One for the Yotes, 3-2 (OT)

We’ve waited this long for games that mean something no need to waste any time.

–If unforced errors were a stat kept as readily as face-offs, something tells me that would be a bigger story than the Hawks getting slayed in the face-off dot.  The Hawks inability to control the puck with no Coyotes pressure or just abhorrent decisions in the defensive zone were far more to blame for the loss than losing face-offs.

Off memory alone, I counted at least eight instances from the latter half of the first period and the second period where veteran players like Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, and Johnny Oduya coughed up the puck in dangerous areas with little to no pressure to allow Phoenix back into the game.  Hell, Niklas Hjalmarsson had five on one shift on Phoenix’s first goal.

He started it off by firing a blind cross-ice pass in his own zone that was easily intercepted by Ray Whitney and concluded with him taking the puck from Corey Crawford as he attempted to freeze it.  In between that, we were treated to three (THREE!!!) blind ring around the boards.  Had he just picked up his head and/or not panicked, he would have realized a) there was no Coyote breathing downing his neck and b) he could have just easily skated the puck out or at least skated it until he drew a Coyote or two in his direction to open easy passing lanes.

(As a quick aside, the next person to tell me how much potential Niklas Hjalmarsson has is getting locked into a closet with the United Center house band while they practice their greatest hits.  This is his fourth season now, he’s far surpassed the 200 NHL game threshold, he is who he is: An overpaid 5th/6th defensemen.)

The encouraging thing is guys like Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are not known for having the yips for extended periods so whatever it was, it should be out of the Hawks system.  And hopefully so, because there is at least one shutout in this series for the Hawks if they’re defensively capable.

–The Hawks have had some decent success against Pekka Rinne by elevating pucks along with creating massive traffic jams in the crease.  Mike Smith is about the same size as Rinne and leaves even more room upstairs than Rinne.  Just about every puck that was above Smith’s shins last night gave him problems as opposed to those along the ice that he handled with relative ease.

Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland had all sorts of room on nearly identical plays but were unable to lift puck allowing Smith to make fairly easy saves.

–The problem I have with the lost face-offs and assigning an inordinate amount of blame towards the Hawks loss is that only one face-off loss cost the Hawks the game.  If they had won 60% of their draws and still lost, no one would point to it and say, “See?!!?”

However, since a lost face-off led to Martin Hanzal’s eventual game-winner, it will probably lead to two days of stories about how the Hawks are going to improve their face-offs.  You know, instead of focusing on what also led to the goal, a Nick Leddy panicked icing (aka an unforced error) where a simple hoisting of the puck would have done the trick.

–Is there a more passive multiple 40 goal scorer than Marian Hossa?  Free Fifth Feather coffee mugs for the first person to explain why he passes up so many golden chances.

–Ultimately, this series is likely to hinge on Joel Quenneville finding the proper combination on his top two lines.  The Dave Bolland line was a tour de force and should continue to be.  The other two lines left quite a bit to be desired.  Sharp and the Swedes were out of sorts until the overtime.  Perhaps that had to do with Viktor Stalberg getting needlessly benched for long stretches of the second period, but alas.   Kane, Toews, and Hossa is just too much of the same thing, particularly if Hossa is going to continue to pass up shots in the slot.

Oh, and the fourth line needs a complete makeover.  That would also help things.

–It didn’t even take one shift for Andrew Shaw to annoy the piss out of the Coyotes.  For the rest of the series, he doesn’t really need to assert himself into any kind of post-whistle B.S. because the Coyotes are going to find him.  Going out of his way to start stuff is only going to lead to multiple trips to the penalty box.  He’d be better served trying to score goals because that’s what will really annoy the Coyotes even more.

Posted in 2011-2012 Recapts | 10 Comments

Let The Real Season Begin

After 82 games, after all the head-scratching, after all the jumps to conclusion in October, after all the calls for Stan Bowman and/or Joel Quenneville to be fired, after every core player was deemed trade able, the Blackhawks finished with 101 points, 1 point behind the Detroit Red Wings and 3 points behind the unbeatable Nashville Predators for the 5th best finish in the Western Conference.

As a reward, they draw the Pacific Division champion Phoenix Coyotes in the first round.  As many have already said, it is better than the alternative of facing Detroit or Nashville in the first round.  That’s not to say it’s going to be easy because Phoenix has a significant advantage in net and in the playoffs, it’s a big thing.

However, the Hawks are better than Phoenix in every other facet of the game.  They are deeper offensively and deeper defensively.  They are more talented and more playoff-tested.  Other than the addition of Antoine Vermette and the maturation of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, this Coyotes team (of course substituting Mike Smith with Bryzgalov) is essentially the same squad that was swept out of last year’s playoff by a Detroit team that isn’t as strong as this year’s Hawks.

When it comes to these low talent level, maximum effort, “system” type teams like the Coyotes, the regular season is a much easier hurdle to clear than the monotony of playing the same team for two weeks.  A big reason why they’re able to rack up as many points as they do is because a) they sneak up on teams that don’t bring their top effort during the doldrums of the regular season and b) opposing teams don’t have the luxury of centering their entire game plan around one team for one game.  That’s the biggest reason why teams like Predators, Coyotes, and soon to be the Blues struggle to win more than a round in the playoffs against significantly deeper and more talented teams.

That’s not to say it’s going to be a cakewalk for the Blackhawks.  It’s probably going to take a few games for them to figure out the best way to navigate their way through the neutral zone and how to keep Mike Smith firmly in his crease.  After the riddle is solved, though, it should only be a matter of games before they move on to the next round.

Unless, of course, Corey Crawford thinks its December, Mike Smith channels his inner Curtis Joseph, and the Coyotes get a ton of puck luck.  Then, anything can happen.

Posted in Random Thoughts | 3 Comments

Once Bitten, Four Times Shy

We wrote the following for the final regular season issue of “The Committed Indian.”   As an aside, let me also take the time to apologize for our lack of a presence for the majority of this season.  Amazingly, sometimes life gets in the way of this sort of thing.  With the playoffs drawing ever closer, there will be a game recap to follow for each game and perhaps some thoughts in between games as well. 

Hopefully, the Hawks season will mimic that of the second season of “The Walking Dead”: early promise, a big lull in the middle, and a tremendous finish.

And here we stand again, another regular season gone by and another post-season awaits.  Seems like a lifetime ago when we would reminisce of the days of yore when the Hawks were a perennial playoff team and dream of when they would be again as we watched the ABC line drunkenly stumble its way across the finish line to the tune of 12th place in the Western Conference.

We obviously don’t need to throw a parade for another year of postseason hockey in Chicago; they should be expected after all, but it’s also important to remember where we came from.  After all, it’s only been five years since the Hawks traded the great Karl Stewart (he of the 2 goals and 3 assists in 37 games) and sent Barry Rozner into a homicidal frenzy about what an injustice it was to the fanbase.  Good God, let’s never relive those days ever again.

Even with a horrendous 9-game losing streak in the regular season, even with some of the worst goaltending in the league, and even with some of the most uneven play seen this side of Calgary, the Blackhawks still stand as one of the four teams with the best chance to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Don’t believe us?  Let’s take a look at what the competition holds.

St. Louis Blues- Nothing is going to make us happier than watching the Blues top defensive pairing of Carlo Colaiacovo and Alex Pietrangelo try to keep with the likes of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski.  And just wait until Martin Havlat gets an extended look at Barrett Jackman and every other big slobbering turd on the Blues second and third pairing.  The Blues only saving grace in this post-season will be how far Jaroslav Halak can carry them.  Because right now, the Blues look like the poster-child for the President’s Trophy winner that can’t get out of the first round.  And other than Bob McGill being resurrected from the heavens to join the Hawks third defensive pairing, nothing will give us more pleasure.

Detroit Red Wings- Sure, this may seem like tempting fate but have you seen the Red Wings play in the last two months?  It’s like watching your father’s once great 16-inch softball team try to turn a double play without breaking a hip.  After a tremendous start and an incredible home record, the Wings are barely hanging on to home ice advantage.  And while history would suggest this might make them more dangerous, it’s simply not true.  With an average age of near 30 years old, the Wings don’t have the legs nor the defensive depth to last another four rounds of playoff hockey.  Their only hope lies in Jimmy Howard and Pavel Datsyuk.  And we should know by now it takes more than two guys to hoist Lord Stanley.  Even Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr at the height of their powers couldn’t do it.

Vancouver Canucks- The Canucks are one of the four teams in the West that has a legitimate shot of winning the Campbell Trophy again.  However, they also might be missing Daniel Sedin and are most definitely in store for a goalie controversy.  And we all know how well the Canucks handle any kind of adversity.  That said, the Canucks appear to have, depending on where Los Angeles ends up, the most advantageous first round match up.  It will take them less than four games to dismantle whatever magic sauce the Phoenix Coyotes are once again conjuring up.  While the Dallas Stars or Sharks will likely give them a bit of a rough ride, if they win more than one game, it will be an upset.  But the first round was never the problem for Vancouver; it’s that whole running into Chicago thing and from the moment Duncan Keith’s elbow connected with Daniel Sedin’s jaw, it was written in the stars.

Los Angeles Kings- The Kings are another team that are going to be very difficult to hand four losses.  Jonathan Quick is arguably the best American goalie on the planet, their top defensive pairing can play against any other team’s top line, and the Kings boast two scoring lines that are going to pose match-up problems for a lot of teams.  Their big problem lies in their lack of a legitimate shutdown checking line.  Excuse us if we don’t believe Jarrett Stoll and whatever slobs he’s skating with are capable of handling a top line assignment.  Darryl Sutter can’t throw Anze Kopitar and company against the opposition’s top line and reasonably expect anything more than a stalemate.  Meanwhile, when his team goes on the road, the Canucks, Hawks, Predators, and even the Wings will be able to match their checking line against Kopitar while their top line will dong-whip Jarret Stoll’s line back to Orange County.  So basically, if the Kings go undefeated at home in the playoffs, they have a very good chance.  Otherwise, they’re in trouble.

Nashville Predators- When did the Nashville Predators become the Minnesota Twins of the NHL?  Like the Twins, the Predators do a lot with a little even when it seems like a minor miracle they’re able to field a team, let alone a winning team.  Also like the Twins, they get a lion’s share of credit for being amazing at something they’re not really good at.  In the Predators’ case, people can’t wait to tell us how great defensively they are.  The truth is, the Predators give up a ton of shots, rarely possess the puck and use their all-world goalie Pekka Rinne to bail them out.  Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are a terrific defensive pair.  They’re also the most overrated.  In the 2010 playoffs when matched up against Jonathan Toews, they ‘held’ him to 2 goals and 6 assists in 6 games.  In 2011, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf were each point per game players.  The Predators strength lies in their special teams and unfortunately for them, teams play the majority of the game 5-on-5.

Which brings us back to the Chicago Blackhawks.  Yes, they were incredibly frustrating to watch during this season.  Yes, their special teams are more disorganized than a Lambs Farm JV practice.  And yes, they have a giant gaping hole standing in their crease that is liable to explode on any given night.  But since the acquisition of Johnny Oduya, they’re also playing the best puck possession hockey in the West.  Marcus Kruger is turning into an actual second line center before our very eyes.  Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell, and Andrew Shaw are a legitimate checking line with the ability to put points on the board.

Even though it took a lot longer to get here then we may have wanted and it wasn’t always pleasant, the Hawks are now, officially, one of the top teams in the West.  Only Nashville, Vancouver, and Detroit pose a realistic threat to knocking them out.  That means two things, the Hawks will have a say in who represents the West and if it’s not them, it’s going to be someone very annoying but, hey, at least it won’t be St. Louis.

 

Posted in Committed Indian Articles | 10 Comments

Done and Done: Hawks lose shootout Sunday, win on Tuesday

It’s hard to believe that all it took for the St. Louis Blues to go from playoff bubble team to President’s Trophy candidates was a change behind the bench.  Yet here we are with a handful of games left in the regular season and Ken Hitchcock has taken a team that was a Western Conference afterthought to the top of the standings.  If anyone in professional hockey hires Davis Payne in a coaching position again, they deserve whatever pathetic fate awaits them.

On Tuesday night, the Blues saw themselves in the fortuitous position of having a 3-1 lead after one period.  Forty-five minutes later, the Hawks won in a shootout 4-3.  Here’s how it got there:

–I should probably give the Blues a longer look before making this statement but if their defense plays as passive in the offensive zone as they did tonight, the playoffs are going to be a struggle for them.  The Blues defense had a handful of opportunities (I recall three off the top of my head) to pinch in on loose pucks and at least slow up the Hawks rush.  Instead, they were already at the center line giving the Hawks a full head of steam with numbers coming the other way.

If they’re not that insecure about their defense’s ability to skate with skill forwards to loose pucks, it’s not going to get any easier in the middle of April.

Granted, this game could have been the exception to the rule, but it certainly appeared as though  the Blues were so terrified of giving up an odd man rush that they sacrificed any offense for it.  It gave the Hawks forwards nothing to worry about as they chased down loose pucks and kickstarted their offense the other way.  In other news, the Hawks outshot the Blues 46-24.

–How slow is Barrett Jackman if Andrew Brunette beats him in a race to the net?  Answer at the bottom.

–Niklas Hjalmarsson left the game after a period and a half.  This is now the second time he’s been unable to finish a game due to a previous concussion.  So it looks like the dream of having a Keith-Seabrook, Oduya-Leddy, and Hjalmarsson-Montador defense will have to remain a fantasy.  Unless of course someone wants to tell me how good it looks on NHL ’12.

–Andrew Shaw continues to prove he’s simply not strong enough on the puck to be expected to play big minutes on a checking line.  St. Louis’ third goal was a direct result of Shaw getting easily bumped off the puck at center ice.  He had 16 minutes tonight and while he did get some power play time at the end of regulation, he shouldn’t be getting that much more ice time than Bryan Bickell (12 minutes).

On the other end of the spectrum, it’s increasingly debatable that Jimmy Hayes should have been put on Rockford’s clear day roster because I’m not sure how playing less than five minutes a night is helping his development any.

–Very slow.

–In relief, Corey Crawford made every save he had to (and this season that’s been an extreme rarity in these parts), but he was hardly the pillar of exquisite goaltending.  A few of his saves looked like he thought the puck was somewhere else but it ended up hitting him anyway.  Don’t even get me started on the shootout when T.J. Oshie’s shot hit him in the legs than Crawford reacted to it as the puck was trickling to the corner.

To his credit, he looked much more comfortable on the final two shooters.

–I think a lot of people forgot when Johnny Oduya was acquired that two years earlier, he was considered the center piece of the Ilya Kovalchuk trade.  Playing in hockey Death Valley will probably erase a lot of people’s memories.  Though we saw a couple of warts in his play in the first period tonight, Oduya still rebounded to put forth another very solid effort.  If it wasn’t Duncan Keith’s last shift in overtime, Oduya would have been the ice time leader.  Something tells me Joel Quenneville likes his new toy.

Posted in 2011-2012 Recapts | 9 Comments

Up and Down, Down and Up, Blackhawks now winners of three straight

If we learned anything from this weekend, it was that a human stomach cavity is pretty easy to rip open for a zombie and if the Hawks ever get Steve Montador and Niklas Hjalmarsson healthy, they will have one excellent defensive corps.

Sure, the Hawks were probably quite fortunate to escape with two points out of the Joe on Sunday but after a 9 game losing streak saw nearly every bounce go against them, it was nice to see things go their way.  The Wings hit three posts during the game and none were of the fluke variety.  They were all big point blank shots that beat Ray Emery clean but were just a bit outside.  The Hawks made the most of their opportunities and it meant another enormous two points for them.

The big story from the weekend slate of games, though, has to be Johnny Oduya.  Joel Quennevillle seems to be a coach that is all about first impressions and Oduya’s Blackhawk career could not have started better for himself.  After a shaky first period against Toronto, Oduya has settled down and in 2 and 2/3 games has become the solid number three defensemen the Hawks have longed for.  Here is where I mention the extremely small sample size, but it’s equally important to remember that Quenneville’s rope for Oduya becomes longer with each passing game.

And that is probably the biggest obstacle Oduya will have to overcome.  Steve Montador has spent the majority of this season trying to wipe Joel Quenneville’s memory of his subpar pre-season to no avail.  These three games (and each passing good game Oduya strings together) will serve as Quenneville’s base-line for Oduya.  It’s going to take a hellacious fall to Earth for Quenneville to lose that confidence in Oduya now.

The defensive pairing’s minutes in Sunday’s game are, however, not a blueprint for success.  Sami Lepisto and Dylan Olsen combined for 10 minutes of ice time as neither saw more than a shift in the third period.  Other than Jonathan Toews’ health, the biggest if for the Hawks has to be one of either Hjalmarsson or Montador (or both if we really want to get greedy) returning from their concussions.  With those solid five defensemen, the Hawks will have a defensive pairing that will be able to match up against any of the top Western Conference teams top 3 lines without sacrificing Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith to the gods for 30 minutes a night.

–I’m convinced with each passing day that Patrick Kane will become this generation’s Scottie Pippen.  Pippen was often criticized for not being Michael Jordan by the media and fans.  Of course, he was also one of the top 50 players of all time and perhaps the greatest defender of his era.  Patrick Kane is often criticized for not being Jonathan Toews and is perhaps on his way to being one of the best American-born players of all-time.

Kane came off a game in Ottawa where he easily could have put up a Sam Gagner if Corey Crawford was the opposing goalie.  He was again very solid in Detroit scoring his third goal in four games.  I wonder what old, overpaid goof Hawk fans can fantasize about acquiring next year when Kane struggles.

 

Posted in 2011-2012 Recapts | 5 Comments