Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hawks lose to LA, 2-1 in shootout.

The blackhawks finished off their 6 game annual circus road trip with a 4-1-1 record after dropping a 2 round shootout to the Kings. The hawks had managed to tie the game in third with a powerplay goal by Jonathan Toews, who picked up the rebound off of a Patrick Kane shot from the right circle. Jonathan Quick, who was solid throughout the game in the LA net, was unable to cleanly handle Kane's shot thanks to #88's quick release, giving Toews enough time to pounce before Quick had a chance to cover up the rebound. Toews, who had earlier taken a big hit from Dustin Brown when he tried to cut in front from behind the kings net, showed his resiliency & determination, again going to the dangerous scoring area in front of the net where he was rewarded.

In the shootout, Quick stopped Toews with a blocker save after the hawk captain tried to deke to his left. Kane tried to lift a backhand over Quick on the other, glove side, however, wasn't able to get it up high enough, and the Kings skated off with a well-earned win. Huet was unable to stop Kopitar, who made the same move on Huet he had tried on a breakaway early in the game, this time sliding it thru the five hole. Huet actually had his glove on the ice as he attempted to make the save, (something he also did during the game - a rather unorthodox maneuver that presumably would leave him more vulnerable to high, glove side shots & something to continue to watch for).

The hawks offense did not look sharp again, after laying a turkey the day before in Anaheim. In fact, until Toews found the net early in the 3rd period, the hawks had gone over 115 minutes, or almost two full games without scoring a goal - hardly something expected with the addition of Hossa to the lineup & his impressive debut against San Jose.

In fact, the hawks top line looked out of synch most of the game - failing to connect on passes and just generally appearing to guess rather than know where their linemates were (or where they were heading to), despite each getting over 21 minutes of ice time, with Toews getting over 24 minutes. They had two more chances on the powerplay after tying the game, including a 4 on 3 in OT, and did create some chances, but failed to seriously threaten.

Part of the problem was in the faceoff circle - where the hawks went 24 for 58 or just over 40% - a very poor showing considering they ranked 3rd in the league in face-offs, winning 53% of draws so far this season, while LA ranked 24th coming into the game, winning only 48%. John Madden struggled in the dots, going 4 for 17, while former hawks Michal Handzus led LA going 12 of 16.

Handzus also made the key play on LA's goal, finding his linemate Simmonds cutting unchecked into the slot area with a nice feed, after having taken Simmonds' drop pass on right wing. Duncan Keith was effectively facing a two on 1 with Simmonds & Handzus both coming down the right side unchecked, while Seabrook remained in his right defensive position. Keith challenged puck carrier Simmonds, but when Simmonds dropped a pass for oncoming Handzus, Keith backed off, deciding to let Simmonds go by and instead focus his attention on Handzus & the puck, (presumably expecting that Seabrook would move off his right defensive position & pick Simmonds up).

There appeared to be some slight indecision on Keith's part, perhaps noticing that Seabrook was not coming across to take Simmonds as expected, and he momentarily got caught between Simmonds & Handzus - not having either player, which gave Handzus enough time to thread a perfect pass to an open Simmonds cutting in on Huet, while Seabrook reacted too slowly to the developing play to prevent Simmonds' good scoring chance. Simmonds' backhand beat Huet, who appeared surprised, still back in his crease, rather than coming out and challenging Simmonds, though it was apparent that it was primarily Seabrook's failure to move over to pick up Simmonds which directly led to the scoring chance. (The hawks 4th line was actually in reasonable position on the play, having picked up the late LA men entering the hawk zone, thereby giving Seabrook the freedom to move over without having to worry about leaving an open forward, which Keith apparently read, but Seabrook didn't, at least quickly enough.)

The Kings actually created several excellent scoring opportunities throughout the game and were a bit unlucky not to capitalize. Early in the first, Kopitar was stopped by Huet on a breakaway after blocking a Keith shot at the Kings line. As noted, Kopitar tried sliding it thru Huet's 5 hole, but the hawk netminder was equal to the task to keep the game scoreless early. Minutes later, an open Scott Parse deflected a centering pass just wide of the open hawk net with Huet out of position.

The hawks Troy Brouwer had a chance to get the team's 4th shorthanded goal of the road trip on a breakway in the 2nd, reading the play & heading to center to take a feed from Hjalmarsson and getting a shot on Quick after stopping and letting the pursuing king Dman skate by, however the LA goaltender made a good low pad save. Hossa and Versteeg also had good chances later in the 2nd period, having clear shots on Quick from within 30 feet on the right side, but both were stopped.

In the 3rd, Brent Sopel hit the post after a nice set up by Madden who had penetrated down the right side, then fed Sopel coming late at the point. Later in OT, Sopel coughed up the puck at his own blueline, gifting LA a good chance which forced Huet to make a good save deflecting the puck just past the net with his trapper. In the shootout, however, Huet could not make a save & was beaten five hole both times.

While the road trip has to be considered very successful, the way it ended leaves one wanting, particularly considering how the trip started - with lopsided wins over both calgary & san jose. The loss to Anaheim was a failure of special teams, particularly the pk giving up 3 goals on Anaheim's first 4 chances, only a game after the pk managed to score 3 shorthanded goals. And while the pp was key to tying the game vs. LA, it also failed to capitalize twice when it had chances later to be the decisive factor.

Hopefully the lack of jump is due to being road weary rather than internal issues revolving around Hossa and Keith, Kane & Toews's contracts & the need for the team to move other players to announce the apparent deals with the "big 3 RFAs". Hossa clearly had a good start his first game back scoring twice, but he was not particularly threatening in the games in southern California. If he fails to be an impact player that many expect (and that his big contract would appear to demand), the hawks biggest obstacle could be dealing with their own internal team dynamics rather than any external opponent.

It will be interesting to see the home fans' reaction to Hossa (and his corresponding response) and how he handles being in the spotlight. If he doesn't measurably improve this team beyond the excellent record they compiled before he arrived in the lineup, there is going to be increasing vocalization of why management risked the promising future of this young team by making such a huge & long term bet on one single 30 year old player who still has as much, if not more to prove than many of his younger teammates...

Given his contract, Hossa needs to fit in - the biggest question is will other players whose career in Chicago might be jeopardized as a result of his signing continue to "fit in" as they have in the past?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Hawks lay turkey day after Thanksgiving, Ducks celebrate 3-0 shutout

The hawks penalty kill unit gave up 3 powerplay goals on their first 4 chances only a game after they scored shorthanded 3 times, while the powerplay never really threatened, going 0 for 4, and the blackhawks 8 game win streak was snapped by Anaheim 3-0.

The hawks had a couple of early powerplay opportunities midway thru the first period to get on the board first, but never really created many dangerous chances, which proved costly shortly afterwards, when the ducks capitalized on their powerplay. After Duncan Keith took a slashing penalty just as Campbell's minor expired, the Ducks went to work, with Corey Perry taking a high pass from Ryan Whitney at the right side of the net then, seemingly in one motion as he allowed the puck to fall to the ice, batted it cross-crease to an open Selanne, who tapped it in for a 1-0 lead with less than a minute left in the first.

In the 2nd period, the hawks ran into more penalty trouble, with Brent Sopel being called for a hook. The penalty followed a sequence where the ducks first threatened, with Getzlaff moving dangerously into the slot, only to have his stick slashed by Seabrook, effectively breaking it & causing Getzlaff to lose control of the puck. The hawks recovered the loose puck, and quickly moved up ice, with Versteeg getting a chance in close, however, Giguerre was equal to the task. Barker then got caught pinching in, leaving Sopel back by himself to defend as the ducks regained control & moved up ice on an odd man rush - Sopel then hooked Perry, and the hawks were down a man again.

On the ensuing powerplay, the ducks threatened again, and with Huet failing to cover up rebounds and loose pucks, ended up giving the ducks several extra chances, and Selanne took advantage. His first rebound attempt was stopped by Huet, however, Seabrook's attempt to clear ended up hitting Selanne's stick and he was able to direct the puck into the net, beating a down & out Huet & the ducks were up by two.

Just over a minute later, Dustin Byfuglien took another undisciplined penalty, falling over Giguerre without making any attempt to avoid the duck goaltender, and tearing his goalie mask off his head in the process. A mild scrum ensued, however Byfuglien drew the only penalty for goaltender interference, and the ducks' 2 for 3 powerplay on the day had yet another opportunity.

This time, it was a point shot by Nick Boynton, who hadn't scored a goal since last March, that eluded a screened Huet, and the hawks were down by 3 less than halfway into the game. The ducks ended up outshooting Chicago 17 to 11 in the 2nd period, doing to the hawks what the hawks had done so successfully to other teams - namely pressure the opposition in their own zone, and minimize the number of chances given up.

The hawks powerplay featuring Marian Hossa with Kane & Toews failed again late in the 2nd to take advantage & get them back in the game and headed into the dressing room down 3-0 after 2.

At the start of the third, the hawks came out hard and controlled the puck for the first couple of shifts, but were unable to create many good chances off their possession. The ducks did a good job in getting into shooting lanes and clogging the slot, and also clearing rebounds and preventing the hawks from getting to loose pucks around Giguerre.

The ducks were able to stall the hawks' early momentum by responding with a couple of good shifts of their own that put the hawks back on their heels a bit. The hawks one last powerplay chance midway through the 3rd to try to get themselves back into the game never really got set, and the hawks weren't able to mount any serious threat thereafter.

Overall, the hawks didn't appear to have the same jump that they exhibited in earlier games during the road trip, however, credit is also due to Anaheim for executing a solid game plan & for their special teams play, which was the difference in the game. The ducks were also able to create odd man rushes of their own from quick transitions on turnovers, and their defense was able to keep most of the hawks chances to the outside, giving Giguerre good support, particularly after the first save.

In hindsight, the hawks may have had a letdown after their big win in San Jose and may have taken the 14th place ducks a bit lightly, however Anaheim still features cup winners Perry, Getzlaf, Selanne, Niedermayer, Marchant & Giguerre along with several other good players in Bobby Ryan, Saku Koivu, Ryan Whitney and former hawk, James Wizniewski, who led all duck defensemen with 26:42 minutes of ice time.

The hawks finish off their 6 game circus road trip in LA tomorrow against a Kings team that has struggled as of late, winning only 4 of their last 10 games, most of them on the road, including a 4-1 loss in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, when Jonathan Toews returned to the hawk lineup after missing 6 games due to a concussion, which was the start of the hawks 8 game win streak.

While the hawks have had a successful road trip, if they want to reach the next level and truly become an elite team, they need to respond to relative "turkeys" like today with good bounce back wins in their next game.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Hawks roll over Sharks, 7-2, Win streak hits 8 straight.

Powered by three shorthanded goals, two on the same penalty, by Marian Hossa & Patrick Sharp, the blackhawks cruised to a lopsided 7-2 win over San Jose, handing the sharks their first regulation loss at home this season while extending their own current win streak to 8.

Troy Brouwer opened the scoring when he was sent in alone shorthanded on a nice pass by Hjalmarsson from deep inside the hawk zone. Brouwer wired a wrister past Nabakov and the hawks were up 1-0.

The hawks broke the game open early in the 2nd, down a man, when Hossa just missed poking the puck away from Boyle at the point as he was winding up to shoot, just failing to give himself a chance at a breakaway. However, the puck squirted loose and while Hossa's momentum carried him past Boyle to center, Jonathan Toews gained control of the loose puck & led Hossa with a perfect pass at center to send him in alone. Hossa waited for Nabakov to commit before firing a wrist shot high stick side to put the hawks up 2-0.

Less than 30 seconds later Patrick Sharp corralled a loose puck at center, and moved in alone on Nabakov when Kent Huskins fell down. Sharp got Nabakov to go down after a couple of dekes, then lifted it over him and the hawks had 3 goals against the league's top ranked powerplay in the span of 7:40 minutes from late in the 1st to early in the 2nd.

Dustin Byfuglien added a goal midway thru the 2nd, parked in his usual spot in front of the net & picking up a loose puck after Nabakov had stopped Barker's point shot. Byfuglien's initial jam attempt was stopped, but still unchecked, he dug the puck away from Nabakov's pad & fired it into the open cage to make it 4-0.

The hawks then had two powerplay opportunities of their own, but couldn't convert and headed into the dressing room leading 4-0 after two periods, and outshooting the sharks, 29 to 11.

After killing off two early penalties in the 3rd, the hawks scored again, Seabrook taking a hard cross-ice pass at the right point from Duncan Keith and firing a shot that deflected off a shark player and in behind Thomas Greiss, who had replaced Nabakov to start the 3rd. 5-0 Chicago. A minute later, Patrick Kane started a beautiful play gaining the high slot and finding Brent Sopel moving in off the right point with a perfect pass. Greiss, moving out to play the shot, was caught out of position when Sopel hit Hossa, who was moving in off left wing, with a quick pass, giving him a virtual open net & Hossa had his second of the game, making it 6-0.

John Madden added another midway through the 3rd, with Keith picking up his 3rd assist of the game, and all that was in doubt was whether Huet would get his 2nd shutout of the season and the 2nd in as many games for the hawks.

That however, was not to be as the hawks 5/6 defensive pairing ran into penalty trouble late in the 3rd - with Barker & Sopel, getting more minutes due to the blowout, they both took hooking penalties within 23 seconds of each other to give the sharks powerplay an extended 5 on 3 advantage. Huet made several saves, however, Dan Boyle finally broke the ice and Huet's shutout bid. Joe Pavelski added another just over a minute later, but the hawks skated off with a big 7-2 win, beating the top team in the NHL and their top ranked powerplay with 3 shorthanded goals and outshooting them 41 to 24, in handing them their first home regulation loss this season.

It was quite the debut for Hossa, as he looked dangerous early in the game & added another element to the already potent duo of Kane & Toews, finishing up with over 16 minutes of ice time. Andrew Ladd appeared to be the hawk forward to give up the most ice time to make room for #81, playing just under 11 minutes. The hawks defense was solid again, particularly Keith & Seabrook, who not only shut down Thornton, Heatley & Marleau, one of the hottest lines in the league, but they also chipped in with a combined 5 points of their own and a +6.

It was difficult to find anything in the hawks game that wasn't on. They have already guaranteed themselves of finishing over .500 on their annual circus road trip, and have outscored the home teams by a combined 20-5 while going 4-0 on this trip (and not giving up any OT points against their conference foes). They will finish it up by visiting Anaheim on Friday afternoon, and Los Angeles on Saturday.

With the win, the hawks moved to within 2 points of 1st overall (with 3 games in hand on SJ), and they are now tied for 2nd overall in the NHL. They rank 3rd in goals scored behind only Washington & San Jose and have the lowest goals against average in the league, just ahead of New Jersey. It doesn't get much better than this at this point in the season.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hawks & Niemi shut out Vancouver, 1-0, win streak at 7.

After scoring 12 in their two wins in Alberta, the blackhawks found goals much harder to come by in British Columbia, but they still managed to gain at least a split in their 6 game road trip by sweeping the Canadian portion in 4 nights with a tight 1-0 win against a well-rested Vancouver team.

The hawks played a terrific defensive road game - limiting the canucks chances even though outshot 30 to 17. Antii Niemi was sharp despite it being his first start since losing to the canucks in Chicago over a month ago.

Good scoring chances were hard to come by for both teams and the few that were created were not capitalized on.

The hawks top line of Toews & Kane with Kopecky on the left side were able to hem the canucks in their own zone for an entire shift midway through the first, eventually forcing the canucks to ice the puck, but the hawks were unable to capitalize on the chances created - Kane fanned on a chance at the side of the Vancouver net, but was able to retrieve the puck and center to Kopecky open in the slot, but his backhander was stopped by Luongo.

Brouwer had a great chance in the slot early in the second with Luongo down & out of position, but fired the puck wide of the empty net. Midway through the second, Versteeg & Byfuglien broke in on a 2 on 1, but Byfuglien missed the target on a one-timer set up by Versteeg. Moments later, Bryan Campbell led the rush down the right side into the zone & fired a shot from the top of the circle that seemed to handcuff Luongo who juggled it but managed to cover up before Kopecky & Eager converged at the crease, looking for a loose puck.

A minute or so later, Kane moved down the right side and was able to get a backhand shot on net, but Luongo was this time equal to the task. At the other end, Bernier had a good chance after coming out of the penalty box and breaking in alone down the left side, but Niemi stoned him with his outstretched left leg pad. Late in the 2nd, the Canucks Kesler jumped on a weak clearing attempt & fed to Raymond alone in front of Niemi, but his backhand shot was stopped. Kesler's pass was high, forcing Raymond to knock it down to his stick first, which took away the opportunity to perhaps deke Niemi.

The lone goal came early in the 3rd period, with Bryan Campbell taking a cross-ice feed as he moved in from the left point from Patrick Kane. Kane, who did not get an assist on the goal, nevertheless made the play happen by gaining the zone, and stopping at the right half boards, having the vision & patience to see & find the late man Campbell on the other side of the ice moving in from the left point. (Kane's consecutive game point streak comes to an end at 9.)

Campbell, after taking Kane's pass, cut into the slot, tho his shot was blocked in front by the skate of Toews (who got an assist instead of Kane). Campbell tried another shot, which Luongo did not appear to see, but stopped with his left leg pad, however the puck sat there loose for Bryan Bickell, who had an easy tap in with Luongo down & out. Bickell, who was a bit of s surprise starter after leaving last night's game from what looked like a head injury (when his helmet hit the ice while throwing an open ice hit on the oilers Dustin Penner), was noticeable again, particularly in the corners & along the boards as well as parked in front of Luongo.

Vancouver came close to tying later when Burrows was set up in front by Wellwood & got off a backhand that Niemi stopped but gave a rebound - Burrows got off another backhand that hit Niemi's glove, with the puck bouncing up in the air & back towards the goal tho Niemi was able to maintain his balance & focus and snag it despite heavy traffic all around his crease. He made another good save on a high wrist shot by Kesler from the top of the right circle. Kesler used Barker as a screen and snapped a hard shot high, that Niemi had to fight off. Edler hit the post on a hard point shot, and then in the dying seconds, Burrows had a last gasp chance in front, but Niemi was equal to the task in preserving the win & his second shutout of the season in just 5 starts.

The hawks did a great job all night in getting into shooting lanes & blocking numerous shots and otherwise collapsing back in support of their young goalie. Even Patrick Kane made a legitimate effort to help out in his own zone and was effective.

It is hard to imagine the hawks playing better than they have in their past 7 games, however, with Hossa slated to join the lineup at some point over the next 3 games, expectations are rising that they will be even better. Those might be difficult to live up to, but as they did much of last season, the hawks seem to keep rising to the occasion, challenging themselves to be better and actually getting better as the season progresses...

These young hawks certainly don't appear to be your father's hawks. Up next, a showdown in San Jose where the hawks can move to within two points of first overall, with 3 games in hand. After back to back disappointing losses in Phoenix & Colorado on the "father's trip" at the beginning of the month, it was certainly difficult to see this impressive turnaround coming.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Hawks sweep Alberta, beat Oilers 5-2

The western canadian portion of the hawks' 6 game circus trip rolled into Edmonton & over the Oilers, as the hawks scored 3 times in the first 12+ minutes and essentially coasted the rest of the way to a 5-2 win.

Jonathan Toews, the game's first star, opened & closed the scoring on the night, doubling his goal total for the season, and demonstrating his value to the team again in the more traditional way - on the scoresheet.  The first goal was the direct result of his typical dogged forecheck & relentless pursuit of the puck.  Andrew Ladd did much of the intial work, gaining control of the puck in the left corner, then leaving the puck for Toews while heading off the ice.  Toews attempted to cycle the puck back to Kane, however, the pass didn't connect & instead went behind the net to the right side. Toews followed the puck across to the far corner where he pressured Edmonton Dman Smid into coughing  it up.  Patrick Kane following on the play, gathered in the loose puck & set it up for Toews, who headed for the front of the net, first trying to stuff it in low on DesLauriers, then picking up his own rebound unchecked in front and firing it into the top right hand corner all in seemingly one motion to put the hawks up by 1 less than 4 minutes in.  DesLauriers was a surprise starter after Khabiboulin's back stiffened up on him again earlier in the day, leaving insufficient time for a backup from their farm team to make the game.

Edmonton responded on the next shift, being helped first by Sopel, who without being pressured, cleared the puck on a hard around that went all the way down the ice for an icing.  The hawks uncharacteristically  lost the ensuing face-off (they won 52% on the night) and while Huet made the initial save on Souray's uncharacteristically weak point shot, he left a rebound sitting in front.  Cam Barker (aka Alexander Karpovtsev, another #25 who couldn't play defense for the hawks) instead of taking the man (i.e. playing the body on Dustin Penner, the lone Oiler who posed any threat to get to the loose puck) which would have allowed  Huet to cover up the puck, opted rather to try to "help" his goalie by steering the puck back to him...a move that Huet obviously didn't expect & it proceeded to slide into the hawks net to tie the game less than 30 seconds after Toews' goal.

To their credit, the hawks quickly shook off that bad play and responded themselves a few minutes later with some good offensive zone pressure.  Bean Eager this time winning  the puck in a battle in the right corner & feeding it back towards the right point, where a pinching Brent Sopel made amends for the earlier costly icing, by finding a wide open Versteeg to the right of DesLauriers with a cross ice pass.  Versteeg was stopped by DesLaurier on his intial shot but chipped the rebound off DesLauriers sending it high above the net.   Souray, who was credited with Barker's goal, tried to swipe the airborn puck away from danger, but was being pressured by Kopecky, and inadvertently knocked it into his own net.

A few minutes later, Patrick Kane made it 3-1 on a nifty play.  Recognizing that Souray had (poorly) decided to pinch at the hawk line, leaving Oiler forward Reddox back to cover for him, Kane headed straight for open ice down the right side and gloved down Toews' flip pass/clear out of the defensive zone, taking it without breaking stride.   He then cut around Reddox and in on DesLauriers, beating him low five hole.   Having given up 3 goals on only 6 shots, there was some talk at that point that the Oilers might wish to pull DesLauriers, however, their backup was Torrie Jung, a junior goalie with the Edmonton Oil Kings who was signed to an amateur try out contract to replace the injured Khabiboulin.   

The hawks put it into cruise after that and in the 2nd period, Brouwer combined with Ladd & Madden to give the hawks their 4th goal, firing a shot up high on DesLaurier's shoulder, forcing the goalie to make a tough save & more importantly give up a rebound, with Ladd there to pick up the loose puck in the crease & he quickly passed it over to an uncovered Madden at the right side of the crease, who tapped it in an open net.

The Oilers looked like they might have drawn back to within 2 at the end of the 2nd period, when on the power play Horcoff tapped in a puck fired from the right corner that lay loose between Huet's legs, but replays showed that the clock had been stopped prematurely and that the puck had actually crossed the line after time had expired in the period.

The Oilers however did eventually score on that penalty with Dustin Penner beating Sopel for position & deflecting a point shot past Huet to start the 3rd period, making it a game again.  However, with former hawk & current Oiler captain Ethan Moreau in the box for goaltender interference, Toews worked the give & go with Patrick Sharp to perfection - passing to Sharp on the left half boards from the left corner, then heading to the slot, where Sharp found him wide open with a return pass - Toews wired it into the top left corner again to close out the scoring.

Huet had a reasonably quiet night - the oilers had 16 shots combined over the first two periods and added 11 more in the 3rd, however, failed to generate many good scoring chances on the hawk goalie who has now won 8 of his last 10 starts since the debacles against Dallas.

The Oilers came out in the first taking the body, in an attempt to slow the speedy hawks down, likely a good preview of what to expect versus Vancouver.   It was apparent that Hjalmarsson was one of their targets as he took several big hits in the first minute and again later in the 2nd by Brule on an icing call that drew a penalty.  Bryan Bickell attempted to respond in kind early in the first, lining up Penner for a big hit, tho he got the worst of it, apparently hitting his head on the ice on the follow through of the check.  Bickell, who has shown some positive elements in his brief stint so far did not return to the game.  If he is unable to play tomorrow, it will be interesting to see if Hossa makes his initial appearance for the hawks earlier than expected  vs. Vancouver rather than the apparently planned San Jose return or whether the hawks insert Hendry back into the lineup for a game.

The hawks road record is back above .500 for the first time since their opening trip to Europe, and with the win moved into 2nd overall in the conference, 6 points behind San Jose, which also won tonight & will be the hawks opponent on Wednesday. Nevetheless, it is still early in the season & the current road trip, and they will have a couple of more tough tests in Vancouver & in San Jose that should provide a good measure of where the team currently stacks up.  Daniel Sedin is scheduled to return to the Canucks lineup after missing several weeks.

Toews, interviewed after his 3 point performance tonight, admitted that his first game facing Vancouver after the Mitchell hit would have a little more riding on it, while Seabrook, also interviewed after the game, when asked how the hawks cap situation (where some players may have to be moved due to Toews, Kane & Keith agreeing to new long term extensions) was affecting the dressing room, suggested that the players are focusing on keeping the winning going & not on the contract/cap situation.

Ironically, the more successful they are on the ice, the harder it will be to keep the team together.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Hawks blow out Flames, 7-1

Powered by four power play goals, including their first 5 on 3 goal of the season in 5 tries, the Blackhawks rode their special teams at the Saddledome and kicked off their 6 game road trip in fine style, crushing Calgary 7-1.  In a game widely anticipated to be a good measuring stick for both teams after the hawks' stunning 6-5 OT win last month after having been down 5-0, it was no contest after early in the 2nd as the hawks cruised to their 5th straight win.

Kris Versteeg returned to the lineup after missing the last game vs San Jose & picked up two pp goals, both coming in the decisive 2nd period, the first putting the hawks up 2-1 after Olli Jokinen had tied the game 14 seconds into the period with a pp goal of his own.  But the Flames lack of discipline got the better of them as Nigel Dawes went after Nik Hjalmarsson after the hawk defenseman stepped into ex-Hawk Rene Bourque at center with a solid, clean shoulder hit that sent Bourque flying, less than a minute after the Flames had tied it.

It seemed to be a turning point as Dawes picked up a roughing penalty for his trouble, and the hawks powerplay, which had opened the scoring in the first when Troy Brouwer was left unchecked in front of Kiprusoff and finally put the 3rd rebound behind the goaltender for his team-leading 4th pp goal, went to work again.  Versteeg actually came on to replace Madden, who had broken his stick in the offensive zone & gone to the bench - Versteeg made a key play to keep the puck in the zone, then later positioned himself at the left side of the net, using his long stick to deflect a Seabrook blast from the left point past Kiprusoff, in what turned out to be the game winner, less than 2 minutes after the Flames had tied it.

The hawks blew it open midway thru the 2nd, with two even strength goals by Byfuglien & Ladd.  Byfuglien poke-checked the puck from Iginla inside the hawk line, then picked up the loose puck at center to create a 2 on 1 with Sharp on his left.  He skated down the right side & fired a sharp angle shot from almost right on the face-off dot that beat Kiprusoff to put the hawks up 3-1.  A few minutes later, after Patrick Kane hit the crossbar from point blank range, Duncan Keith on the same shift spotted Ladd wide open on at the Flames blueline due to a poor Calgary change & hit him with a perfrect stretch pass from his own zone.  Ladd cut in alone from the left side on Kiprusoff, and made a great play cradling the puck on his stick to disguise where he was aiming, which effectively froze the Calgary netminder long enough to beat him with a wrist shot low into the glove side corner.

Another sloppy Calgary line change a few minutes later resulted in a too many men  bench penalty late in the 2nd, which was followed by more lack of discipline from Dion Phaneuf, who (with his visor still on) challenged Seabrook to a fight & drew the extra two minute penalty along with the offsetting majors. 

The hawks made the Flames pay dearly, first with Kane picking up a rebound in front after Kiprusoff had stopped Sharp from in close, & the birthday boy fired it over the fallen Calgary goaltender for his 8th goal of the season which extended #88's point streak to 8 games in the process.  36 seconds later, Versteeg again stationed to the right of Kiprusoff was set up by a brilliant combination play where Keith on the point made a behind the back pass to Kane in the right circle, who quickly fired a cross-ice feed to Versteeg who snapped a sharp angle one-timer high into the open side before Kiprusoff had a chance to move over, to make it 6-1 at the end of two.

The 3rd period was anti-climactic, with Quenneville giving his 4th line & 3rd defensive pairing of Barker & Sopel lots of ice time and giving Keith, Campbell & Seabrook some rest.  While the hawks only managed two shots in the 3rd, Ben Eager scored on one of them, his first of the season, on a set play where Hjalmarsson fired a shot from the left point deliberately wide to the left of the net. The puck bounced off the backboards behind the net right to Kopeckey on the right side and he found Eager open in the slot, who made no mistake in one-timing it past McEllhinney, who had replaced Kiprusoff to start the 3rd. 

Cristobal Huet had a solid game at the other end, and made a brilliant, diving save early in the 2nd, when the game was still very much in doubt, stopping Bouwmeester's point blank shot after having gone down to make an initial save on Phaneuf, during a Calgary powerplay, shortly after the hawks had retaken the lead.  Moments earlier, he had stopped Craig Conroy, who had cut in alone in front from the right side, to keep the hawks in front.   Those saves made up for the earlier (& only) goal he allowed, where he was caught too far back in his net on Jokinen's shot, and had gone down early, giving the Flame sniper too much net to shoot at & he found the top corner, glove side to briefly tie the game.

The hawks may have caught a break in the first period when Jerome Iginla blocked a Duncan Keith shot at the Flames blue line & looked like he had a clear breakway until a desperate Keith finally tackled him from behind in front of Huet after unsuccessfully trying to harass & strip the puck from him as they skated down the ice.  Keith was assessed a minor on the play for holding while Iginla argued for a penalty shot & replays suggested he had a case.  The league's best penalty kill to date, thanks in large part to John Madden, killed off the ensuing Calgary powerplay with no damage done & the hawks maintained their 1-0 lead.

Aside from the Phaneuf-Seabrook tilt, Colin Fraser went at it with Eric Nystrom early in the second, tho no major damage was done by either player.

The hawks head off to Edmonton to face the Oilers on Saturday before finishing the Western Canada portion of their road trip in Vancouver on Sunday.  With 11 players on the roster hailing from Western Canada, the hawks seem to enjoy their trips back "home", having swept their first trip last year, where they started with a lopsided 9-2 win in Edmonton.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Hawks come back to beat Sharks in OT, 4-3

Brent "Sudden Death" Seabrook scored his second dramatic OT winner this young season to cap the hawks's second come from behind OT win as they overcame a 3-1 early 2nd period deficit to beat San Jose on Jeremy Roenick "Heritage" night.  (Seabrook also scored the dramatic OT winner vs. Calgary to cap that amazing comeback from a 5 goal deficit last month).

Jonathan Toews played a strong game for the hawks, despite winning only 44% of his draws.  He set up the game winner after some determined forechecking behind the San Jose net together with Troy Brouwer, who had almost scored moments earlier, deflecting Keith's point shot, but Nabakov kicked it off to the corner where Brouwer recovered & dumped behind the net where Toews eventually gained control of the puck & fed a nice backhand pass to Seabrook who was moving in from the right point & beat Nabakov, who was moving across his crease, with a low shot.

Toews also sparked the comeback by finding Patrick Kane at the left circle with a nice saucer pass and Kane beat Nabakov on the blocker side with a high shot off the left post to make it 3-2. Then late in the 2nd,  John Madden followed up Andrew Ladd's rebound chance in front of a sprawled Nabakov, as the Sharks' defenders were uncharacteristically flat footed,  providing Nabakov with no support, & the game was tied. That came shortly after a video review that ruled the puck had not crossed the hawk goal line - the 2nd time in as many games where the hawks benefitted from inconclusive video evidence after the opposition thought they had scored & the referees did not call a goal on the ice.   The puck had bounced in behind Huet from a scramble at the side of the net & dropped right on the goal line before Huet put his glove over top of it (thereby blocking any camera view on whether it had gone on to cross the line) & swiped it out of his crease.  Play was subsequently called by the referees without any indication of a goal.

Madden also had a strong game for the hawks, going 9 for 9 on face-offs, to help offset Toews atypical shortcomings in the circle this night.  In the final seconds of the 2nd period, the hawks got away with one as Seabrook's clearance/pass attempt from behind his own net was intercepted at the point by Marleau who had a clear shot on Huet.  The hawks goaltender sprawled to make the original save, but was well out of position as Ryan Clowe picked up the rebound & shot on goal, but fortunately for the hawks, it hit the skate of Duncan Keith, who had gone down in the crease to cover for Huet, otherwise, the sharks would have taken the lead into the 2nd intermission.

The hawks opened the scoring early in the first, getting a goal from an unlikely source - Brent Sopel blasting a one-timer from the point past Nabakov who was being bothered by Bryan Bickell in front.  Sopel took a pass from Jordan Hendry who was playing forward on the 4th line. The Sharks Dany Heatley tied it later in the period, after Jason Demers beat Troy Brouwer at the point, keeping Duncan Keith's clearance attempt in the zone - Thornton then fed Heatley in the slot as the hawks defenders scrambled to get back into position & he made no mistake.

The Sharks took advantage of an extra penalty assessed against Ben Eager as a result of his fight with Doug Murray early in the 2nd.  Keith again was involved on the play that led to the goal, as he was able to intercept a pass with his active stick, but redirected it right to Jason Demers, who was moving in from the point & he quickly fired it past a startled Huet, who was still deep in his net.   Less than a minute later, Patrick Marleau picked up his own rebound after having eluded Toews for a wide open initial shot from the slot, with Huet down after making the initial save, and Marleau made no mistake, putting SJ up by 2.  It looked like the hawks might unravel after Ladd took a boarding penalty a couple of minutes later, but they managed to kill it off without too much difficulty and seemed to gain some much needed momentum from that.  Shortly afterwards, Toews, Kane & Keith combined to cut the Sharks lead in half, with Bryan Bickell also contributing as an ongoing distraction to Nabakov in front of the sharks net on the play.

In the 3rd, the hawks drew another early,  undisciplined & unecessary interference penalty by Byfuglien but they managed to hold off the top rated pp in the league again, however were also unable to capitalize against SJ's top rated penalty killing team on their own pp minutes later when Malholtra went off for high sticking Barker. 

Overall, it was another solid effort & exciting finish to a very productive 4 game home stand as the hawks moved 3 points up on streaking Detroit, before heading out on their 6 game annual circus road trip.  Noteworthy again in the win was the play of Troy Brouwer who is coming into his own as an offensive player, which is especially important given that the hawks were missing not only Bolland but Versteeg as well (he took a couple of heavy checks into the boards vs. Toronto on Friday).  Bryan Bickell impressed and was rewarded with over 12 minutes of ice time & deserving of the +2.  Duncan Keith continued his offensive hot streak with 2 assists, and could have had a 3rd as he fired the point shot that eventually led to the winning play.  He now has 7 points in his last 5 games, including a couple of goals, while getting some extra pp time added to his 25+ minutes per game..

The pre-game tribute to JR was stirring, with video highlights of his Chicago days drawing cheers from the season high UC crowd of 21,130.  Next up for the hawks, a rematch with the Calgary, who are playing well (only 1 point back of Colorado with a couple of games in hand) & will be looking to avenge blowing that 5-0 lead in Chicago last month.  The hawks will have their work cut out for them against the Flames.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Hawks hang on, beat Leafs 3-2

The Blackhawks jumped out to an early lead, then held on to edge original six rival Toronto 3-2 at the UC Friday night.   Patrick Kane opened the scoring by stealing the puck from Luke Schenn to the left of the Toronto goal, leaving him with a clear shot at Toskala & he wired it high into the top right hand corner, glove side to put the hawks up 1-0, just over 3 minutes into the game.

Schenn had been out on a long shift together with the leafs' 4th line and had to stay on the ice after an icing call.  Quenneville took advantage by putting out his top guns, and despite a rare Leafs' face-off win (they won just over 40% of the face-offs on the night), and gaining control of the puck, Schenn failed to make the safe (& smart) play by simply dumping the puck out to get a line change, and instead chose to try to skate it out of the zone, perhaps tempted by the amount of open ice in front of him & not expecting any backside pressure.  Kane promptly lifted the slower Schenn's stick from behind with his own, stole the puck and fired it in, before being flattened by Colton Orr.

The hawks kept buzzing in the first, and ten minutes later, after an offensive zone face-off win by Madden, Seabrook passed it over to his blueline partner Keith, whose point shot was deflected by a Leaf player in front of a screened Toskala, who again had no chance and the hawks were up by 2.

A few moments later, after another Leaf turnover, this time in the neutral zone, Ben Eager found himself with a breakaway, but was stoned by Toskala.    The hawks then caught a big break a minute or so later when the leafs came close & looked like they may have scored.  Stempniak, made a lead pass from his own blue line, to spring Hagman who had gained inside position on Sopel at the hawk line - Sopel recovered enough to harrass Hagman & cause him to slow down & turn, however Wallin following up on the play beat a slow-footed Barker back & was open to take Hagman's back pass, creating a clear chance.

Sopel then sprawled on the ice in front of Huet to try to block Wallin's shot attempt, however, Wallin forced Huet into making a good save, leaving a rebound to his right.  Wallin fell as he tried to stop to get to the rebound, but still managed to get to the puck before Barker (who kept skating past the falling Wallin and the loose puck, being slow to stop & react) or Sopel (who had no idea where the rebound went and was looking to his left, presumably at his guy, the now open Hagman, as he got up off the ice, bumping into Huet in the process).  Wallin while sprawled on the ice to the right of Huet, managed to gain control of the puck & with the shaft of his stick flat on the ice passed it across the crease to the open Hagman, while Huet sprawled across the goal line to get his glove up against his left post & prevent an easy tap in.

Hagman gathered the puck & took two shots that Huet managed to block with his glove, before Stempniak arrived unchecked in the crease to jam at the puck (& Huet's open glove).  While it appeared that Stempniak may have pushed the puck (& Huet's glove) behind the goal line, (he certainly indicated as much by raising his arms and stopping on the play), the referees did not signal a goal & Sopel dug the puck out and skated it out of the crease as play continued, with the hawks rushing up ice.  Stempniak obviously frustrated ended up taking it out on Kris Versteeg, checking him into the boards from behind in the Leaf zone to finally stop play and allow for video review.

After considerable delay, the play was ruled no goal since the video was not conclusive enough to overturn the referee's on-ice call.  To add insult to injury, Stempniak was assessed a minor for high sticking, effectively putting the Leafs down a man, just when he thought he may have pulled them to within 1.  Just over a minute later, another Leaf penalty to Exelby for boarding/crosschecking Versteeg again into the boards from behind, put them down 2 men for about half a minute, but the hawks again failed to capitalize (& are now 0 for 4 on the season with a 2 man advantage). 

Early in the 2nd period, the hawks did manage to finally get a power play goal on their 3rd opporunity to go up 3-0, with a set play off another offensive zone face-off win by Toews.  The puck went back to Keith at the left point, who then  skated backwards to the middle of the blue line.   Sharp dropped back into Keith's vacated left point position, while Campbell moved in off the right point.  Sharp took Keith's pass back across, moved in a few strides and fired a shot from the top of the left circle that Brouwer again deflected past Toskala, reminiscent of their combining for a goal against LA on Monday, putting the hawks seemingly firmly in control.

Luke Schenn, perhaps seeking to make amends for his first period gaffe that directly led to the opening goal & looking to give his team a spark decided to take on Brouwer midway thru the 2nd.  Tho no major damage was done, it did seem to give the leafs a jolt.  About 5 minutes later, late in the 2nd, Kessel took a pass at the red line and skated up the left side. The hawks were in good shape defensively with 3 men back & Keith challenging Kessel with his stick as he gained the zone.  Kessel however moved across the slot, with Keith backing off, leaving Kessel for other hawk defenders (Hjalmarsson & Ladd) to cover while he peeled back to cover Blake who was following Kessel down the left side.  Kessel was still well out as he moved across the slot to his right & let go a seemingly harmless looking shot back across the grain to his left that caught Huet by surprise & too far back in his crease. 3-1 & suddenly the leafs had life. 

Jonathan Toews on a great individual effort before the end of the second almost restored a 3 goal margin, but couldn't beat Toskala after getting by Ian White to break in alone.  He got Toskala to go down, but the beleaugered Leaf goalie managed to get his skate against the right post, not giving Toews an opening low & made a key save with his right pad.

Early in the 3rd, right after the hawks had killed a questionable bench minor for too many men, Kessel again rushed up the left side with the hawks having 3 men back plus Kopecky coming back out of the box on the right side.  This time Sopel backed off far too much (likely in deference to Kessel's speed), and in doing so  effectively took himself completely out of the play, leaving the hawks defensive zone coverage scrambling, having to decide who to take.  Madden tried to cover by dropping his man to go after puck-carrier Kessel, and forced him back up high towards the blue line, but not realizing that the other four hawks had all collapsed back deep in front of Huet, Madden peeled off, giving Kessel room to move back in on the right side.  Without being challenged, Kessel fired a hard, high shot that beat a screened Huet who had gone down early, apparently trying to see low through the traffic in front to follow the play & puck.

The leafs continued to press the rest of the 3rd, forcing Huet to make some good saves, outshooting the hawks 11-6,  but the hawks managed to hang on for their 6th straight win at home.

Keith again led in ice time with just over 26 minutes, while Seabrook climbed back towards the mid 20s, wtih Campbell & Hjalmarsson at about 20 minutes each.

Patrick Kane led all hawk forwads with over 20 minutes and was the object of some pre-game jabs from his US Olympic team (& on the night opposing) coach Ron Wilson, who teased him about having some spare change if he needed it (in reference to Kane's arrest & conviction for assaulting a Buffalo cabbie over a disputed $.15 tip during the summer).  Kane got the last laugh though by seizing on struggling defenseman Schenn's poor play and opening the scoring, the 15th game this year (out of 17) in which Toronto has given up the opening goal.

With the win, the hawks remain two points ahead of Columbus, which rebounded from a 9-1 thrashing at home to Detroit on Wednesday to beat Anaheim in a shootout on Friday also at home.  The hawks host San Jose next, which finds itself atop the western conference again despite losing a SO at home to Dallas on Thursday.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Blackhawks franchise value registers largest percentage increase of any NHL team

According to Forbes, the franchise value of the Chicago Blackhawks increased by 26% over the past season, to $258 Million, ranking them 7th in the NHL behind the other original six franchises and Philadelphia Flyers.

Considering that Forbes had ranked Chicago 16th just two years ago (valued then at $179 Million) when Rocky Wirtz assumed control of the team on the passing of his late father, the turnaround has been quite quick & impressive.  In terms of operating income, the Hawks $20.9M last year ranked them 5th according to Forbes and represents an even more impressive turnaround from a net loss of $3.6M just two years ago, thanks largely to revenue increasing over 50% from the 2007 base of $69M, all despite an overall downturn in the economy.

With an average ticket price of $46, and residing in the largest metropolitan market with only 1 NHL franchise (New York's 19,007,000 market population is split among 3 teams, while LA's 12,873,00 split between the Kings & the Ducks), the Blackhawks with a local metro area population of 9,570,000 to draw from (not to mention the latent value of their original six national brand), the hawks still have a lot of room to grow their revenue base.  (To provide a competitive perspective, the hawks metro area population rivals that of division foes Detroit, St. Louis, Nasvhille & Columbus on a combined basis!).

The hawks held the line on ticket price increases this season after a hefty increase prior to last season, and still have the 10th lowest average ticket price in the entire league - exactly half of Toronto's $92 average which is the highest - and lower than teams in hockey hotbeds such as Nashville, Columbus & Florida.  They also have the fourth largest arena capacity (behind Montreal, Detroit & Tampa), which helped the hawks rank 12th overall in gate receipts, despite the low average ticket price.

In terms of Local Revenue per Fan (defined by Forbes as Stadium and local media revenue generated per person in the metro area), the hawks amazingly rank 3rd lowest in the entire NHL with $11 - ahead of only the Islanders & Atlanta and tied with such hockey hotbeds of Florida & Phoenix.  If the hawks were to double their Local Revenue per Fan number, they would still be below the league average, yet their operating revenues would rank them well ahead of Toronto's league leading toal of  $168M.  Matching Detroit's $29/fan (still well below some small market Canadian team numbers of $60 & up) would almost triple their operating revenues and conceivably measurably impact overall league revenues.

Instituting an annual Blackhawk fan convention in the summer in 2008 (an idea which McDonough brought over with him from the Cubs), as well as putting home games on TV (including several available on free over-the-air TV WGN - Channel 9) as well as improving their radio profile by moving to powerhouse station WGN 720 has certainly helped their local visibility, as has the increasing success on the ice, to drive revenues higher, yet the hawks obviously still have a lot more room to grow.  It is hard to believe that the hawks actually had to buy air time from WSCR to broadcast their games a few short years ago.

Perhaps that is John McDonough's secret weapon to maintain or increase hockey related revenues and the accompanying salary cap so that the hawks can better afford those high priced UFA signings & still  keep their young core of RFAs Keith, Kane & Toews together.

On the other hand, talk of locating a second NHL team in Toronto (whether from expansion or relocation) may be a bit misplaced based on a review of Forbes' numbers  - it would appear the much larger Chicago metro area market might be more ripe for exploiting an underserved hockey market than Toronto.

Hawks turn tables, come back to beat Avs in Shootout 3-2

Last Friday, the Blackhawks blew a 2-0 lead, in essence giving up 2 shorthanded goals on the same powerplay and eventually lost to Colorado in a shootout.

Tonight, while the pp went 0 for 2, at least they didn't give up a shortie & be a net minus on the evening, and Cam Barker tied the game early in the 3rd with an impressive individual rush.   Barker skated end to end, picking up a loose puck along the right boards in his own zone, then tipped it past Scott Hannan, who at first looked like he wanted to pinch at the hawk blue line, then backed off, giving Barker an opening to pick up his own chip out & move down the right side on a 2 on 1.   As he moved in toward Anderson he shifted to his backhand, then closing in on goal quickly moved back to his forehand in tight & fired it up high, short side as Anderson had gone down to play the backhand.  It was a terrific display of skill that matched Kane's earlier effort, where #88 also had moved in on Anderson from the right side & found a sliver of room in the top corner with a terrific shot to tie the game at 1.

The game headed for yet another OT, the 3rd time in as many meetings between the two young, fast skating teams this season, and the home team came out on top again, as Patrick Sharp, who had missed on an opportunity to win Friday's shootout, scored the decisive goal on the hawks 3rd shot, making several dekes that got Anderson to go down with Sharp moving to his right, lifting it high over sprawling Anderson's glove.

The hawks had another strong 3rd period, outshooting the Avs 15-3 in coming back to tie, and their 2nd ranked PK was a perfect 4/4 on the night, with John Madden again doing yeomen work, though the hawks are still taking too many unnecessary, undisciplined penalties.  (Unfortunately for Adam Burish, he isn't being missed in the slightest).  The hawks also dominated again in the faceoff circles, winning almost 2 out of every 3 draws.

Colin Fraser had a return engagement with Matt Hendricks just over 2 minutes into the game, and then took on Cody McLeod late in the first, neither bout landing many blows.  Marks to Fraser for showing some spunk, but he isn't going to make anyone forget his namesake,  former hawk Curt Fraser's fighting ability anytime soon.

Huet made some key saves in facing 27 shots over 65 minutes, but also looked weak on the Avs first goal, again leaving room between himself & the post & allowing a shot taken by Avs defenseman Cumisky from behind the goal line to beat him for the game's opening goal (similar to Travis Moen's tieing goal in the dying seconds of the 2nd period of the Montreal game).   He was also fortunate that the Avs hit the post on a couple of occasions - Matt Duchene late in the 3rd with the game tied and then Wojtek Wolski on the first attempt in the shootout.  Wolski had taken a penalty late in OT which couldn't be fully served, yet was still allowed to take a shot in the shootout.  

The hawks earned another win against an above .500 team, evening their record against the better teams to 4-4-1 on the season (with all wins coming at home - 3 in OT including the comeback from 5-0 down vs. Calgary, as well as Monday's win vs. LA).  It was also the hawks' 8th home win on the season, most in the NHL.  Next up is Toronto on Friday with San Jose closing out the week long homestand on Sunday.  With Marian Hossa resuming contact drills in practice, his return could come during the hawks extended 6 game road trip late in the month.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Toews returns & so does Hawks powerplay, beat LA 4-1

Jonathan Toews returned from a concussion after missing 6 games and helped spark the Blackhawks & their powerplay by scoring a pp goal on a subtle tip pass from Troy Bower that left Toews all alone in front of Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, and he promptly deked the LA goaltender to put the hawks up 3-1 early in the 3rd on their way to a 4-1 win.

Brouwer had perhaps his best game as a hawk - springing John Madden early in the 2nd with a quick backhand pass & Madden skated in from the right side & beat a moving Quick between the pads on a nifty backhander to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead.

After Anze Kopitar tied it with his league leading 14th goal, getting in behind Keith & Seabrook in front of the hawks goal and tapping in a loose puck, with Huet out of position from saving a wide open point shot by Doughty, Brouwer then gave the hawks the lead for good early in the 3rd on the hawks first powerplay chance, deftly deflecting Patrick Sharp's wide shot past a startled Quick to put the hawks back up, 2-1.  It clearly was a planned play by Sharp & Brouwer finished it off with some nice handwork.  Sharp also drew an assist on Toews pp goal, digging out the puck from along the boards, where Brouwer was able to tip it forward on to an open Toews for the hawks 2nd pp goal in as many chances.

Andrew Ebbett got credit for the hawks 4th goal when Campbell's deflected shot heading wide bounced into an open net off Ebbet, who was off to the right of Quick & the goal.

But the story of this game was the work of Troy Brouwer along with his powerplay linemates Patrick Sharp & Jonathan Toews, as well as the play of Duncan Keith who assisted on the hawks' first two goals, and was on the ice for the hawks 3rd, another pp goal. (It seems Coach Quenneville had the same thinking expressed on this blog after the Avalanche game - reducing/removing Kopecky & Barker's pp minutes & replacing them with Brouwer & Keith/Seabrook.)  In fact, Keith led all hawks in pp ice time, including Campbell and his even strength ice time was reduced, with Sopel making up much of the difference. 

Cristobal Huet was solid, especially in the first when he made a couple of point blank saves, including stopping Frolov after a brutal Campbell giveaway, but overall he wasn't tested that often as the Kings managed only 18 shots in the game & only 2 in the decisive 3rd period, despite having 3:30 minutes of pp time in the final 20 minutes.

It was an important win for the hawks after dropping their last two - they beat an "above .500" team for only the 3rd time this season & first since their amazing comeback from 5-0 down to Calgary on Oct. 12, all at home.  Their -1 for 3 pp  vs. Colorado last Friday gets an early shot at redemption on Wednesday as the hawks host the Avalanche, and get Toronto at the UC on Friday, followed by the Sharks visiting Chicago Sunday to close out their week long home stand before heading out on their 6 game annual circus road trip.

Jonathan Toews' return was certainly welcome.  Hossa's scheduled insertion into the lineup at some point over the next few weeks will hopefully add similar offensive sparks...

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Hawks blow 2-0 lead, lose 4-3 in Shootout to Avs

The Blackhawks powerplay finally scored, with Dustin Byfuglien playing the right point & firing a blast past Anderson to put the hawks up early on their first pp opportunity, but with a chance to restore a 2 goal lead early in the 2nd, the hawks pp gave up in essence two shorthanded goals on the same penalty to lose the lead & eventually the game.

While the Avs 3rd goal was registered the exact second the penalty expired, technically making it an "even strength" goal, it was for all intents & purposes scored shorthanded, effectively leaving the hawks struggling pp a -1 for 3 on the evening. The hawks did manage to later tie the game on Ladd's 2nd period even strength goal, picking up a loose rebound & beating Anderson & gain a point by taking it to OT, but the pp lapses proved very costly again.

Antii Niemi was victimized on both shorthanded goals, with the second coming on a clear cut breakaway where he was beaten by a late deke & had little chance, however, it was the 3rd goal he had allowed on 8 shots to that point.  Niemi redeemed himself afterwards, stopping all 12 shots in the 3rd, the only period the hawks were outshot & he gave the hawks' shooters 5 separate chances to win the shootout before finally allowing the decisive goal by Chris Stewart.  Versteeg, Sharp, Kopecky, Ladd, Barker and Brouwer could not convert in the shootout & give the hawks a much needed win,

So the father's road trip ends at 0-1-1, and the hawks record against above .500 teams falls to 2-4-1, as they enter a difficult portion of their schedule.  Jonathan Toews missed his 6th straight game & the depth at center was further weakened by Bolland's back preventing him from suiting up.  Nevertheless, despite missing two regular centers, the hawks dominated in the faceoff circle, winning over 60% of the draws, but were again unable to capitalize on gaining possession, particularly on the pp.

Bryan Bickell was called up to fill in for Bolland, but played only just over 8 minutes, registering 1 shot on goal.  Kane & Versteeg assisted on the hawks first two goals, while Fraser & Ladd combined for the hawks tieing 3rd goal.

Barker continues to hurt the team defensively, going -1 despite only 12 minutes of even strength time & 2:22 minutes of pp time.  Thomas Kopecky was also among the leaders in pp minutes again, yet was a -2 on the evening with no points (he only has 1 goal & 1 assist in 15 games so far, despite considerable pp time).  Clearly, it is time for him to be taken off the pp, and someone like Brouwer or Ladd to be given more of an opportunity on the pp.  Similarly, Keith & Seabrook should be getting pp time over Barker & Campbell (who has only 1 pp goal & assist despite getting the most pp minutes of any hawk Dman), though the reason Keith & Seabrook likely aren't is because they already are playing so many minutes at even strength & on the pk against the other team's top lines.  The problem is Barker is not earning his $3M+ cap hit & should be moved. Campbell for that matter isn't earning his lofty $7M+ salary, but moving him is altogether a much more difficult proposition.

Hawks come home for 4 straight, facing LA on Monday, Colorado Wednesday, Toronto Friday & San Jose next Sunday, before heading out for the 6 game annual circus road trip against Western teams. The hawks showed last year that they could often rise to the occasion when challenged & surprise, particularly when it looked like they were becoming vulnerable, however, their goaltending, defensive & offensive depth isn't as strong with the loss of Khabiboulin, Wizniewski, Walker, Johnson & Havlat from last year's team and large questions remain as to how effective Toews will be when he returns, whether Bolland's back will hold up, and how Hossa will respond to the pressure of a monstrous contract that has created great, and perhaps unrealistic expectations (especially given his disappointing showing in the finals last year).

We should have a clearer answer to many of these questions by the end of the month, though they may not necessarily be the answers the hawks are looking for...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Coyotes beat Hawks 3-1

The father's trip started off poorly for the hawks as Phoenix scored two early goals & coasted to a 3-1 win.  Jonathan Toews had his father along with him, unfortunately they were both spectators, sitting in the seats watching.  The loss combined with a Columbus win in Atlanta knocked the Hawks back into a 9th place tie with Detroit. Considering the hawks relatively favorable schedule to start the season after returning from Europe, both in terms of home games & opposition, (only two of their wins have come against teams that are over .500, namely the miraculous comeback from 5-0 over Calgary & the 9 round shootout win vs. Colorado ), the hawks are now going to face more road games & tougher opponents.  Jonathan Toews & Hossa can't return soon enough.

In Glendale, Martin Hanzal scored less than 3 minutes into the game on a shot that somehow managed to get thru Cristobal Huet.   If the hawks had taken advantage of some of the opportunities the Yotes tried to give them via penalties & several breakaway chances & gone on to win, the weak goal on Huet may have been overlooked (like Moen's goal from behind the net in Friday's hawks win over Montreal).  Even worse for Huet, Ilya Bryzgolov was solid at the other end, stopping over 30 shots and stoned the hawks pp, which failed to convert any of their 6 chances, more than twice the number Phoenix had - the hawks did mange to score a shortie on 1 of their 3 pk situations, but failed to gain any momentum from that.

Bryan Campbell was victimized on two of the Phoenix goals and Cam Barker was -2 despite playing only 14 minutes (including over 5 minutes of pp time, 2nd to Campbell's 5:58 pp ice time).  Barker is a defensive liability and when not contributing on the pp, is wasting a lot of cap room on a team that has little of it to spare.

Things don't get easier tonight as the hawks face another team on the rise, the surprising Avalanche who are first in the Western Conference, despite playing 11 of their first 16 games on the road. If that were not bad enough, the Avs are 5-0-0 at home, with the hawks only 2-3 on the road, and those two wins were vs. Florida & Nashville - not exactly tough teams (or places) to play.

As the schedule gets tougher, the spotlight will increasingly focus on Huet, especially if the offense & pp continue to sputter & Toews & Hossa's returns are delayed.