Saturday, October 31, 2009

Hawks stave off Habs, 3-2

The hawks got a late 3rd period goal from Patrick Sharp on a one-timer off a nice feed from Patrick Kane who had beaten a Hab to create an odd man rush for the hawks and they held off Montreal the rest of the way for the hawks 8th win on the year.

The hawks controlled most of the play in the 1st half of the game, aside from killing off an ineffective Montreal pp when Andrew Ladd drew a major/game misconduct penalty early in the 1st period for nailing D'Agostini with a high hit to the head, and a couple of back to back shifts midway in the 2nd where Montreal hemmed the hawks in their own zone, forcing an icing and a timeout call by Quenneville.  On the ensuing face-off, the hawks broke out of their own zone, beating a pinching Montreal Dman, creating on an odd man rush, drawing Montreal into a penalty, and scored on ensuring power play with Versteeg setting up Barker who had moved well in off the point for a one timer from the faceoff circle, beating Price with a slapper, to make it 2-0 Chicago.

Huet was sharp for the most part, making several point blank saves when Montreal was able to penetrate the zone or catch the hawks napping on line changes, with Price making long stretch passes to spring hab forwards into the hawk zone before the hawk Dmen coming off the bench had a chance to get in position, on a couple of occasions.    

But in a game that the hawks seemed to have well in hand late in the second period, Montreal took advantage of some shoddy play to tie it with two quick goals.  On the first, Bryan Campbell's clearing attempt of a blocked point shot went right to a wide open Cammalleri at the side of the net, with Huet still out at the top of his crease to cut down the angle on the point shot.  Cammalleri easily found the empty net to make it 2-1.  That seemed to give Montreal some life and in the dying seconds of the period, former Hawk Travis Moen, skated behind the net & banked a shot off Huet, who again was not on his post, and into the back of the net with 2 seconds left on the clock.  The goal was accompanied by a huge groan from the large crowd who obviously still had memories of Dallas's Stephane Robidas fluke goal fresh in their minds, which bounced off the corner boards towards Huet who misplayed it, leaving room between himself & the post, which it promptly found, blowing that game for the Hawks.

Fortunately for Chicago, they recovered enough in the 3rd period to regain their composure and preempt any Montreal momentum from the late 2nd period marker and thanks to some fine individual play by Kane & Sharp, were able to save Huet from further controversy and embarrassment, after he had otherwise put in a strong performance for the most part.   Hawks outshot Montreal 36-22 for the game, and won over 60% of the draws.

Brent Seabrook looked more comfortable & involved than he did his 1st game back from concussion, putting in almost 20 minutes on the night and coming away with a +2, while Keith & Campbell put in 25+ minutes, tho Campbell came away with a -2.   Hjalmarsson looked no worse for wear after going down in Nashville blocking a shot with his foot, and played over 21 solid minutes at +1.  Sopel was back at his normal 12 minutes along with his partner Barker, who finished with a goal & an assist, yet still managed a -1 on the evening.

The other notable repercussion from the game may turn out to be Andrew Ladd's illegal hit on D'Agostini - Ladd clearly left his feet during the hit - essentially exploding into D'Agostini who had his head down after eluding another hawk forechecker and if he saw Ladd, it was too late to evade the hit.  D'Agostini left the game needing to be helped off the ice & did not return & neither did Ladd, having been ejected for the hit.  While some might argue that the hit wasn't a blindside hit (like Richards hit on Booth) and was therefore clean, the fact that Ladd's feet clearly left the ice as he moved his body into the check (unlike Mitchell's clean hit on Toews) is the telling factor that he was intending to deliver a high hit with high force.

If Ladd had simply stood his ground like Mitchell, the play would still have resulted in a big hit but there would be no questions whether it was legal & he wouldn't be facing possible suspension as a result.  It represents more unnecessary & undisciplined play & penalties that the young hawk forwards need to learn to stay away from if they hope to be serious contenders this year.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Power Outage in Nashville, Preds 2, Hawks 0

Going 0 for 5 on the "power" play against the 4th worst penalty killing team in the entire league is not a recipe for winning, and not surprisingly, the hawks lost  2-0, a game they could & perhaps should have won.  The hawks were unable to find the net, despite having 2 extra skaters in the last 1:47 of the 3rd period and their youthful immaturity showed near the end after Kane's stick was checked in the slot, preventing him from getting a last second shot off - he threw his hands up in disgust at the "non-call", but in reality, a penalty call at that point would have been meaningless given the few seconds left.  What it did show was the hawks still have a ways to go to when it comes to maturing - bearing down and remaining disciplined when things don't go their way.

As for the powerplay, if this were a one-off game for the pp, it might not be so troublesome, however, the hawks have failed to capitalize on the pp since the start of the young season, unable to score on 5 on 3 chances in 3 separate games, all of which they not surprisingly lost.

Tonight, the hawks penalty kill, including Huet, did a marvelous job in thwarting a 5 on 3 for Nashville, the league's worst ranked power play, late in the first period, but the hawks failed to gain any meaningful momentum after killing off penalties for the last 6 minutes of the first, despite having two pp opportunities of their own early in the 2nd.  And the Preds finally did capitalize on their power play late in the second, scoring the winning goal on a pass deflected by Joel Ward who had gained position in front of Huet, taking a nice feed from Boullion who had pinched down along the left boards.

Coming in to tonight's game the hawks powerplay was converting at a rate of just over 19% - which at first glance does not seem all that bad, however, that ranked them 17th in the league - i.e., in the bottom half.  (Their pp at home is ranked 28th & if not for their 3 pp goals vs. the 3rd worst penalty killing team in Florida the 2nd game of the season, the hawks would rank dead last in the entire league on the pp! - not what you would expect of a team that has carried much of the play in games so far this season & has offensive skill & depth in all positions.

Not only was the power play ineffective all night again, but the hawks managed just 22 shots for the entire game - the lowest on the road so far and fewer than they have had for some periods earlier in the season.

One of the few bright spots tonight was the return of Brent Seabrook to the lineup - he played just over 20 minutes and looked steady - helping on the pk, though for some reason his pp time was limited.   His partner Duncan Keith played over 28 minutes again, while Campbell chipped in with 23+.  Hjalmarsson went down early in the 2nd after blocking a shot and missed several shifts before returning midway in the period, however, despite Hjalmarsson missing half of the 2nd period, the 3rd guy on the left defense depth chart, namely Barker, actually played fewer minutes than his average 13+ for the year - his $3M+ cap hit seems awfully rich for a 5th Dman playing limited minutes (primarily because he has defensive shortcomings) & if he is not contributing on the pp, he is overall a net liability (so to speak).

Finally, Patrick Kane, despite his undisciplined frustration shown at the end of the game, was active throughout the game and looked like a threat virtually every shift, however, he was unable to convert the chances created - sometimes due to trying to do too much on his own, other times, by trying to make the "perfect" play.  Overall, the hawks simply failed to take the Preds seriously enough - and take the game to them, bearing down even more & remaining disciplined when their perhaps underrated opponents (who had played on the road the night before) put up a bigger fight than the well-rested hawks were expecting, after having already beaten them twice over the past two weeks.

This is one frustrating loss that can't be blamed on Huet.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hawks subdue Havlat & Wild 3-1

Martin Havlat returned to the UC in a new uniform, and probably wished he was wearing the Indian head considering how Minnesota has struggled so far this season, particularly on the road, to score & to win. 

Unfortunately for Havlat, he was on the ice for two Hawk goals, giving him a -2 on the night against his x-teammates, as the hawks took control of the game in the 2nd, again taking advantage of a couple of rebounds as they did Saturday to beat Nashville.  It looked like a repeat performance until Brunette pounced on a loose puck after a scramble in front of Huet during the Wilds' 5th powerplay early in the 3rd. The hawks had a chance to clear, but failed to control the bouncing puck in front of Huet, which found its way to an open Brunette at the side of the net with Huet unable to recover.

Kane restored the hawks 2 goal lead a few minutes later, on a great individual effort, stripping the puck from a Wild defender in the right corner, going behind the Wild net & skating out to the left side of the goal, turning and firing all in one motion and somehow finding a 1" X 3" gap in the top corner short side - how he saw that opening & found it with his back to the net was an amazing display of skill -  the puck hit the bar at the back of the net & bounced out as if it had hit the crossbar, but there was no dispute or doubt - no video review was necessary to confirm the goal.

Toews & Seabrook sat out their second consecutive game & there remains doubt as to whether they will be ready for Thursday or Friday's games.  Nevertheless the hawks kept the pressure on the Wild throughout, outshooting them 35-21 on the evening, controlling much of the play despite being dominated in the faceoff circles.  The penalty kill was strong again, despite allowing the lone Minnesota goal, with Madden again leading the effort.  His veteran presence has been a key stabilizing influence on the young team so far, and he can still play at a high level. 

The power play used a tried & true formula - shot from the point with traffic in front - Brouwer was rewarded with a rebound from Keith's shot & beating a defender to the loose puck at the foot of  Backstrom's pads & tapping it in (before taking an elbow to the head) to make it 2-0, after Bolland drove to the net on Ladd's one-timer (off a Bolland feed) & fired the rebound past Backstrom to open the scoring on a nice give & go play.  Brouwer has been coming on offensively, getting his 3rd in 4 games while Bolland led the hawks forwards in ice time despite taking a costly cross-checking penalty early in the 3rd.

Huet put in another solid performance and was sharp all night - he couldn't be faulted on the lone goal having made the initial save.  It is a bit early to give the "all-clear" given that Nashville & Minnesota don't exactly provide the toughest offensive tests, but he did what he needed to win both without allowing a bad goal.  When the hawks have a healthy lineup, Huet simply needs to avoid allowing deflating soft goals to give his young team a chance, as their offense has plenty of firepower.

Sopel again played 20 minutes paired with Keith who logged 27+ minutes, with Campbell a +2 over 26 minutes.  Ebbett has shown good wheels when out there, however he is not always in synch with his linemates.  Dowell got into an early scrap, and only played 2+ minutes total in the entire game.

The only concern for the hawks on the night was in the face-off circle, where they clealry missed Toews, winning only 34% of the draws.  Madden went 5/14 & Bolland 5/17 while Koivu & Belanger won a combined 20 out of 27.

Hawks are off to Nashville again on Thursday, before facing Montreal at the UC on Friday.  Assuming Q will give Niemi a start in the back to back, it will be interesting to see which game he gets.  Given Huet's success vs. Nashville & the importance of the divisional games, I suspect Huet gets the call on the road, with Niemi getting the start at home vs. Montreal.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Huet Blanks Preds 2-0

Christobal Huet silenced his critics for the time being and justified his coach's decision to start him at home against division rival Nashville last night, turning aside all 27 shots and earning his 21st career shutout while backstopping the hawks to a 2-0 win.

Huet was solid, and appeared more confident - his positioning was better, allowing him to save several redirected shots, which in the past would have beat him (reference the Detroit game where a pass deflected off Madden's skate and beat him low between the legs).  He didn't appear to go down as often, and he was more in control over his rebounds, at times giving none.  He was also fortunate on a couple of plays, one where he had committed to his right to make the original save, but the loose puck bounced toward the open net, with Sopel & Huet both diving back to clear it before it crossed the line amid a scramble in front.

The hawks skaters also helped - playing another solid game in their own zone, keeping the Preds to the outside for the most part, getting into shooting lanes to block or disrupt shots and providing good support around Huet's crease.  The PK went a perfect 4-4, though three of the penalties were again taken in the offensive zone - Ladd with a goaltender interference and Byfuglien again, twice nullifying Hawk powerplays with lazy interference/obstruction penalties in an attempt to open up lanes for his teammates.  The penalty killers, in particular John Madden (who wore an "A" with captain Toews' absence) did a good job - Madden even broke in alone with Bolland while shorthanded, however skated himself out of ice, not realizing Bolland was with him, allowing Ellis to effectively block the net when he tried to deke.

The Preds were missing Jason Arnott, one of the few Nashville forwards with size who could have created more problems in front for Huet & the hawks D. As it was, the Preds smaller forwards like Erat, Hornquist & Sullivan had difficulty establishing positions in the slot while Dumont, who had 5 pts in his previous game was ineffective as was their PP.

Brent Sopel played almost twice the minutes he has averaged so far this season and was solid in relief, paired most of the evening with Duncan Keith.  Sopel isn't going to make anyone forget the other right-handed shot Hawk Dman named Brent, but his veteran experience certainly came in handy last night.

Contrast that with Sopel's regular defensive partner Cam Barker, who despite the loss of Seabrook, played his usual 13+ minutes - it seems evident that coach Q also recognizes the defensive shortcomings of the 2004 3rd overall pick.  Barker, however, was instrumental on the hawks 2nd goal, where he got his point shot through to the net, with Ladd positioned perfectly for the screen and rebound which the prone Ellis promptly obliged, a slight variation of the hawks' first goal where Kane fired a shot on net from the left half boards, with Byfuglien in his usual place, there to clean up the garbage left by Ellis, reaching around the goaltender &  depositing it into the empty cage..

Hjalmarrson also seemed to step up his game, while playing his regular 20 minutes, with Hendry making up the other 10 minute gap left by Seabrook's absence.

Short term, the hawks will be able to get by with this arrangement, especially against teams like Nashville, Minnesota, Montreal, etc., that lack power forwards who can and do drive the net - however if Seabrook is out an extended period, it is doubtful that Sopel can be relied on to log big minutes effectively night after night, and the wear on tear on Keith from the added burden won't help either, especially against teams like Calgary, San Jose, Vancouver & Anaheim which are all on the itinerary of the hawks' annual circus road trip.

The upcoming week is a big one for the hawks in terms of racking up points while the getting is "good".  Minnesota & Nashville have struggled, and Montreal has also had its problems.  After that, the hawks head out to Phoenix & Colorado, which before the start of the season may have looked like "gimmees", but will be anything but.  Then four more at home, inlcuding LA, SJ & Colorado again before the monster 6 game, 10 day road trip out west, and the hawks schedule gets decidedly tougher.

Games this early in the schedule may not be "must" games, but if the hawks want to position themselves favorably heading into a tough stretch of their schedule, six points this week would help take some pressure off when the rubber meets the road (ice)..

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The risk in starting Huet vs. Nashville

It has been reported that coach Q has opted to start Huet in goal tonight vs.Nashville.

The rationale is understandable - Niemi lost his last outing vs. Vancouver and Huet is still the number 1, wants to play and has already beaten the Preds (his & the hawks last win).  Coach Q also knows, he is going to eventually have to rely on the veteran to shoulder the load if the team is to have a realistic hope of achieving its advertised "One Goal" of winning the cup. (Rookie goalies rarely win a Cup - the last goalie to do so before Cam Ward did it in 2006, was Patrick Roy back in 1986 & Ken Dryden in 1971 before that).  The sooner Q can rely on Huet, the better for all concerned. 

Huet hasn't played in a week and keeping him out of action might hurt his game readiness when he does eventually play - practices don't simulate game action and simply aren't the same as actually playing in a game.   As well, given his poor start to the year & the increasing focus on him by high expectation media and fans alike, his mental state at the moment most surely is fragile at best, so he needs the support of coaches and teammates more now than if he were at the top of his game.

Finally, tonight's opponent has been offensively challenged (notwithstanding their last game where they netted 6 in an OT win vs. Ottawa), so starting Huet tonight in front of anxious home fans seems as good a time as any.

There are always two sides (at least) to every story, however.  Niemi, despite losing to Vancouver, played well and the rookie has outplayed Huet so far this young season.  He is bigger than Huet, and thus takes up more of the goal, but has also, so far at least, looked sharper and more solid fundamentally (excluding his glove) - Niemi doesn't go down to the ice as much as Huet (both in terms of frequency and level) and he seems more confident, which is evident by how the young team plays in front of him.

Niemi understands that he is the backup and that he is going to get his chances to play, so I don't think he will  have any difficulty accepting that by not starting vs. Nashville tonight it means the coach is blaming him for the loss to Vancouver.  However, if I was Q, I would have gone with him in this game and started Huet vs. Minnesota, for a several reasons.

1. While Huet got the win vs. division rival Nashville last time out, it was on the road and after a strong early save, he wasn't severely tested as the hawks in front of him played nearly a flawless game.  If he lets in an early and/or weak one at home tonight, it won't take long for already restless fans with short memories to get on him again.  And if Toews and Seabrook, two key leaders on the team, are out of the lineup, it will put even more pressure on Huet.

2. Nashville has had trouble scoring this season, but did pot 6 in Ottawa the other night,  with Dmen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter each scoring twice and adding an assist while former Hawk J.P. Dumont picked up 5 points.  They also scored two PP goals in the last 3+ minutes of action, including the OT winner to quell a furious 3rd period Ottawa comeback. Meanwhile, the hawks have scored a combined 5 goals in their last two games (both losses at home) and as already mentioned may be missing two key elements of their offense and PP.   I think Niemi is playing better than Huet at the moment so if Nashville's offense is awakening, I would rather go with the hotter hand and leave Huet to start Tuesday at home against the Wild's still sleepwalking offense.

3. While Niemi is still young and learning and accepting that Huet is #1, putting him right back in to start after a loss would provide him with some extra support and confidence.  It also would give management the opportunity to gauge his reaction to the added responsibility, which is important, especially if Huet continues to falter and management is forced into deciding whether they need to actively go out and find a veteran backup, temporary or otherwise.

In summary, I think it is still too early for Huet to have removed all the "kinks" from his game as well as remove the doubts from fans, media and most importantly management (assuming he is ever able to) and starting him at home against a team that seems to have found its offense puts increased pressure on him and poses increased risks that may be avoidable if Niemi were to start.

At the same time, putting Niemi back in right after a loss in which he played well would provide a show of confidence and support that could prove very important if Huet continues to stumble.   I would have saved Huet for a start against Minnesota, which would still set both up for starts in the back to back games later next week in Nashville and vs. Montreal.

Hopefully, Huet plays well and Q isn't forced into having to pull him again this early in the season in an important divsional game - if that were to happen, the pressure on both Huet and Niemi ramps up even more.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Poor Special Teams Cost Hawks vs. Vancouver

The Blackhawks blew another extended 5 on 3 opportunity for the 3rd time so far this young season & just as the case in the previous two games, it ended up costing them a W.

To add insult to injury, the hawks penalty kill gave up the tying goal twice, with Byfuglien being in the box both times, the second time serving the second half of a double minor.

Antii Niemi was solid in goal for the most part for the Hawks, tho he might want to have the winning goal back, just like Campbell & Kane would want the play that led to it, back.  Niemi seemed to be a bit slow to react to Campbell & Kane's turnover & was beaten by an accurate shot from a wide angle that otherwise looked saveable.

Perhaps of  greater concern than squandering another home game, is the injury status of Toews & Seabrook, who both left the game in the 3rd period.  On Toews' injury, by the time he had received Brouwer's suicide pass & turned to head up ice, it was already too late - he looked up only to see Mitchell readying to lower the boom, before he had a chance to brace himself - a clean hit that apparently did more damage to his midsection than his head, according to his comments overheard by Ray Ferraro at the Chicago bench, after Toews visibly struggled to find his way back to it.  Seabrook left the game during an earlier pk after he went down behind the hawks net, tho the nature of the injury wasn't readily apparent as he slowly headed off the ice.

The loss, Niemi's first this season, is a tough one to take considering that the hawks had control and could have salted the game away if they had been able to bear down on the pp; instead, they again gave life to their opponents by failing to do so & paid the price for the 3rd time in 9 games.   As for Niemi, he is bigger than Huet & accordingly takes up more space in the net & his positioning & fundamentals appear more solid - he doesn't go down as much (both in terms of frequency & location; crouching more than dropping to his knees like Huet seems to do all too frequently.  His rebound control & puck handling appear adequate, tho his glove & unorthodox catching style pointed out by Ray Ferraro bears watching, as does his reaction time on turnovers.

Hawks assistant coach John Torchetti will have to figure out how to get the pp going & the pk needs to be better as well - starting with taking fewer penalties, particularly undisciplined ones in the offensive zone which accounted for 60% of the total, a percentage that also marked the hawks pk success rate on the evening.

Fortunately for the hawks, they face Nashville & Minnesota in their next three games, with the first two at home - all of them very winnable & in some respects must wins if they wish to separate themselves from the pack & set themselves up well for the tougher parts of the schedule coming up.  Of course that assumes a healthy Toews & Seabrook - if either one ends up missing an extended period that could spell trouble, especially on defense where the hawks depth is thin to say the least.  A weakened defence (& offence) isn't exactly going to help their heavily scrutinized goaltending either.

I expect Niemi to get the start again vs.offensively challenged Nashville on Saturday as show of confidence & support by Q in his young netminder, with Huet likely getting the nod vs. more defensive Minnesota & the two splitting the Nashville/Montreal back to back next week.

That 6-5 comeback vs. Calgary just over a week ago seems like a distant memory right about now...