Disappointing loss in Game 3 for the Blackhawks

15-_DSC2491-toresizeI, for one, felt pretty good about this series after the first two games. The Blackhawks went down to Tampa Bay and took Game 1 thus giving them home ice advantage in the series. They lost the second game, a game which they could have won, but it wasn’t the end of the world. They met their goal by getting at least one victory in Tampa. With the series then headed back here to Chicago where the Hawks have been rather dominant this postseason, I thought it was very possible they could win both games at home to go up 3-1 in the series. Well after last night, that is no longer possible.

Game 3 was a game that the Blackhawks really should have never lost, but they did by a score of 3-2. After Ryan Callahan opened up the scoring early in the first period, the Hawks absolutely dominated the remainder of the period and ended it with 19 shots on goal compared to the Lightning’s 7. In terms of Corsi, the Hawks had a 33-11 advantage after the first period (33 shot attempts to 11). Those are some pretty staggering numbers, yet only Brad Richards was able to find the back of the net for the Hawks through the first 20 minutes and the game was tied at 1 apiece.

It seemed logical to think that the Blackhawks would come out in the second and try to pick up right where they left off in the first, but that didn’t happen. Tampa Bay owned the second period and out-shot the Hawks 17-7. The Lightning did have an extended 5 on 3, which partially led to that shot disparity between the two teams, but they still dominated the whole period. The puck seemingly never left their offensive zone for more than a few seconds at a time, and the Hawks were completely unable to get any sort of momentum going. However, despite their shot advantage and the fact that they had a lengthy 5 on 3 powerplay, Tampa Bay did not score in the period, and it remained 1-1 heading into the third.

Just over four minutes into the third period, Marian Hossa found Brandon Saad wide open in the slot and hit him with a perfect pass to set up a one-timer. Saad made no mistake on the shot and blew it by the glove side of Bishop to put the Hawks in front 2-1.

Then, just 13 seconds after Saad’s goal, Ondrej Palat scored a pretty soft goal at the other end to tie it right back up. Talk about a momentum swing…

For roughly the next 12 minutes, things went back and forth with Tampa Bay getting mostly better chances than the Hawks. Nothing would go in, though, until just over 3 minutes were left in regulation. Victor Hedman carried the puck up the ice and into the offensive zone, weaved through the Hawks’ defenders, then centered a pass from the goal line to Crawford’s right and found the stick of Cedric Paquette who simply redirected it into the empty net. Just like that, 3-2. There would be no “miracle on Madison” in the final minutes of regulation, and the Hawks now find themselves down 2-1 in the series with the Lightning regaining home ice advantage.

This was a game that the Blackhawks had no business losing, making it that much more frustrating. Here’s what I took away from Game 3:

  • After a first period in which the Hawks dominated once allowing Ryan Callahan to score, they only found themselves tied at 1 on the scoreboard. Both Marian Hossa and Teuvo Teravainen had point blank, empty net scoring chances in the period, but neither one hit the net. Granted, Marian Hossa was tripped while attempting the shot, but that’s not a good enough excuse in my mind. Had the Hawks buried either one or both of those chances, there’s a real possibility that we’re talking about a victory right now rather than a loss.
  • Staying with the “dominating first period” theme, the fact that the Hawks came out as flat as they did in the second was mind blowing to me. They had Tampa Bay on the ropes after the opening 20, and then let them back in it in the second frame.
  • What in the world is going on with Ben Bishop? He and Jon Cooper insist that he’s fine and that he’s capable of playing, but the eye test would say otherwise. Yes, Bishop did end up with a 36-save victory, but the Blackhawks never really tested him as much as they should have. Joel Quenneville said so following the game Monday night. It’s pretty evident that Bishop is having some serious trouble moving side to side, specifically right to left, yet the Blackhawks never were able to establish enough offensive zone time to test him with those movements. If Bishop plays again in Game 4, it would be wise of the Blackhawks to test him early and often.
  • 15-_DSC2491-toresizeThe star players of the Hawks need to start showing up on the score sheet. Last night, the first line of Saad, Toews, and Hossa was extremely good and even registered a goal (Saad). Having said that, guys like Toews, Kane, Hossa, and Sharp have got to start finding the back of the net or at least begin creating goals for other linemates. The Blackhawks will not win this series without those guys producing. I also believe that if those guys do begin scoring, the Hawks will not lose this series. If you recall, Toews and Kane did a whole lot of nothing in games 1-3 in each of their previous two Stanley Cup Final appearances. Then in games 4-6, they dominated. Hopefully history repeats itself.
  • Monday night’s loss marked the TENTH time this postseason that the Blackhawks have allowed a goal less than two minutes after scoring one themselves. Instead of letting up after scoring, it’s about time they do the opposite and go for the kill.
  • Corey Crawford, while not horrible, has not been his best the last two games. He’s got to find a way to keep the goals scored by Callahan and Palat out of the net.
  • Byan Bickell played one of his worst games of the year in Game 3, and that’s saying something. I am all for Quenneville benching him and reinserting Kris Versteeg for Game 4. Versteeg brings speed and energy, both of which fit nicely in this series.
  • Lastly, TVR. I thought van Riemsdyk had and “okay” game Monday night, as Quenneville would say. He made some real nice passes and plays to get out of his own end, but he also turned the puck over a couple times in the defensive zone. Instead of forcing the puck up the boards in an attempt to clear the zone, try looking towards the middle of the ice where there’s less traffic.

While there is no question that Game 3 stung, this is only a 2-1 series right now. The Hawks can still even this thing up Wednesday night. There is no denying that they cannot afford to lose Game 4, so I would expect to see the Hawks’ best effort of the series so far. Jonathan Toews has said a couple of times recently that the Hawks seem to play their best hockey when they are backed up against a wall. Well, I’d consider their backs to be against the wall now.

If the Hawks can pull out a win in Game 4, they’ll head back to Tampa Bay where the Lightning have been very disappointing this postseason. They are a weak 6-6 at home during the playoffs. This series is far from over, but a Hawks victory is imperative Wednesday night.

Blackhawks drop Game 2

15-_DSC2491-toresizeAfter a surprisingly low scoring first game of the series between the Blackhawks and Lightning, we finally got what we were all expecting in Game 2: a fast paced, relatively high scoring track meet. Each team traded goals throughout the game until Tampa Bay struck for their fourth goal roughly half way through the third. The Blackhawks could not answer, and the game ended 4-3 in favor of the home team. Series tied 1-1 heading to Chicago.

All things considered, the Hawks shouldn’t be too upset about coming home with the series tied at one. Their goal heading into the first two games in Tampa was to win at least one and gain home ice advantage in the series. They did just that. The disappointing thing is that Game 2 was definitely winnable, but they let Tampa Bay off the hook. Had the Hawks pulled off another victory last night to go up 2-0 in the series, this thing would be all but over.

So here’s what I took away from Game 2:

  • Corey Crawford did not have his best game. There’s no doubt about that. Tyler Johnson’s goal to make it 3-2 should have never happened, but it did. Crawford looked a bit shaky pretty much the whole night while allowing four goals. Having said that, aside from Johnson’s goal, you can’t really blame Crawford too much for the other three. On Tampa’s first goal of the game, Crawford was heavily screened and never had a good look at the shot. Their second goal, scored by Kucherov, was another crazy redirect giving Crow no chance of making a save. And their fourth goal came via another deflection, only this time the puck hit Andrew Desjardins’ stick. While Crawford did admit that he needs to be better, I don’t think there’s anything to be concerned about here. Tampa Bay has scored some crazy goals this series, and there’s not much Crawford could do.
  • Toews, Kane, and Saad were held quiet again in Game 2. Give Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and the Cedric Paquette line credit for shutting these guys down. Towards the end of the game, Quenneville did elect to place Kane back on the second line while moving Hossa back up with Toews and Saad. With the series now shifting to Chicago where the Hawks will have the last change, it’ll be interesting to see if Q goes back to the Toews, Kane, and Saad line knowing he can now dictate the matchups. My guess is we will see this for at least the first period of Game 3. If that line is still not producing, then we’ll see Hossa back with Toews, and Kane with Richards. One thing to note is that in the 2010 Final against Philadelphia, Toews and Kane did nothing in games 1 and 2. They then woke up and came up big in games 3-6. In the 2013 Final against Boston, neither player did much of anything until Game 4. Those two both scored that game and were unstoppable the rest of the way.
  • Ben Bishop left Game 2 in the middle of the third period for about a minute, then returned to the ice. After a couple minutes back in the game, he left again, only this time he didn’t return. I thought for sure he was just sick or something like that, but it’s sounding more and more like this could be an injury. If that’s the case, there’s a good chance he’ll be on the bench Monday night meaning Andrei Vasilevskiy will get the start in goal. Vasilevskiy has 8 career NHL wins as a rookie this year. If he’s in net, the Hawks will need to quickly figure out how to beat this guy. We’re already two games into this series, so there’s no more time for a “feeling out” process. While this kid has some major talent and upside, this is still a tough spot for him to be called upon. The Blackhawks need to take advantage of that right away.
  • The back-to-back penalties that Patrick Sharp took in the third period Saturday night were obvious penalties that had to be called. The Hawks killed off the first one, but weren’t quite able to do the same on the second. He took full responsibility for this, but the fact of the matter is that the Hawks can’t do that again. You can’t take two straight penalties in the third period of a tie game.
  • Kyle Cumiskey may have played his last game of the series last night. He committed a costly turnover right before the Lightning’s first goal and wound up with a team-low 5:08 of ice time. Joel Quenneville said today that Trevor van Riemsdyk “could play” in Game 3, meaning he probably will. Depending on how well he plays in Game 3, he may not leave the lineup the rest of the way. David Rundblad had a better Game 2 than he did in the first game of this series, so odds are he’s not going anywhere.
  • After a very effective Game 1 performance, Kris Versteeg wasn’t as noticeable in Game 2. Like with TVR, Quenneville stated that Bryan Bickell “could play” Monday and that he thinks he’s healthy. If that’s the case, Bickell will be back for Versteeg in Game 3. This could open up more space for Patrick Kane if Q elects to play Kane on the second line.
  • Teuvo Teravainen is really, really good. He’s got a goal in two straight games to start the series now, with last night’s goal coming on the powerplay. He should be a fixture on the second PP unit from now on. His improved play has made not only the powerplay, but that third line even better. If only Patrick Sharp would show up and start scoring…

The Blackhawks made it clear that they are now looking forward to coming home for the next two games and feeding off the fans at the UC. Just like the Lightning did on their own ice, I’d expect the Hawks to come out flying to start the game Monday night. If they can get an early lead and build on it, they’ll be in good shape.

It will be pretty interesting to see which matchups Q will chase now that he gets the last change, but I’d have to believe he’ll try and get the Toews line out against any d-pairing besides Hedman and Stralman. No coach is better at getting favorable matchups on the ice than Q.

Game 3 is a big one. If the Hawks win that, then all the pressure in the world again shifts to Tampa Bay for Game 4.

Blackhawks Game 1 thoughts; Game 2 preview

10-171460575-smallThe truth of the matter is that the Blackhawks are coming into tonight’s Game 2 in Tampa Bay knowing very well that they need to step it up from the way they played throughout most of Game 1. The Lightning are coming into tonight’s game feeling pretty good about themselves after their Game 1 performance, or so it seems. Then you have what the national media is saying, and that sounds similar to what the Lightning are saying: “Tampa proved they can hang with and beat the Blackhawks based on how they came out in Game 1.”

Here’s what I’m saying:

We all fully expected, or at least should have expected, the Lightning to come out of the gates just as they did in the first game of this series. They had tons of energy, an overload of adrenaline, were playing at warp speed, and dominated most of the first period. This was to be expected.

The media and maybe even the Lightning players seem to believe that if the Lightning can just do that again for the rest of this series, they’ll win and be fine.

Since no one in the media seems to be saying it, I’ll say it: There is NO WAY that Tampa Bay can play with that much energy for an entire 60 minutes, let alone for the remainder of this series. It’s physically impossible. If you go back and watch the replay of the first period from Game 1, it won’t take more than two minutes to realize that the Lightning were jacked up on adrenaline (first game of the SCF, and on home ice) and using every ounce of energy they had in them. It’s not possible for a team to play that way for an entire game, or four, five or six. Counter my argument as you’d like, but I’m sticking by my words.

The second half of Game 1 was largely controlled by the Blackhawks, who were finally able to net two goals in a 1:58 span late in the third period to tie and win the game. They responded to Tampa’s fast start like the experienced champions that they are and walked away with a big win. All the pressure in the world now rests on the Lightning’s shoulders heading into Game 2.

Tampa Bay knows very well that they most likely cannot recover from a 2-0 series deficit with the series shifting to Chicago for games 3 and 4, thus making Game 2 a rare must-win.

On the Blackhawks’ side of things, they know that they didn’t play anywhere close to their best game in Game 1, yet still found a way to win. That in itself should give them some added confidence heading into tonight’s game.

So, what do we need to see from the Hawks tonight to get a 2-0 series lead?

  • More production from the top two lines. The Toews-Kane line was pretty ineffective for the most part in Game 1. They just couldn’t seem to get much going. Credit Cedric Paquette and his line for doing a nice job defensively against Toews and Kane. Their performance seems to have given Paquette some extra confidence heading into tonight, as he has stated he plans on “chirping” at Toews to get him off his game. (Yeah, good luck with that Cedric. Just ask Ryan Kesler how well that worked out for him…) I am definitely expecting more out of the Hawks’ top lines tonight. Rarely do they put together back-to-back bad games. If Quenneville sticks with Toews and Kane on the top line, those two and Saad are bound to get something going.
  • Continued production from third and fourth lines. The Hawks’ third line 15-_DSC2491-toresizeregistered both goals in Game 1, with Teravainen getting the first, and Vermette the second. I talked a lot about each team’s depth leading up to Game 1 and how that’s where the Blackhawks had the biggest advantage over Tampa. It proved to be true on Wednesday, and if the Hawks get more production from their bottom two lines tonight and as the series progresses, the Lightning will be in trouble.
  • Hold the “Triplets” in check again. The now famed “Triplets” line of the Lightning was hardly noticeable in Game 1. Tyler Johnson was held to just one shot the whole night, and that line never got much of anything going. This line has produced more goals than any other line for the Lightning this postseason, so limiting them is a death blow to Tampa. Again, as I said in my series preview, if the Hawks could find a way to just limit, not even shut down, one of Tampa Bay’s top two lines, the Hawks would be in good shape. They did just that in Game 1 and walked away with the victory.
  • Get good “D”. The Blackhawks’ top four defensemen played a pretty solid game Wednesday night from the end of the first period on. The fifth and sixth d-men had a bit more trouble. Specifically David Rundblad. This was the shakiest we have seen Rundblad since Game 1 against Anaheim last round, only this time it didn’t cost the Hawks. It looks like he’ll be back in there again in Game 2. Hopefully he got his “jitters” out of the way in Game 1 and will be more confident tonight. As for Kyle Cumiskey, he still has done nothing to warrant being taken out of the lineup. His in-zone coverage has been pretty good, his passing has been above average, and his speed is always a threat. He needs to simply keep doing what he’s doing.
  • Win some faceoffs. The Blackhawks were abysmal at the faceoff dot through the first half of Game 1. They won just 30 percent of the faceoffs in the first period, and ended the game having won 47 percent. Those numbers need to improve. Odds are that Jonathan Toews will not have another bad night in draws (45% in Game 1), but you never know. On the powerplay in Game 1, the Hawks lost all four faceoffs that they took. People wonder why they often have trouble getting the PP set up, and if you look at the fact that they went 0-4 at the dot with the man advantage, that should tell you something. Losing the draw means the opponent will clear the zone and dump the puck into your own end. Winning the offensive zone faceoffs on the powerplay, and at even strength, allows you to immediately set up in the offensive zone without having to get the puck in over the blue line.
  • Lastly, get the powerplay back on track. The Hawks’ powerplay is converting just over 18 percent of the time right now, which isn’t good enough given the personnel they have on the ice. They scored a couple big goals in Game 7 in Anaheim on the PP, but went 0-3 with the man advantage Wednesday night in Tampa. Given the fact that the Lightning have a pretty lethal powerplay and will eventually get a powerplay goal or two, the Hawks need to match that by doing the same. Had the Hawks scored even just once with the man advantage in Game 1, they would have had a much more comfortable victory. They have got to figure this thing out and start making Tampa pay for their penalties.

As I already said, Game 2 is a huge game for the Lightning. They cannot afford to go down two games to nothing with the series shifting north to Chicago where the Blackhawks are nearly unbeatable right now. At the same time, this is also a big game for the Hawks for the exact same reason. They know that if they get a win tonight, Tampa Bay will be backed up against a wall fighting for their life just three games into the series. Heading home up 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Final is a scenario any team would dream of.

Like was the case in Game 1, I’m expecting the Lightning to come out flying again in Game 2. The Hawks just need to hold their ground and weather the early storm. There’s no way the Lightning can play a full 60 minutes the way they played the first period on Wednesday, so getting through the first ten minutes tonight either tied or with the lead could be big for the Hawks.

Blackhawks need strong start in Game 1

15-_DSC2491-toresizeFinally, after three days off since Game 7 against Anaheim, the Blackhawks will begin their track-meet with the Lightning tonight in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay. Ever since the Hawks prevailed over the Ducks on Saturday to punch their ticket to the next round, all we’ve been reading and hearing is how both teams are fast, the Blackhawks have better depth, and the Blackhawks also have more experience. All of that is true, but now we finally get to see it all play out on the ice.

As I mentioned and you may have heard, the Blackhawks have been on this stage before in recent years and won. Twice. The Lightning, despite having won the Cup in 2004, have not. Only four of their players have ever played in the Stanley Cup Final, and all four lost. Needless to say, the Blackhawks have the major advantage when it comes to experience between the two teams. It is imperative that they use that to their advantage tonight, and for the remainder of the series.

Because of that experience factor, I would expect the Blackhawks to come out as the more calm, cool, and collected group of the two once the puck drops tonight at roughly 7:00pm CT.

Winning the first game of the Stanley Cup Final usually proves to be big, as the winner of Game 1 has gone on to win the series 58 times out of the 75 series played. Whether or not that statistic really means anything is up to you to decide. Still, this is obviously a big game that the Hawks would like to win. Here’s how they can do just that:

  • Survive the first ten minutes. You would have to imagine the Lightning will come out of the gates flying tonight being on their home ice. And when I say flying, I’m not totally joking. This is one of the fastest teams in all of hockey and they use their speed to their advantage. It will be important that the Blackhawks weather the storm in the first ten minutes and come out of the first half of the period tied or winning. This is where the Hawks’ experience could really pay off in a hurry. They know better than anyone how to handle a situation like this.
  • Limit at least one of Tampa’s top two lines. This one goes for the whole series actually, but it stands just as true for Game 1. We’re not sure yet which lines of the Hawks will be matched up against which of the Lightning, but whichever two end up seeing the majority of the Lightning’s top two lines will need to quickly find a way to slow at least one of them down. Tampa Bay almost solely relies on their top six forwards to do all of their scoring, so shutting down or at least limiting just one of their top lines should give them problems. Putting pressure on their bottom six to score is just what the Hawks want.
  • Get productive minutes from Rundblad and Cumiskey. It would appear that these two will remain in the lineup for Game 1, meaning it will be the first time either of them have played in the Stanley Cup Final. If both Rundblad and Cumiskey can play the way they did in games 6 and 7 against Anaheim (smart, composed, responsible), they’ll have done their jobs and given Joel Quenneville just what he’s looking for.
  • Receive a solid outing from Crawford. As I mentioned a bit before, the Lightning will, or at least should, come out going a hundred miles per hour to start this game tonight looking to score the first goal. Odds are that the Blackhawks will need to weather a storm or two early on, meaning Corey Crawford has to be on his game. He’s come up big in big games before, so I’m not too concerned about him being able to do it again.
  • 1st line needs to stay hot. Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane ripped apart the Ducks ever since being put together on the top line in Game 6 of the WCF. It would be huge if they could pick up right where they left off and do the same tonight. Putting heavy pressure on Tampa Bay right away will give the Hawks some momentum and plant a seed of doubt into Tampa’s heads. If this line, or any line of the Hawks for that matter, can come up with the game’s first goal, that will be a huge lift moving forward in the game. Tampa Bay is 9-0 (I’m pretty certain…) this postseason when scoring first, so getting the first goal tonight could be big for either team.

Both teams are going to be pretty jacked up to start tonight’s game, but both will probably go through a bit of a “feeling out” process as well. Neither of these teams are real familiar with the other and so they’ll both probably wait for someone to make the first move before going into attack mode. We could be in for a 2-1 or 3-2 score tonight. Having said that, however, of Tampa’s five home losses this postseason (that’s a lot), four of them have been by four goals. So we could just as well get a 6-2 Blackhawks victory.

The bottom line here is that it will be important for the Blackhawks to play a solid first ten minutes of this game to help set the tone for the remainder of the game. Tampa Bay has not been a good home team during these playoffs, so taking advantage of that tonight could prove to be big.

How the Blackhawks can win the Cup

10-171460575-smallMy series preview and prediction have already been posted, meaning it’s now time to take a closer look at the Blackhawks and what they need to do to bring home Lord Stanley for a third time in six years.

The Hawks are coming off of what many are calling one of their toughest series in the Toews-Kane era. The Ducks were arguably the deepest team that the Blackhawks have faced in a seven game series in recent years, as well as one of the biggest. Anaheim, or more specifically Ryan Kesler, was sure that there was no way any human being could withstand the physical pounding induced by the Ducks and still win the series. Well, that may be true because the Blackhawks aren’t really humans. They are more along the lines of indestructible machines that don’t seem to care what style of hockey you play. They’ll simply adjust and still find a way to win.

Over the course of the Western Conference Final, we saw what kind of team the Blackhawks truly are this year. Not to take anything away from Nashville or Minnesota, but neither team really pushed the Hawks to their limit in nearly each game of the series like the Ducks just did.

In beating Anaheim, we learned/rediscovered the fact that this group of Blackhawks players never backs down when faced with adversity and has too much experience, leadership, and heart to lose. We also learned that this Hawks team is the deepest team in the NHL at the forward position; a huge reason for their victory over the Ducks.

Duncan Keith, as if trying to remind us all of his superhuman abilities, logged more minutes against Anaheim than in any previous playoff series he had played, yet only seemed to get stronger as the series prolonged. If the playoffs ended today, he’d be a top three candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.

Looking ahead now to their date with Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup Final, here’s what the Blackhawks must do to win:

  1. Four-line production. I’ve said it a couple times already, and I’ll say it again. The Blackhawks need to keep getting production from all four lines. Their bottom two 1383642_616596775058148_1814435643_nlines are what kept them alive in the WCF before Toews and Kane were reunited on the top line and took over the show. Assuming the lines from Game 7 stick heading into Game 1 with Tampa, it would be safe to think the Hawks’ top line will continue producing, and possibly at an even higher rate than they already have been due to there being no more Ryan Kesler on the other side. The second line of Bickell, Richards, and Hossa looked pretty solid in Game 7 (despite Bickell sitting with an injury most of the night), and this line could be a key to victory for the Hawks in this series. With Hossa starting to get hot and Richards looking more and more like his old self, rolling two formidable lines could be huge against Tampa. The third and fourth lines of the Hawks just need to keep doing what they’ve been doing. Keep in mind that the Hawks just knocked off Anaheim without Patrick Sharp scoring a single goal in the series. If he gets going now, look out.
  2. Stabilize Tampa’s top six. Nearly ALL of Tampa Bay’s scoring in these playoffs has come from their top two lines. The leading scorer on either of their bottom two lines, Ryan Callahan, has a grand total of just FOUR points this postseason. If the Blackhawks can take away some of the scoring from even just one of the Lightning’s top two lines, Tampa will be in trouble and their bottom six will be forced to produce. It’s hard to win the Stanley Cup while getting production from just two lines.
  3. Keep up the good D. Despite using basically four and a half defensemen against the Ducks, the Blackhawks’ blue liners still played a really solid series. Duncan Anaheim Ducks v Chicago Blackhawks - Game SixKeith is playing out of this world right now and is looking like the planet’s best d-man yet again. Brent Seabrook has been just what he’s needed to be defensively this postseason, while also coming up with big goals along the way. Niklas Hjalmarsson keeps blocking shots and is arguably the Hawks’ best d-man in the defensive zone, which is saying something. Johnny Oduya is having an incredible postseason, which has allowed Quenneville to pair him up with Hjalmarsson and Seabrook at any point in time. As for the fifth and sixth d-men, it’s now Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad filling those slots. Kimmo Timonen and Michal Roszival started the playoffs as the Hawks’ last two defensemen, but have since been benched and injured respectively. Given Tampa’s lack of size and good speed, Kyle Cumiskey may very well see his role increase this series. He’s quick and likes playing a fast game. If David Rundblad can simply do what he did in games 6 and 7 against Anaheim, he’ll be fine.
  4. Win or play to a draw on special teams. The Blackhawks’ powerplay has been rather ineffective for much of these playoffs, despite getting a couple big goals in Game 7 against the Ducks. When given a man advantage in this series, the Hawks have got to at least generate chances and momentum, and preferably score. Too many times have they given their opponent momentum by getting nothing going on the powerplay. That can’t continue happening now. As for the penalty kill, the Blackhawks have gotten better in that area recently, but will be going up against a usually potent powerplay of the Lightning. Killing off penalties, as usual, will be key. If the Hawks can win or at least come out even in special teams against the Lightning, I like the Blackhawks’ chances due to their depth advantage at even strength.
  5. And the obvious one, Corey Crawford. If you don’t have good goaltending right now, you’ve got no shot. Crawford has been on this stage before, whereas Ben Bishop has not, and Crawford needs to play that way. By that, I mean he needs to play this series like he’s been here before. He has come up huge for the Hawks already on a handful of occasions this postseason, including a couple times against the Ducks (most notably games 2, 6, and 7). His .919 save percentage is just one point behind Bishop, but given where that number was at after the first round, Crawford has clearly turned his game around. As I said in my series prediction, Crawford’s rebound control has been phenomenal at times this postseason, including, yet again, games 2 and 7 against the Ducks. When he is absorbing the puck and not giving up rebounds, he is nearly unbeatable. If he can keep up his play in net, it’ll be on the guys in front of him to get the job done, and that’s a good thing.

Something I didn’t mention above is that the Lightning love playing with speed going north and south. The Blackhawks are one of the best teams at defending that. If you go back and look at Game 7 against the Ducks, for example, Anaheim tried continuously to move the puck through the neutral zone with speed, only to run into a wall of defenders or have the puck stripped. Considering that playing with speed through the neutral zone and getting odd man rushes is such a huge part of Tampa’s offense, if the Hawks can slow them down in that regard, the Lightning could be in trouble.

On the flip side, the Blackhawks also like playing with speed going north and south through the neutral zone. Anaheim, one of the league’s best defensive teams at the forward spot, had serious trouble stopping the Hawks from playing that way. Tampa Bay, who probably doesn’t have the caliber of defensive forwards that Anaheim does, will most likely also have trouble, and maybe more, stopping the Blackhawks from using their speed going up the ice with the puck. If the Hawks can be the ones to dictate the pace of play and use their north-south speed to their advantage, they’ll be in good shape.

Another thing that I haven’t touched on is the experience factor. I’m sure some of you are now rolling your eyes and saying that this aspect of the game gets blown out of proportion. If you think that way, that’s perfectly fine. However, you cannot overlook the fact that the Blackhawks have been here twice in the last six years and walked away hoisting the Cup both times. This team knows better than any other team how to handle big games, pressure, and adversity. That type of experience pays big dividends, as evidenced by the way the Hawks blew out Anaheim in Game 7. I’m not saying the pressure will ultimately make Tampa Bay crumble, but it may wear on them more than it will the Hawks.

Looking at this matchup on paper, which is all we can really do at this point, the Blackhawks have a decent advantage in my eyes. Yes Tampa is fast and probably faster than anyone the Hawks have faced, but their lack of depth and experience will prove to be too costly against a Hawks team that is loaded with forward depth and experience in this round. If the Blackhawks can take one of the first two games in Tampa Bay, it will put the Lightning under a lot of pressure to win one of the first two games in Chicago, where the Blackhawks are nearly unbeatable. Whether or not that pressure proves to be too much for this young and inexperienced Tampa team remains to be seen.

I’m saying Blackhawks in six.

Blackhawks – Ducks quick hits

15-_DSC2491-toresizeMy series preview for the Blackhawks and Ducks has already been written and posted. I’m taking the Blackhawks in six games. These are two very good teams, and I’m sure each side would like to earn the bragging rights over the other. For a handful of years now, the Blackhawks and Ducks have finished at or near the top of the Western Conference, but have failed to meet in the playoffs. That all changes now. All signs are pointing towards a Sunday afternoon start time to Game 1 between these two, but the NHL has yet to confirm those rumors.

As I said, I already wrote my preview of this series. Today I’m going to touch on a few things that I failed to mention in my preview. So, here we go.

– I keep seeing statements from NHL analysts and reporters that read something like “The Ducks have been the most dominant team in this year’s playoffs.” Sure, they swept their first round series against the Jets and proceeded to eliminate the Flames in five games. Of all teams to advance to their respective conference final, the Ducks have played the fewest games this postseason. But let’s take a closer look at who Anaheim has played so far.

In the first round they got matched up against the West’s number two wild card team in the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets finished the regular season with 99 points and were making their first postseason appearance since the franchise returned to Winnipeg. The Jets were a good team and a big team, but not a great team. They were made up of a majority of players who were new to the playoffs.

Against the Jets, Anaheim saw themselves trailing heading into the third period on more than one occasion, and also needed overtime of Game 3 to pull out a victory. Nonetheless, they swept Winnipeg when most people didn’t think they would.

In the second round, it was the 97-point Flames that the Ducks went up against. Those 97 points were the fewest point total of any team to make this year’s postseason. I have nothing against Calgary and applaud them for the incredible season that they had, but they weren’t exactly a tough team to beat in a seven game series.

The Flames’ roster is/was full of young players who had never played in a playoff game prior to this spring. Needless to say, they were full of inexperienced players who happened to get on a bit of a roll this year and made it to the second round of the playoffs. Statistically, Calgary really didn’t have much business being in the postseason. Yet against the Ducks, the Flames put up a heck of fight in games 3 through 5 and could have easily won at least one more game than they did.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make:

If you want to call the Ducks’ performance so far this postseason “dominating,” then fine. Go ahead and do so. Just know that they have had the league’s easiest schedule so far in these playoffs. When they face the Blackhawks, they won’t be going up against a bunch of first, second, or third year players with no playoff experience. They won’t be playing a team who struggles to win road games, or home games for that matter, at this time of year. The Blackhawks are probably the most playoff-experienced team in hockey and have two Stanley Cup rings in the last five seasons to show for it. They will provide Anaheim with all they can handle and should act as a rude wakeup call for a Ducks team that has had it pretty easy so far in these playoffs.

 Let’s take a look at the Blackhawks now and how they did in their first two series.

In round one, it was the Nashville Predators that fell victim to the Hawks. Nashville, the team that led the Western Conference in points for most of the season and finished sixth league-wide in that category, couldn’t put up with the Hawks. They won two games over Chicago, both at home, but didn’t have the depth to walk away victorious at the end of the series.

Nashville has an incredible group of defensemen; arguably the best in the league. Yet they couldn’t hold down the Blackhawks’ offensive firepower. Nor could their Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne.

In the second round, the Hawks went up against the Minnesota Wild. Many considered the Wild to be the hottest team in the NHL heading into that series. They posted the best record in the league from January through the end of the season, and knocked out a Stanley Cup favorite in the St. Louis Blues in round one. Like Nashville, the Wild also had a Vezina finalist standing in their goal crease.

Yet, like Nashville, Minnesota couldn’t handle Chicago’s offensive firepower or depth. They also couldn’t seem to solve the Blackhawks’ defense or Corey Crawford.

When you look at who the Ducks and Hawks played in each of the first two rounds, and when you look at what both teams did to their opponents, one could easily argue that the Blackhawks were the more “dominant” team.

Some people may read this and get the impression that I’m hating on the Ducks or that I am biased towards the Blackhawks. That is not the case. I am simply sick of reading all of this crap about how incredible the Ducks have been this postseason when in actuality they’ve had the easiest schedule of anyone.

I honestly expect this series between Chicago and Anaheim to be a very competitive one. The Ducks are big and fast with a couple of world class players on their top two lines. The Blackhawks are not as big, but are also a very quick team and possess even more world class players than the Ducks.

As I said in my preview, this series will come down to depth, team defense, and experience, and I would give the Blackhawks the upper hand in each category.

Blackhawks – Ducks preview

Patrick Kane, Frederik AndersenThis year’s Western Conference Final features some familiar faces, and some not so familiar faces. On the one hand, we’ve got the Chicago Blackhawks who are making their fifth appearance in the WCF in the last seven years. On the other hand, there’s the Anaheim Ducks. The last time the Ducks made it this far in the postseason was 2007 when they eventually went on to win the Stanley Cup. Of the players on that ’07 team, only three remain.

The Ducks finished this season tied with the Blues for the most points in the Western Conference (109) and held the tiebreaker over St. Louis thus giving them the top spot in the conference. So clearly, they’re a solid team. But what about them makes them so good?

Well, they’ve got one of the best lines in all of the NHL. That line features the star names of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, as well as Patrick Maroon. While most average fans may not be familiar with Maroon, he is no pushover. The 6’2″, 230 pound winger can play a bruising game while also owning the ability to put the puck in the net. He’s not Getzlaf or Perry, but he is a nice complement to them. As for Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, they are playing some great hockey this postseason. Perry leads the league with 15 points these playoffs, and Getzlaf is not far behind with 12.

Their second line consists of Matt Beleskey, Ryan Kesler, and Jakob Silfverberg. Silfverberg and Kesler rank third and fourth on the team in points this postseason, while Beleskey has just 5 of his own. All of his 5 points, however, are goals. This line is a pretty stellar defensive line, which is no surprise seeing as how Ryan Kesler is a former Selke Trophy winner.

The third and fourth lines of the Ducks are good, but not really great. They have some nice players such as Andrew Cogliano and Nate Thompson, but they just haven’t seemed to be able to generate a whole lot so far. The majority of Anaheim’s offense is provided by their top two lines.

Defensively, the Ducks are weak. This is most likely their achilles heel.

Hampus Lindholm, Francois Beauchemin, Cam Fowler, and Sami Vatanen are all pretty solid d-men when the play is in the offensive zone. They can generate from the blue line and contribute to the team’s offensive success. It’s when they are forced to defend in their own zone that these guys often find themselves in trouble. Both Winnipeg and Calgary were able to exploit this at times already this postseason, but neither team possessed enough offensive firepower to really make the Ducks pay. A team like the Blackhawks will make Anaheim pay for their lack of quality defensive defensemen.

In goal, the Ducks are riding the hot play of Frederik Andersen. During the first two round of the playoffs, Andersen posted a 1.96 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. Both of those statistics are respectable and deserve some recognition. Like most of his teammates, however, Andersen has never played this deep into the postseason. How he handles the pressure of playing in the Western Conference Final remains to be seen.

As for the Blackhawks, they come into this series fresh off a sweep of the Minnesota Wild, who many considered the hottest team in hockey heading into the second round. In beating the Wild, not only did the Hawks beat a very good team, but they also knocked out another Vezina Trophy finalist in Devan Dubnyk (Chicago beat Pekka Rinne in round one). Against two finalists for the best goaltender in the NHL during the regular season, the Blackhawks made both look mediocre at best.

Offensively, the Hawks have been led by Patrick Kane, who has 13 points this postseason and has scored at least one goal in five straight games. The team’s top line of Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa has been very good and usually outplays whichever line is matched against them. That’s not really hard to believe when you consider that line has two future Hall of Famers.

The second line of Bryan Bickell, Brad Richards, and Patrick Kane has been good as well, although mostly because of Patrick Kane. The Hawks could really use a hot stretch from Bickell, who has earned a name for himself with his postseason performances the last two seasons. Even despite his lack of offensive production, Bickell has been a one man wrecking ball through the first two rounds with his physical play. That will need to continue.

The Blackhawks’ bottom two lines are what could put them over the top in this series. Their third line of Patrick Sharp, Antoine Vermette, and Teuvo Teravainen was outstanding against Minnesota. When they play the way they did in the second round, they’re basically a top two line. Due to the acquisition of Vermette at the trade deadline, it has allowed Joel Quenneville to move Andrew Shaw from the third line center position to the fourth line right wing spot; his natural position. This, along with the unexpected chemistry shown from Andrew Desjardins (another trade deadline acquisition) with his fourth line linemates, Marcus Kruger and Shaw, has made Chicago’s fourth line extremely valuable this postseason. They not only get matched up against the opposing team’s top line most of the time, but they also have been consistently creating offense. You can’t ask for much more from your fourth line.

The biggest reason Chicago did not defeat L.A. in last year’s WCF was because they couldn’t effectively roll four lines. This year they can and are arguably the deepest team in hockey at the forward position.

On defense, the Blackhawks have their usual top guys of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya. They are just about as good of a top four as you’ll find in the NHL. It’s the fifth and sixth defensemen where the Hawks run in to some problems. Now that Michal Rozsival is done for the season with a fractured ankle, Kimmo Timonen will be forced to pick up some more minutes, which at 40 years old is more of a challenge than it sounds. Also, Rozsival’s injury means David Rundblad will be joining the lineup. Rundblad will most likely be paired with Duncan Keith, something that we saw a lot of during the regular season. The problem with Rundblad is that he can be a turnover machine. He absolutely must be smarter with the puck and not cost his team in this series.

The goaltending for the Hawks is actually better than what most people might think. After a rough first round, Corey Crawford has regained his regular season form and is playing at the top of his game. In the four games against the Wild in the second round, Crawford allowed just 7 goals. A couple of those goals came in the final minutes of Game Four when Minnesota was forced into desperation mode. Another 3 of those 7 goals came in the second period of Game 1. Needless to say, for nearly the entirety of the four games against the Wild, Corey Crawford was outstanding.

So now that we’ve briefly gone over each team’s make-up, here’s how this series will be won:

  • Depth. Depth is a must in the playoffs, and especially when you get to this stage. Whichever team gets better play from their third and fourth lines will likely have an advantage.
  • Special Teams. Both Chicago and Anaheim struggles on the powerplay during the regular season. During these playoffs, however, the Ducks have had the best powerplay in the league while converting 31% of the time. The Hawks rank fifth with a 20% conversion rate. On the penalty kill, the Ducks currently rank fifth, and the Hawks twelfth. After leading the NHL in PK percentage for most of the season, the Blackhawks saw their penalty kill percentage significantly drop over the final month. They haven’t really turned that trend around yet this postseason. Scoring on the powerplay could prove to be a huge part of this series.
  • Goaltending. This one’s kind of obvious, but needs to be mentioned. You can’t win the Cup without receiving stellar goaltending. Both goalies in this series are coming in hot. The question becomes who will falter?
  • Experience. Here is where Chicago has a big advantage. Their players and coaches have been here before, and most of them have won at least one Stanley Cup. The same cannot be said of the Ducks or their coaches. Bruce Boudreau is making his first ever appearance in a Conference Final, and it will be interesting to see whether or not he can come close to matching the smarts of Joel Quenneville in this series. Aside from that, having been here many times before should give the Blackhawks an advantage when it comes to winning on the road. The Hawks always get at least one important road victory per series.

After all of that, here’s my prediction.

The top two lines of each team will play to a draw, or close to it, in this series, and the Blackhawks will receive the better production from their bottom two lines than the Ducks. Defensively, the Hawks’ forwards will burn the Ducks d-men and create an abundance of scoring chances; something that Andersen has not been used to these playoffs. This isn’t the Calgary Flames anymore that Anaheim is going up against… Unless Andersen plays out of his mind, the Hawks should see some great offensive production. The team defense of the Hawks is very good, and should limit the number of good chances against Corey Crawford. As long as Crawford comes up with the necessary saves, the Hawks should be alright.

Depth, overall team defense, and experience should put the Blackhawks over the top against the Ducks.

Hawks in six.