Saturday, December 19, 2009

Hawks beat Boston 5-4 in SO, move atop Western Conference standings.

The blackhawks shutout string ended after 180 minutes & 55 seconds, but they managed to win their 3rd straight (all at home) and 5th in their last 6 games, beating the bruins with Antti Niemi in net to move into a first place tie atop the western conference standings with San Jose, though the hawks have played two fewer games than the sharks, their opponent Tuesday night at the UC.

The bruins started well, with a strong forechecking game that caused the hawk defenders several problems, including the bruins' 4th line which hemmed in the hawks top line in their own zone, creating a couple of good scoring chances of their own.

The hawks were missing Niklas Hjalmarsson, who according to coach Quenneville was "under the weather", though they did have Cam Barker back in the lineup, after he had left the last game against St. Louis with an undisclosed "lower body" injury. Jordan Hendry took Hjalmarsson's spot and played over 21 minutes on the night, while Barker & Sopel played their usual 12 to 13 minutes. Bryan Bickell was called up to replace Ben Eager in the hawks lineup, while the bruins were without forward Milan Lucic & defenseman Dennis Wideman.

Midway through the first, the bruins offensive zone pressure paid off, as Marco Sturm stole the puck in the hawk zone, which eventually led to the opening goal. Blake Wheeler managed to get to the loose puck before Niemi could cover up the rebound off David Krejci's shot from the right half boards. Wheeler poked the puck away from Niemi & recovered it behind the hawk net, then fed it back in front to Krejci, who managed to elude Keith, Madden & Sopel and beat Niemi from in close on the short side to end the hawks shutout streak and put the bruins up 1-0. Boston outshot the hawks 13-11 in the first, thanks to 5 takeaways & 2 hawk giveaways - they also had 8 shots blocked.

The hawks came out stronger in the second, and got a break when Andrew Ference misplayed a hard shoot in by Cam Barker in the right corner, where the puck bounced off righthand-shooting Ference's backhand side and straight out in front of the net to Kris Versteeg who was cruising in the slot. Versteeg quickly pounced on the loose puck and fired it past a startled Thomas who had no chance, and the game was tied just over a minute into the 2nd. A couple of minutes later, the hawks drew a penalty as Sobotka hooked Colin Fraser in the bruin zone, however, the hawks could not convert against the top ranked penalty killing team in the league, though Kane did have a good rebound chance to the left of Thomas off Campbell's point shot, but the bruin netminder made the second save as well.

Midway through the second, Brent Seabrook took a pass from defensive partner Keith & from his own blue line rushed up ice, cutting deep into the bruin zone past three bruins, as they all backed in. Seabrook then fired a shot from the right faceoff dot, about 20 feet out, that Thomas came out on to cut down the angle, however he gave a big rebound that bounced right to Sharp who was streaking down the left side, that had been vacated by the bruin defenders who all went towards Seabrook. Sharp essentially had an empty net and made no mistake to put the hawks up for the first time in the game, 2-1.

With time winding down in the second and play in the hawk zone, Sopel failed to clear as he ran into the referee in the right corner (and later complained he was also hooked by Mark Recchi), coughing up the puck in the process to Recchi, who moved in from Niemi's left and fed a cross-crease pass through Duncan Keith to Daniel Paille who had stationed himself at the other side of the net. Paille beat Niemi high, from a very sharp angle to tie the game at 2.

5 seconds after the bruins tied it, Hossa tripped up Ference in the neutral zone & the hawks 2nd ranked penalty killing unit had to go to work. The bruins managed to get a couple shots on Niemi, however the hawks managed to kill the penalty with no damage. Less than a minute after the expiration of the penalty & with less than a minute left in the 2nd, the hawks struck again, with Toews & Brouwer working a give & go in the bruins zone. Kane started the play working the puck up along the right half boards from the corner - he was checked there, but managed to get to the puck to Toews, who had moved in to support. Toews poked the puck to the open right corner with Brouwer the closest man, while Toews headed straight for the front of the net. Brouwer got to the loose puck first & threaded a pass between two bruins to Toews alone in front, who poked the puck past Thomas and the hawks had once again regained the lead 3-2 after two periods. The hawks outshot Boston 13-6 in the 2nd.

In the 3rd, the bruins struck just over 5 minutes in, as Bergeron beat two hawks, Sopel & Versteeg, behind the hawk net and got the puck to Paille in the corner. Paille eluded Sopel's check and returned the puck to Bergeron, who had gotten position on Versteeg behind the hawk net. Bergeron skated around the net and found Boychuk coming down the right wing - Boychuk took a sharp angle shot which beat a surprised Niemi, who may have been screened on the play, as he appeared to look at Barker in front after the puck went in.

The hawks replied quickly, as Hendry's blocked left point shot bounced straight to Campbell, open at the right point, who fired a shot on net that hit Ladd's hand in front & deflected past Thomas to restore Chicago's lead yet again.

The hawks had a chance to put the game away with a power play opportunity midway thru the 3rd, but again failed to convert, leaving the door open for Boston to tie.
And with less than 3 minutes remaining, they did as all three hawk forwards got caught deep in the boston zone when Morris sprung Krejci up the middle with a pass from the left corner corner for a 3 on 2 break, with Campbell & Hendry back for the hawks. Krejci fed Recchi on the left side, and he found trailer Bergeron moving in on the right side of the hawks zone for an open shot. Bergeron fired it past a sliding Hendry who tried to block the shot (& prevent a pass) and while Niemi made the initial save, he again failed to cover the rebound. Krejci quickly pounced on it and fired it in to tie the game yet again.

The hawks pushed forward in the last two minutes, with the Bruins laying back, apparently happy with a point and hoping to take their chances in the OT/SO, however, the hawks failed to threaten, sending the game to OT. The hawks outshot the bruins in the 3rd 17-7, but were outscored 2-1.

In the OT, both teams created chances with the extra room, perhaps the best going to Ference, who had moved deep into offensive zone & fired a wrister from the left circle that Niemi stopped & was able to cover the rebound before the bruin could get to it. In the dying seconds, Versteeg made a strong rush that setup a couple of chances, but Thomas was equal to the task, sending the game to a shoot-out.

Quenneville again decided to "kick", allowing the Bruins to shoot first, and Bergeron's wrist shot from in close was stopped by Niemi's left pad, as the bruin fell over the hawk goaltender on the way by, with Niemi looking back, apparently to see if the loose puck was heading toward the net. Toews then beat Thomas with a low, quick snap shot between the legs, to put the hawks up by 1 in the SO. Blake Wheeler then beat Niemi but his shot hit the left post and stayed out, giving Patrick Kane the opportunity to win it. Kane came in with speed and made a couple of moves before sliding the puck between the backsliding Thomas's legs and it slipped through & into the net to give the hawks the win in the 2nd round, with a frustrated Thomas smashing his stick at the bruin bench.

The hawks had 10 different players register a point in a balanced offensive attack, with Kane extending his current point streak to 6 games. Jonathan Toews is now 10 for 18 in shootout attempts and is likely to be part of the Canadian Olympic team squad as Steve Yzerman, Canada's GM was at the game. Since Toews has come back from his concussion, the hawks are 14-3-1 and are off to their best start in 27 years. Hendry did reasonably well as a fill-in for Hjalmarsson, though the hawks did miss their steady & reliable swede as the bruins were able to sustain considerable offensive zone pressure on the hawks defense in the first, creating turnovers and several good scoring chances. Niemi was sharp early, though he had clear problems in controlling rebounds, that directly led to two bruin goals. He also gave up a couple of bad angle goals, though he may have been screened on one, and the other was the result of a cross-crease pass where he had little time to position himself properly.

Despite Hendry's adequate job replacing Hjalmarsson, it is apparent that Quenneville didn't have a lot of confidence in Barker & Sopel's defensive game as the two got their normal 12 to 13 minutes while Hendry played 21. While some of that may be explained perhaps by Barker not being 100% after leaving the previous game due to injury, and also by not wanting to disrupt the other set pairings (Seabrook/Keith & Sopel/Barker), the hawk coach did attempt to change the defensive pairings around in the first period, but eventually settled on keeping Hendry in Hjalmarsson's spot next to Campbell. While I haven't tabulated the statistics, from general observation, it is clear that Sopel & Barker are the weak link in the hawks' defense and when you figure in their cap hits vs. ice time, they are a luxury the hawks can't afford longer term.

Next up are the banged up Detroit Red Wings, who lost star forward Henrik Zetterburg last night for at least a couple weeks with a separated shoulder. Despite all their injuries Detroit is still 8th and only 6 points behind the hawks with a home & home against Chicago before the Christmas break. The hawks host San Jose between Sunday's game against the wings at the UC & Wednesday's at Joe Louis.

As well as the hawks have played of late, Nashville & Detroit are staying with them, making the Central division one of the toughest in the league, with only the Pacific division having a slightly better overall record. The hawks next 5 games are all against Detroit, San Jose & Nashville and should provide another test to measure where the hawks stand against the top teams in their division & conference.

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