK. The Blackhawks’ penalty kill has been rather brilliant against the Lightning. They’ve killed off 12 of the 13 penalties that they have taken in this series, which is a huge reason they are now one win away from clinching. Maintaining a solid PK Monday night will once again be large if they can do so. The United Center crowd thrives on successful penalty kills, which lends some momentum to the home team.
  • Star time. The fact that the Blackhawks are one win away from lifting the Stanley Cup without Patrick Kane or Marian Hossa scoring a single goal in this series is remarkable. Heck, Jonathan Toews only has one goal, as does Patrick Sharp. This speaks volumes about the depth of the Blackhawks. However, maybe now is the time for the stars of this team to make their mark. It’s never too late for Showtime.
  • Zone exits. The Blackhawks have been having a really tough time clearing the puck out of their own zone against the Lightning. Tampa Bay does an exceptional job of clogging the boards and not allowing the Hawks to get the puck out of the zone that way. This has led to numerous defensive zone turnovers and subsequent scoring chances for the Lightning. It is imperative that the Blackhawks find a way to get the puck out of their zone successfully in Game 6. Whether it’s using the middle of the ice, flipping the puck high into the air and out of the zone, or literally anything that may work, the Hawks need to do it because using the boards as a way of clearing the zone is not working.
  • Lastly, the Big Four. The top four d-men of the Hawks (Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya) have all played very heavy minutes ever since the beginning of the Western Conference Final. This is well documented. Game 5 was possibly their best performance of this series, especially for Niklas Hjalmarsson. If these guys can put together just one more great game and leave it all on the ice, the Hawks should be in good shape. With the Stanley Cup on the line, I’m confident this will be the case.

The Hawks are 9-0 in Game 6’s under Joel Quenneville. That is absolutely remarkable, but also somewhat of a meaningless stat at this point as each game and each series is different. What that does say, however, is that this team knows how to close out a series when given the chance. This is a cold blooded team that does not often give their opponent second chances. Knowing full well that with a win they can celebrate the Cup on their home ice with their own fans, it would be silly to think the Blackhawks won’t be completely amped up and ready to go Monday night.

Having already won two Cups in the last six years, the Hawks know how to prepare for a potential Cup-clinching game like this. When you’ve got guys like Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, and so on, you know you’ll be prepared and solely focused on the task at hand.

I am expecting the Hawks’ best game of the series in Game 6. I don’t think they’ll let the an opportunity like this pass by without taking advantage of it.

*Also, WIN IT FOR KIMMO!