What the Blackhawks should expect in Game 3

10-171460575-smallWith the Hawks now up two games to nothing in this best of seven series with the Wild, the series shifts up to St. Paul tonight for Game 3. The Blackhawks are coming off of what was arguably their best performance in a long time in Game 2, while Minnesota seems to be searching for answers. Wild head coach Mike Yeo was quoted as saying “I don’t know what team played that game tonight, but it wasn’t us,” following their Game 2 loss. All signs would indicate that the Hawks have the Wild backed into a corner and are ready to deliver the death blow. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Minnesota knows that they cannot afford to lose Game 3, or Game 4 for that matter. Falling behind 3-0 or 3-1 in a best of seven series is a recipe for elimination, especially against a team like the Blackhawks who know how to close out a series better than anyone.

So what should the Hawks expect tonight? I’ll tell you.

First and foremost, they should expect a deafening arena. The Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul is one of the loudest buildings in the league. Add in the fact that those fans haven’t seen their team play on home ice since eliminating the Blues, and that the Wild need a victory tonight, and you’ve got yourself one amped up fan base ready to wreck havoc on the Blackhawks.

Secondly, the Blackhawks should expect Minnesota’s best effort of the season. They realize that they cannot afford another loss tonight, and they will do whatever it takes to ensure a victory. From the Wild’s perspective, they can’t let themselves get too over-hyped and try to do too much on the ice, causing them to make bad decisions or end up out of position. This whole “energy” factor could be a good or bad thing for the Wild, depending on how they use it.

To get a victory in tonight’s game and put a stranglehold on this series, here’s what the Blackhawks must do:

  • Survive the first ten minutes. The first ten minutes of this game will feature incredible noise coming from the fans and a Minnesota team that is jacked up on adrenaline. Needless to say, the Wild will come out flying. The Hawks need to stay calm and collected, play solid defense, and come out of the first ten minutes of the game either tied or ahead on the scoreboard.
  • Get the first goal. This one kind goes along with the first bullet point, and is just as important. If the Hawks can record the first goal of the game, that will not only provide them with energy and momentum, but it will plant a seed of doubt into the heads of the Wild players and fans. Taking the fans out of the game early would be huge. Also, it’s much nicer playing with the lead than it is trying to catch up all game.
  • Remember Game 2. Playing Game 3 like they did Game 2 can only yield positive results for the Hawks. Granted, they may even need to dial it up a notch from Game 2, but if they can do that they’ll win. When the Blackhawks dictate games like they did in the second game of this series, there’s not a team in hockey that can beat them.
  • Receive another good outing from Crawford. In a game like this on the road against a team who knows they cannot afford lose, the Blackhawks need Corey Crawford to be their best player, or at least one of them. Minnesota will have their fair chances at scoring tonight, and the only way the Hawks overcome that is if Crawford comes up with some big time saves. Getting help from the defense in front of him like he did in Game 2 wouldn’t hurt either.
  • The Hawks’ stars need to shine again. It’s been a common theme for the Blackhawks this postseason: their best players have been their best players. That can’t change in a game like this. Again, the atmosphere will be hostile, and the Wild are going to throw everything they’ve got at the Hawks. The star players for Chicago need to step up yet again and make the big plays. This doesn’t mean that the Hawks’ bottom two lines don’t mean anything tonight, because they certainly do. Speaking of them…
  • Roll four lines. Since adding Vermette back into the lineup, it has allowed Shaw to move down to the fourth line and play his natural position on the wing. That made the Hawks’ fourth line much more formidable and dangerous, and it’s paid off big time. Also, reinserting Teravainen into the lineup in Game 1 of this series and on the third line with Sharp and Vermette has lead to some great chemistry between the trio. They essentially have three top two-esque line now. My point here is that the Hawks have incredible forward depth, and they need all four line to continue being productive tonight.

One thing that I didn’t mention, which is somewhat of a given, is that the Blackhawks six defensemen need to be on their game. They’ll continue using basically five d-men, with Timonen receiving limited minutes, and they all need to have their heads in the game. This means no dumb plays or penalties from Rozsival. I singled him out because, well, he’s really the only regular that I’m consistently worried about.

As you may have gathered, Xcel Energy Center is going to be very loud and unkind to the Blackhawks tonight, and the Wild players are going to leave it all on the ice. The Hawks must try and replicate they way the played in Game 2, as well as step it up another level.

This is going to be one of the toughest tests for the Hawks this postseason, and I’m very anxious to see how they respond. Then again, they are the Blackhawks, and they never cease to amaze any of us.

Blackhawks – Wild preview

10-171460575-smallIt took both of these teams six games to advance to the second round of the playoffs, with the Blackhawks eliminating the Predators, and the Wild doing the same to the Blues (who seem to be everyone’s favorite to win the Cup on a yearly basis, but have now been sent packing in the first round three straight postseasons). Back in January, it wasn’t looking good for the Wild who sat about eight points out of a playoff spot at the time. That was before trading for Devan Dubnyk, however, who basically single-handedly got Minnesota into the playoffs. As for the Blackhawks, we all knew they’d be playing in April. The only question with them was which seed they’d receive.

This will be the third consecutive year in which the Blackhawks and Wild have met in the playoffs, with the Hawks winning both of the first two series. While the Blackhawks remain mostly the same team that eliminated the Wild the last two seasons, Minnesota has changed quite a bit without actually changing their personnel.

Two years ago when these two met in the first round of the playoffs, Minnesota was in its first season with this “new group.” By that, I mean it was their first year with Parise and Suter. They also had a bunch of young guys on that team like Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Charlie Coyle to name a few. Those guys were still learning the NHL game and weren’t much of a factor. Fast forward two years to now, and those same three guys, as well as others, are huge pieces to this Wild team. My point being that while you’ll see mostly the same names wearing Wild sweaters in this series, those guys have greatly improved over the last couple of seasons. They are more experienced and more confident than before, which is why the Wild are a better team than either one that lost to the Hawks the last two years.

For the first half of this season, Minnesota was really bad. Their offense wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good enough, and their goaltending was horrendous. This prompted them to trade for Devan Dubnyk, who was having a solid year in Arizona with the Coyotes. After joining the Wild, Dubnyk started 39 games for Minnesota while going 27-9-2 with a 1.78 GAA and .936 save percentage. Those numbers are ridiculously good and are why he is a Vezina Trophy finalist. Once getting Dubnyk, Minnesota seemed to take their game to a new level and started playing like the team we expected them to be, and maybe even better. Defensively, they were strong, and offensively they became better than we’ve seen them in years past.

To compare, this year’s Wild team ranked 12th in the league in goals per game with a 2.72 average. Last season, they ranked 24th and averaged 2.43 a game. Defensively, they finished last season and this season with the same goals against average of 2.42 per game. When your offense jumps from 24th in the NHL to 12th and you stay in the top ten in fewest goals against per game, you know you’re doing something right. Their defense and shot suppression are a big reason why the eliminated the Blues in round one.

In summary, this is a much better team than the one the Blackhawks eliminated the past two years.

As for the Blackhawks, they looked just okay against Nashville in all honesty. They were outplayed in games 1, 2, and 5 for sure, as well as for decent stretches in another game or two. Yet they still won the series 4-2. That goes to show you just how good the Blackhawks are and can be. They tend to make the opponent pay for their mistakes, and they are somehow able to walk that fine line of playing dangerous without losing the series. It’s something we’ve seen from them in early rounds of past postseasons as well.

Surprisingly, goal scoring was a problem for the Hawks this season as they ranked 17th in that category. Their defense and goaltending made up for it, however. The Hawks finished only behind Montreal for fewest goals against per game, and Corey Crawford won his second career Jennings Trophy.

In the first round against Nashville, the script was somewhat flipped.

Corey Crawford was pulled from the net after the first period of Game 1 and struggled again in Game 2, leading to Scott Darling starting the next four games. He too ended up getting pulled after allowing three goals in the first period of Game 6, allowing Crawford to jump back in. The Hawks ended the first round with the second worst goals against average of the sixteen teams in the playoffs.

Offensively, the Blackhawks rank third in the league after the first round by scoring an average of a little over three goals per game. They got Patrick Kane back for the whole first round, and that paid off big time as he was a key reason for their offensive success. His presence not only in five on five play, but the powerplay as well is huge.

In terms of overall team defense, the Blackhawks looked both really good (the 40 minutes of Game 5 and the last 40 minutes of Game 6) and really bad. They had a tendency to give up a goal right after scoring, as well as give up goals in bunches. Look no further than the first period of Game 1 and the third period of games 2 and 5. I’m not sure if they lost focus during those times or what, but it wasn’t pretty to watch. Their team defense was just as much, if not more to blame for Crawford and Darling getting pulled as the two goalies were themselves.

So moving forward to the actual series between the Hawks and Wild, here are my five keys to a Blackhawks series victory:

  1. Goaltending. This goes for both teams. Corey Crawford, who will be the Game 1 starter for the Hawks, has to find his late season form again. He was arguably the team’s MVP for the regular season, and quite frankly, they need him to be just that if they want another parade in June. On the other hand, Devan Dubnyk is going to have his hands full against the Hawks’ offense. If he’s not great, the Wild will be in trouble.
  2. Defense. I know it sounds obvious, but it’s real concern of mine at the moment. Joel Quenneville basically used four and a half defensemen against the Predators due to Michal Rozsival being slow and a major liability and Kimmo Timonen playing the way you would expect a 40 year old to play. This resulted in the Hawks’ top four logging a ton of minutes in regulation, as well as the additional minutes from the five overtime periods that were played. Against Minnesota, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya need to be at their best. Rozsival and Timonen simply have to not make costly mistakes like they each did against Nashville.
  3. Special Teams. The Hawks’ penalty kill has been awful for the past month. They have got to start coming up with more kills if they want to advance. Their powerplay hasn’t been much better. They recorded two powerplay goals in Game 1 against Nashville, as well as another one in Game 6. That means their PP was scoreless for four straight games of that series. They need to start scoring with the man advantage. If they can’t do that, then at least generate shots on goal and momentum.
  4. Depth. Both of these teams have four solid forward lines, although I’d give the edge to the Blackhawks. Their fourth line caused some major problems for the Predators in round one, and they’ll need to keep it up against the Wild. The Hawks’ third line of Bickell, Vermette, and Sharp was alright, but not good enough. It looks like Teuvo Teravainen will be back in the lineup for Game 1 in place of Kris Versteeg, and he’ll be taking Bickell’s place on the third line with Bickell moving up with Kane and Richards. The trio of Teravainen, Vermette, and Sharp looks dangerous on paper, and they’ll have to be on the ice.
  5. Home Ice. The Blackhawks have home ice advantage this round, and have to make use of it. They went 3-0 at home against Nashville, which was huge after winning Game 1 on the road. Minnesota finished the season with 24 road wins this year, and went 2-1 in St. Louis in the first round. Needless to say, they don’t seem to mind playing in hostile environments. They are also a solid home team and play in one of the league’s loudest buildings. While the Blackhawks always seem to get a big road victory or two per round in the playoffs, they’ll need to win at home against this Wild team.

This is going to be a real tough test for both teams, but with Minnesota playing the better hockey at the moment, it may be a bigger test for the Hawks. They’ll be going up against another Vezina finalist after beating Rinne in the first round, and will have to somehow find a way to beat Dubnyk.

We’ve talked all year long about the Blackhawks needing to “flip their switch,” but now they really need to. However, if there is one team in the league who can seemingly take their game to the next level at a moment’s notice, it’s the Blackhawks. I’d expect them to do so starting Friday night at the UC.

Hawks in six.

Hey Nashville, HERE WE COME

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

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

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

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

Now back to hockey.

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

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

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

NHL Update

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

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

Blackhawks, Central Division update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Switch flipped?

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Kane update

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

Kane’s absence finally hitting the Hawks

GTY 464336458 S SPO HKO HKN USA ILRemarkably, the Blackhawks went on one of their better runs of the season following the injury to Patrick Kane in late February. They went 7-1-1 in the next nine games after losing Kane for the remainder of the regular season, beating a couple of the league’s better teams during the process. Rather than bringing the team morale down, Kane’s injury almost seemed to have reignited the Hawks. While losing arguably the team’s best player is never wished upon by anyone, Kane’s injury did allow the Hawks to land Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timmonen. Those acquisitions appeared to restore the sometimes vacant energy and confidence from the Blackhawks. Now, however, the team is searching for answers after four straight poor outings and going 1-3-0 in that stretch.

Ever since defeating the Rangers 1-0 at Madison Square Garden on March 18th, the Blackhawks have been outplayed in every game they’ve competed in. In Dallas, they were rocked 4-0. In Carolina they won 3-1, but were the worse of the two teams over the final two periods of play. The Hurricanes ended up out-shooting the Hawks 44-25 in the game. From Raleigh, the Blackhawks went into Philadelphia and lost 4-1. Then, Friday night, the Hawks returned home to face the Blue Jackets and ended up on the losing side of a 5-2 game. All four of those games were against teams who are not in a playoff position.

During this rough stretch, and really since Kane went down, the Blackhawks have struggled offensively. Since Kane’ injury, the team has averaged just over two goals per game, which is not good enough for a team fighting for a top three finish in their division. The Hawks have lacked puck possession recently, an area in which Kane may be the best in the NHL, and they have had a real tough time suppressing their shots against. When you don’t have the puck as much as you’re used to, you can expect your shots against average to rise.

While the Hawks did continue to win games in the immediate aftermath of Kane’s injury, their offense was at times not as good as the scores may have indicated. As big a reason as any as to why the team kept winning without Kane was their goaltending. Corey Crawford and Scott Darling (he recorded a 1-0 shutout at the Rangers) were playing out of this world up until recently. This somewhat covered up the fact that the Blackhawks were being outplayed by their opponents with more regularity. Just take their win in Carolina as an example of that. Now, the goaltending has seemingly come back to reality. It hasn’t been bad, but it also hasn’t been what it was over the first few weeks of March. With the Blackhawks still struggling to score and the goaltending not performing at the level that it had been, we’re seeing more losses.

The easiest solution to all of this is to simply say that the Blackhawks need to get better offensively. The question is how do they do that?

Well for one, I think the forward lines need some consistency. Blackhawks players have flat out stated that they like having some consistency with the lines. It’s tough for players to be playing with new linemates every game. This doesn’t allow them to build chemistry or familiarity with one another. While the natural reaction by Quenneville may be to switch up the lines when the team isn’t playing well, it may pay off in the long run to just stick with them. If he wants to switch them up for the second half of game in which they’re trailing, fine, but then go back to the original lines to start the next game. I think the best lines for this team are Sharp-Toews-Hossa, Saad-Vermette-Teravainen, Versteeg-Richards-Bickell, Shaw-Kruger-Nordstrom. It would certainly help out A LOT if Versteeg and Bickell broke out of their current slumps and did something to contribute to the team.

Secondly, for the Hawks to become a better offensive team, or to at least play up to their potential, they need to simplify their game. They need to take what’s being given to them by the opposition, make the smart, simple plays, and go from there. Lately they have been trying to do too much individually. Guys will get the puck and try and dangle their way out of the defensive zone or into the offensive zone, thus leading to turnovers more often than not. They have gotten away from playing that “north-south” game as Eddie Olczyk calls it. If the Blackhawks can get back to that style of play, they should start to see some better results.

Lastly, shoot the puck. The Hawks seem to be one of the most reluctant teams in the league at shooting the puck (I’m looking at you Keith). They’d often rather attempt to complete a highlight reel pass instead of shooting when they have the chance. Duncan Keith, as I just mentioned, is one of the team’s biggest culprits in this regard. I can’t even begin to list the number of times in which he’s left with a good shooting lane, but instead tries to make a slap-pass through traffic to someone standing beside the net. I will admit that this does work maybe once in 50 attempts, but that’s not good enough. Somehow though, Keith happens to rank third in the league in shot attempts during 5 on 5 play. You just wouldn’t guess that. Putting that stat aside, my point still stands.

With Kane out of the lineup until at least mid to late May, the Hawks have got to start finding ways to compensate for his absence. They were getting by without him for a couple of weeks due in large part to their goaltending and team defense, but now those have started to slip due to their lack of puck possession. If the Blackhawks can get back to the basics and do the things I just went over, among others, their offense and time of possession should see a rise in production.

This team has too much talent to be struggling this much at scoring goals. There is no denying the fact, however, that Versteeg and Bickell must step up their games and give quality minutes for this team to regain its depth and advantage in play. Those two players cannot be overlooked.

Blackhawks stay hot

15-_DSC2491-toresizeWith last night’s 4-1 victory over the 90 point New York Islanders, the Blackhawks improved to 5-0-1 in March, and 6-1-1 without Patrick Kane. They now have 90 points on the season and sit just 4 back of the Nashville Predators with three games in hand, and 5 back of the Blues with one game in hand.

When Kane suffered his broken clavicle, putting him out for 12 weeks, most people were left with the feeling that the Blackhawks wouldn’t be able to survive without him. Then Stan Bowman made a series of trades bringing in Kimmo Timonen and Antoine Vermette most notably. Those trades seem to have re-energized the Hawks and reassured them that the front office has confidence in this group even without Kane.

Despite the trades, the Hawks still needed guys to step up their games in Kane’s absence, and they have. The team’s last three games against the Coyotes, Sharks, and Islanders (all victories) are all perfect examples.

Against Arizona, the Hawks won 2-1. Their two goals came from Andrew Shaw and Brad Richards, neither of whom had scored in over a dozen games.

In San Jose, the Hawks received goals from Sharp (hadn’t scored since late January), Keith, Saad, Bickell, Sharp again, and Hossa.

Last night against the Islanders and with Sharp reunited with Toews and Hossa on the top line, the Hawks scored 4 goals in the game. All of them came from that first line.

The Blackhawks needed to make up for Kane’s absence by getting more production from all 12 forwards in the lineup. So far, they have. This doesn’t mean that the third and fourth lines need to average a goal per game from here on out, but if they can contribute with strong efforts each night even without scoring, that will help. We can expect goals to continue coming from the Toews line, and the Vermette line with Saad and Teravainen is bound to find the back of the net with regularity sooner or later with they way they’re playing.

So with that, here are some quick thoughts:

  • Corey Crawford is back to playing like he was prior to his concert injury. He has only allowed 8 goals this month and looks as good as ever. The team will need this trend to continue heading into April and May.
  • I was calling for a Sharp-Toews-Hossa reunion a few games ago in an attempt to get Sharp back on the score sheet, and last night Q finally listened. Granted Sharp scored twice already in San Jose, but him on the top line makes him and his linemates that much more dangerous. We saw just that against the Islanders when the Toews line scored all 4 of the Hawks’ goals.
  • The second line of Brandon Saad, Antoine Vermette, and Teuvo Teravainen continues to look really good. They just aren’t scoring as much as they probably should be given their recent play. I’d expect this line to start piling up the goals sometime soon.
  • Defensively the Hawks have been better lately. They are still allowing more shots against than they’d like, but they aren’t surrendering many great scoring chances anymore.
  • Last night against the Islanders, Johnny Oduya looked like his old self again. If he can turn the corner in his game and get back to the Oduya we saw last year or the year before, that will be very good news. Also, Kimmo Timonen is slowly returning to full strength. His passing and decision making are fantastic, and if he can get his legs fully back under himself, his acquisition will really pay off.
  • Lastly, Kris Versteeg has been bad ever since returning from his injury suffered in the Winter Classic. He’s trying to do too much by himself and ends up coughing up the puck to the other team too often. Somehow, some way, he needs to get back to the way he was playing in November and December, just without Kane to his right.

Tonight is a huge game in New York against the Rangers, who will be without Martin St. Louis. When these two teams met a couple of weeks ago, the Rangers won 1-0 in OT. If they Hawks can figure out Cam Talbot early on, I like their chances in this one.