Thursday, December 24, 2009

Hawks shutout Wings again 3-0, move back into 1st in the West

Backstopped by the goaltending of Antti Niemi, who recorded his 4th shutout in only 9 starts, stopping 33 shots, the blackhawks won their last game before the Christmas break to move back atop the Western Conference.

Niemi was much sharper than his performance versus Boston, as Detroit actually outshot the hawks 33-31, and tested Niemi several times, forcing the hawk netminder to make several sparkling saves.

Detroit was again without 10 regulars, including Brian Rafalski who missed the game due to the flu, while the hawks were again missing Barker & Eager.

After a pretty even first period, with neither team being able to break through onto the scoresheet, the wings were caught with too many men late in the period. The penalty carried over to the start of the second and the hawks used the clean sheet of ice to their advantage, with Patrick Kane taking a pass from Bryan Campbell & firing a slapper that beat Howard high glove side with Brouwer providing a solid screen to put the hawks up 1-0. After going 13 games with only 1 goal to show for that stretch, Kane's goal was his second in as many nights, and he also assisted on Toews goal late in the 3rd for his second straight multiple point game, leading the hawks offensively.

The wings hung tough & created several decent chances and with a bounce or two, could have tied the game, before the hawks went up by two early in the 3rd on a goal by Patrick Sharp on a goalmouth scramble while the teams were playing 4 on 4.

Jonathan Toews clinched it with a late goal, picking up a loose puck in the slot & sliding it under Jimmy Howard as the hawks replicated their Sunday score line vs. Detroit this time at Joe Louis arena.

The hawks penalty kill continued to be effective, killing off 6 wings' powerplays, with the hawks pp going 1 for 3, picking up the first goal, and only Kane's 2nd pp goal all season.

All that remained was whether Niemi would get the shutout and he turned aside every shot he faced to improve his record to 8-1-1. The contrast in goaltending from last night to tonight was quite apparent for the hawks as Niemi stoned Detroit as Nabakov did to the hawks the previous night. He again looked more confident & clearly looked "bigger" than Huet had in his previous start and did nothing to quell any looming goaltending controversy.

It is doubtful the hawks could move Huet if they wanted to, and it is unlikely they are looking to even do so given the largely unproven status of Niemi. That said, the longer Niemi puts in performances like this, the more work he is likely to see, and that could pave the way for moving Huet in the off-season.

Hawks schedule doesn't get any easier as they face Nashville in another back to back on the weekend where it is quite likely that Niemi will again get one of the two starts.

It will indeed be a Merry Christmas for the hawks & their fans this year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Sharks bite hawks, 3-2, retake top spot in the West.

The San Jose Sharks relied on outstanding goaltending, solid penalty killing & an opportunistic attack to beat the hawks at the UC, to gain a measure of revenge for their 7-2 thrashing last month in California.

The hawks got an early powerplay and created several chances, but failed to convert and shortly after the expiration of the San Jose penalty, the sharks struck, with Dany Heatley in behind Seabrook on a 3 on 2 break, taking a pass from Dan Boyle and waiting for Huet to go down before lifting it over the hawk netminder's shoulder from a bad angle to end Huet's shutout streak.

The hawks had two more powerplay chances later in the period and outshot San Jose 15-4 overall in the period, but Nabakov was solid in net, turning aside everything he faced.

The hawks ran into some penalty trouble of their own late in the period which offset part of their 3rd powerplay, tho Joe Thornton helped offset a subsequent San Jose powerplay by knocking down Brouwer in the last 10 seconds of the period.

In the second, the hawks got another early powerplay when Jamie McGinn tripped Huet in the crease and got nailed witha goaltender interference call. That occurred moments after Huet was barreled over in his crease off a rush, with no call made. As the play was called for McGinn's penalty, Bryan Bickell & Frazer McLaren started pushing & shoving in the shark zone and dropped the gloves, with McLaren getting Bickell down & his helmet off & landing a few more than he took, tho no major damage was done.

On the ensuing hawk powerplay, the sharks took advantage of a Versteeg turnover at center and broke in two on one, Pavelski & Thornton with Seabrook back. Pavelski flipped a saucer pass over the sliding Seabrook that connected with Thornton, and with Huet again going down early, Thornton simply flipped it high & into the open net, scoring shorthanded to put the sharks up 2-0.

Later, Patrick Sharp took a retaliation penalty after Heatley threw a solid check into him along the right corner boards in the hawk zone. Sharp took exception to the hard hit and punched Heatley and took two for roughing. The hawks managed to kill off the penalty, and were soon on another powerplay of their own, but again could not get one by Nabakov, who was sharp all evening.

Byfuglien later took a goaltender interference penalty as the hawks tried to get to Nabakov - fortunately they were able to kill off the penalty and keep the deficit at 2 heading into the 3rd period, despite outshooting San Jose 11-3 in the 2nd and 26 to 7 in the game to that point.

In the 3rd, the hawks finally got on the scoresheet just over four minutes in after Hossa set up Kane in the slot. Nabakov made the initial save, but gave a rebound & Kane lifted it up high with Nabakov only being able to get a piece of the puck & it was 2-1, game on.

The sharks however responded on the very next shift as they broke in 3 on 2 after a nice outlet pass from their own zone that sprung Thornton & Heatley with Dman Jason Demers jumping up into the play to make it a 3-2. The hawks forwards got a little overanxious to tie it after having just scored and got trapped inside the San Jose zone on the play. After taking a pass from Heatley who was moving down the left side, Thornton found unchecked Demers moving late into the high slot and he fired a shot off the ice that beat Huet stick side and the sharks were up by 2 again, only 20 seconds after the hawks had pulled within one.

On the next shift, Troy Brouwer took a high sticking penalty and the hawks comeback effort was put on hold.

To their credit, the hawks kept pushing forward when they could, tho not as aggressively, respecting the sharks counterattack ability after having been burned with odd man rushes. Over 13 minutes in, they got yet another pp opportunity, their 7th on the night, when Thornton cross-checked Ladd during a scrum in front of the shark net. The hawks pressured on the powerplay but yet again could not beat Nabakov, thus going -1 for 7 on the night with the man advantage.

A couple of minutes later, the two captains got into it and were both sent off with roughing minors, and on the ensuing 4 on 4, the hawks pulled their goaltender, and managed to convert when Kane from his usual spot on the right half boards, found Hossa down low at the goalmouth to the left of Nabakov. Hossa's shot hit a shark defender's stick & somehow found room between Nabakov & the net to make it 3-2 with just under 2 minutes left.

The hawks lost the subsequent faceoff at center and precious seconds off the clock as the sharks were able to control the puck for about 30 seconds before the hawks finally regained possession at their own line and were able to pull Huet for the extra attacker. By then, the penalties to Blake & Toews were pretty much over, making it a more difficult 6 on 5 skater rather than a 5 on 4 situation. The hawks did gain the zone & were able to pressure and threaten, however could not dent the net again and fell 3-2.

The hawks outshot San Jose 21-7 in the 3rd and managed to at least outscore them in the period 2-1, but lost for the first time at home since Nashville beat them 4-1 early in the month. The game can be summed up by the difference in goaltending and the inability of the hawks to convert on the powerplay, even giving up a shorthanded goal, and thus going -1 for 7 with the man advantage.

Despite giving up only 14 shots against the entire game, (the hawks had more than that total in the 1st AND 3rd periods), they still gave up three goals and lost, which will focus the attention on goaltending yet again, after Huet had registered back to back shutouts in his previous two starts.

Huet looked weak on all three goals - and while he made a couple of good saves early in the 3rd to keep his team in the game, giving up 3 questionable goals on 14 shots when his counterpart was playing extremely well at the other end can't help but give some pause for thought whether the goaltending is up to the challenge when faced with tough, pressure tests.

While defensive breakdowns contributed to the goals by allowing odd man rushes against, it is not realistic to think the hawks goalies are never going to face such situations especially against contending teams. Adding to the concern is that Huet did not appear sharp on any of the goals he let in.

On the first shark goal, Keith was in the slot and approaching Heatley, cutting off his opportunity to perhaps move back in front, which effectively limited his options to taking a low angle shot, yet Huet did not appear to recognize that and instead of standing up, playing the limited angle & holding his ground, he went down early, giving Heatley opportunity to simply continue skating to an even sharper angle to find a huge hole up high which he promptly exploited.

On the second goal, it may be more difficult to fault Huet as it was a clear 2 on 1, however, as the play developed, it became clear with Seabrook going down on the ice to prevent the pass, that Pavelski's options were to either shoot high (to get it over Seabrook & avoid having it blocked), or attempt a difficult saucer pass over Seabrook (that would give Huet some time to move over while still remaining upright). Nevertheless when the pass connected with Thornton, Huet went down early again, leaving himself deep in the net & vulnerable up high which is exactly where Thornton flipped the puck, beating him with a crucial shorthanded goal to make it 2-0.

The third goal was another odd man rush, where Huet stayed back in his net, instead of reading the developing play and aggressively challenging it, thus giving the shooter more net to shoot at and Demers found an opening with what looked like a stoppable wrist shot, the first one against after the hawks had just scored - a huge goal to give up.

It wouldn't be fair to place the entire blame on Huet - the hawks offense must also take its share of responsibility for not capitalizing on any of their powerplay opportunities, which would likely have made the difference in the outcome. The powerplay continues to be very inconsistent, too often struggling to convert.

This was a meaningful game - the sharks had played the night before in Dallas and first in the conference was at stake with the schedule getting much less friendly for the hawks. And while they thoroughly outplayed the sharks and perhaps deserved a better result, if they want to lay claim to best in the west, their powerplay and goaltending needs to come up bigger in big games against the top opponents than they did tonight.

The hawks were again without Barker & Eager, though Hendry & Bickell again filled in adequately.

The only good news on the night was that division rival Nashville lost to Vancouver, and thus remained two points back with the hawks having two games in hand.

The hawks next face a rested (tho still hurt) Detroit team to close out the pre-Christmas portion of the schedule before a big home and home weekend with 2nd place Nashville.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Hawks clip broken Wings, 3-0, move into sole possession of 1st in the West.

The blackhawks took advantage of a Detroit team missing 9 regulars due to injury and went on to blank the red wings 3-0 with a solid, workman like performance for their 4th straight win at home, 3 of them shutouts, in front of the biggest crowd of the season at the UC. With the win, the hawks have now beaten every original 6 rival at home this season, something they last accomplished in 1991.

Detroit was missing Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Dan Cleary, Jason Williams, Valteri Filppula, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson & Andreas Lilja, all injured, several of them out longer term.

They also lost the likes of Hossa, Hudler, Samuelson, Kopecky, Chelios & Ty Conklin in the off-season to UFA, so their experience and depth isn't nearly what it was & thus it isn't surprising that Detroit is struggling simply to get & stay in the top 8 in the Western Conference this season.

And to top it off, Detroit played yesterday in Dallas & had to travel, while the hawks were resting up waiting for them in Chicago, so there was an expectation that the hawks had the clear upper hand against their original six rival heading into tonight's game, even though they were missing Barker & Eager who were originally hurt in the St. Louis game. Nik Hjalmarsson returned after missing the Boston game, while Jordan Hendry suited up for Barker and Bryan Bickell was called up again to replace Eager.

The hawks showed a lot of jump early, going on the attack with Sopel drawing a hooking minor on Maltby just over 3 minutes in, but the hawks were unable to capitalize (Detroit had killed 36 of their last 37 penalties) and just before the penalty expired, Patrick Kane took a tripping minor that nullified the remainder of the powerplay & gave Detroit one.

The wings were unable to generate much on their own pp and like the hawks, ended up taking a penalty to nullify their man advantage, with Bertuzzi caught holding Toews.

The hawks had the better of the 4 on 4, with Campbell getting two good chances, the first set up by Sharp as the hawk dman moved in off his point position for a point blank shot and moments later Versteeg cut into the slot before passing to Campbell at the left side of the wing goal.

A minute after Kane's penalty expired, the hawks struck, with Versteeg moving in to the zone down the right side & taking a pass from Toews, but missing the net on a snap shot from the top of the right circle. The puck went back to Toews along the left boards and he sent it back to Keith at the left point. Keith "walked the line" to the middle of the ice & fired a shot that appeared to deflect off a Detroit defenseman's stick and over Osgood's glove and the hawks powerplay had them up 1-0 early in the first.

The hawks continued to go to the attack, having a 7-0 shot advantage over half way through the first. The Wings finally got their first shot on goal over 13 minutes in, and tested Huet late in the 1st when Leino cut in on a partial break, forcing Huet into making a good glove save while doing the splits.

The hawks seemed to take their foot off the gas in the last 5 minutes of the 1st, as Detroit put together a couple of good shifts in the hawks zone, with the hawks blocking 5 shots while Huet stopped 4 others, including Leino's chance.

The second period started much like the first, with the hawks jumping on the wings - Kane stealing the puck at center and moving into the zone, using the "Savardian spin-o-rama" at top speed to elude the dman in the circle and get a good scoring chance from in close, but his backhand missed the target just over a minute in.

Just over 6 minutes in, the wings were caught with too many men - the hawks powerplay controlled the play in the Detroit zone & created several good chances, but missed the target a couple of times. They continued to hem Detroit in their own zone after the penalty, forcing an icing call though the wings were eventually able to change with no damage done.

Perhaps the turning point of the game came a few minutes later, when Abdelkader attempted to throw a hit on Patrick Sharp behind the hawks net, but got the worst of it as Sharp braced for the hit & ended up shouldering Abdelkader to the ice. Abdelkader got up and went after Sharp again as the play headed to the corner, with Sharp again bracing for the hit and denying Abdelkader a big hit, though a scuffle ensued, with some minor pushing & shoving.

Ironically, Sharp was the only one called for a penalty, when it appeared that Abdelkader could have picked up an interference (and a roughing) penalty. Replays further revealed that Detroit actually had 6 skaters active on the ice during the Sharp Abdelkader exchanges, nevertheless it was the hawks who found themselves shorthanded with only a 1-0 lead.

The wings managed just 1 shot on goal during their pp, and after the penalty expired, Sharp went to work. After registering a shot on goal & a takeaway on returning to the ice from the penalty box, he threw a hit at center on his 2nd shift back, then shortly afterwards, led a rush from his own blue line down the left wing into the Detroit zone together with Ladd & Hossa, as Campbell jumped up as the trailer on the play. As Ladd drove to the net, he took a wing dman with him, with another wing defender taking Hossa on the right side and a 3rd defender taking Sharp, leaving the late incoming Campbell open & after taking Sharp's pass, #51 had a wide open lane to the net & skated into it deep in the left faceoff circle before firing a shot that beat Osgood between the legs and the hawks were up by 2-0.

After a couple of strong shifts by the 1st & 4th lines, where Bickell rang one off the post to the right of Osgood, the hawks had the clear momentum as the period wound down, and took command when Byfuglien later worked the give & go with Madden, taking a return feed at center and moving in over the blue line and beating Osgood on a 40 foot snap shot to make it 3-0. Babcock afterwards indicated the two late 2nd period goals effectively killed the wings' chances, sapping any energy they may have had. The hawks outshot Detroit 14 to 5 in the 2nd.

To start the 3rd, a minor scuffle erupted beteen Versteeg & Datsyuk at the players' benches, with both players assessed offsetting minor roughing penalties. It was apparent that Detroit wanted to step up their hitting, perhaps to send a message for the Wednesday rematch, as Stuart, Abdelkader & Meech all followed Datsyuk's lead, throwing hits on Sharp, Ladd & Madden. Shortly afterwards, Drew Miller got off a one-handed shot on goal on a rush where he partially eluded Seabrook but Huet made the save.

The physical play continued throughout the period, as Hjalmarsson caught the speedy Helm a bit off balance with a shoulder deep in the hawks' zone that sent Helm heavily into the boards. Later in the 3rd, Abdelkader caught Kane with a clean left shoulder as Kane was cutting across the slot, that sent the hawk forward flying - on the ensuing play, Toews nailed Abdelkader along the boards behind the net, with Abdelkader grabbing a hold of Toews, perhaps thinking the hawk captain wanted to challenge him for hitting Kane. Instead, Abdelkader was assessed a minor for holding, effectively killing two more minutes off the clock.

The hawks' Ladd & wings' Bertuzzi were each given misconducts late in the 3rd, as Bertuzzi looked to be trying to antagonize Sharp, who appeared to be a target of the wings all night. Ladd moved in to apparently come to his linemate's defense, and the next thing he knew, he, along with Bertuzzi, were heading for the showers.

Abdelkader continued to throw the body when he got out of the box, but that was the extent of Detroit's feeble response as the hawks skated off with the shutout win.

Without Zetterberg, the hawks not surprisingly dominated the face-off circle, winning over 64% of the draws and helping their puck possession game. While hard to accurately measure the hawks play given that Detroit was decimated with injuries, it is clear the hawks did what they had to do, not taking the wings lightly and got an important two points.

They finish off their 5 game homestand vs. San Jose on Tuesday before heading to Detroit to finish their pre-Christmas schedule.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hawks post back to back shutouts, blank St. Louis 3-0

The blackhawks recorded their league-leading 5th shutout of the season, while Patrick Kane assisted on all three goals as Chicago beat division rival St. Louis at the UC in their first meeting of the season, 3-0 on Stan Mikita night.

The hawks have now not given up a goal in their last 171 minutes & 33 seconds at the UC, since Chris Higgins scored for the rangers in the 1st period of the hawks 2-1 OT win a week ago.

The blues actually started well, outshooting the hawks 7-2 in the first five minutes of the first, having two more shots blocked and missing the net on yet another. But then the tide turned, with the hawks taking over, eventually drawing a penalty on Perron for interference. Though they didn't score on the powerplay, the hawks seemed to gain further momentum, and about a minute after the expiration of the penalty, they put one on the board, with Kane & Toews cycling the puck deep in the St. Louis zone, eventually finding Brouwer up high on the right side. Brouwer fired a long shot on net, that deflected off blues defenseman Barret Jackman and somehow found room between Conklin's legs, to make it 1-0 Chicago. It was Brouwer's first point in 9 games, after he had picked up 9 points in his previous 8 games.

About a minute later, the hawks' powerplay got another opportunity when Brad Winchester interfered with Bryan Campbell. This time, Campbell made the blues pay by firing a snap shot from the point that found the net with Kris Versteeg screening Conklin on the play.

The hawks ultimately outshot the blues 21-9 in the period, an amazing stat considering the shots on goal after the first 5 minutes.

The blues started the second the way they had started the first - outshooting the hawks 6-1 in the first 10 minutes, though the hawks had two separate 2 on 0 breaks where they failed to convert - Versteeg & Byfuglien and later Madden & Versteeg, both, however missing great chances. Late in the 2nd, the blues Crombeen was sent in alone but Huet made a good save to keep it 2-0. A minute or so later, the blues got a powerplay opportunity when Versteeg was sent off for hooking, but St. Louis couldn't capitalize and shortly after the expiration of the penalty, the hawks scored their 3rd goal with Toews gaining control of the puck behind the blues net & skating to the other side of the net, found Hossa alone in the slot for a one timer that beat Conklin between the legs.

The hawks essentially coasted the rest of the way, with the help of some bone-crunching hits by Dustin Byfuglien. It seemed the blues finally tired of being at the receiving end of big #33's hits for most of the game, with Crombeen & Winchester both going after Byfuglien after he nailed Jackman late in the 3rd, with all three receving roughing minors. After Crombeen had served his minor, he returned to the ice and got involved again with some extracurricular activity when Sopel came to the aid of Huet after Cam Janssen got into a scuffle with the hawk netminder. Eager then challenged Crombeen, with Jackman jumping in the middle of that scrap. When all was said & done, Eager, Jansen & Jackman received 10 minute misconducts.

Hawk defenseman Cam Barker left the game early in the 3rd & did not return. Coach Quenneville indicated after the game that it was a lower body injury but not believed to be serious. Keith Tkachuk was a healthy scratch for St. Louis.

With the win, the hawks moved into sole possession of 2nd place in the western conference, two points behind Los Angeles with four games in hand. They get ready to face the rejuvenated Boston Bruins at the UC on Friday in another original 6 matchup.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hawks go 0 for 7 on the pp, but still manage to beat Lightning 4-0

The blackhawks powerplay woes continue, failing to convert three separate 5 on 3s during the game, including two in the first period, against the 28th ranked pk no less, but still managed to score 4 even strength goals on their way to their 20th win of the season.

Anti Niemi registered his 3rd shutout in just his 7th start of the season, stopping 18 shots, though he faced several good scoring chances, especially early in the game, from Martin St.Louis and Steve Stamkos.

About 5 minutes into the first, Hossa had a glorious chance to open the scoring when he & Kane worked a nice give & go down the right side with Hossa penetrating the zone, then dropping a pass back for the oncoming Kane. Hossa then moved to the slot, and Kane found him wide open by sliding a nice backhand pass between two defenders. Hossa, with time & space, moved to his left as he patiently waited for Nittymaki to go down, leaving Hossa with an open net, however his shot along the ice was stopped by Tampa's Zenon Konopka getting his stick down on the goal line just in time.

On Kane's next shift, he did open the scoring on "Patrick Kane Bobblehead" night, taking a pass from Duncan Keith at center after Keith had intercepted a breakout pass. Kane moved in from the right wing and blistered a wrist shot off the far post & in, beating Nittymaki stick side for his first goal in 10 games, though he had 6 assists over that stretch.

The lightning had a chance to tie seconds after the ensuing faceoff when St. Louis was sent in alone. Apparently wishing to imitate Hossa's earlier move on Nittymaki, St.Louis waited for Niemi to make the first move, but Niemi stood his ground & stopped a fairly weak shot attempt.

A few minutes later, on a subsequent hawk powerplay, Kane was injured & left the game. With Ohlund already off for hooking, Matt Smaby followed Kane into the corner & with his stick took Kane's right skate out from underneath him, causing him to fall awkwardly to the ice. Kane was unable to brace himself, with his shoulder hitting the ice hard, along with his helmeted head. He stayed down on the ice, grasping his forehead, which sustained a cut above his left eye, when his visor apparently hit the ice. Kane left the game & did not return, though Quenneville suggested after the game it wasn't too bad beyond the few stitches he took.

The hawks failed to capitalize on the subsequent 5on3 or 5on4 pp and could not score despite having over 4 straight minutes of powerplay time, including 1:53 minutes where they had a two man advantage. What is particularly disconcerting is the lack of urgency & imagination shown on the powerplay - shots from the point on a 5 on 3 seemed wasted, especially when they failed to get thru and when the opportunity to isolate at least one open man down low for an optimal scoring chance would seem readily achievable to the talented group the hawks can put on the ice. Even more puzzling is how they can create good chances at even strength, but appear to fail to create chances of similar quality with the man advantage. The only explanation is that they aren't bearing down enough & don't have the same urgency with the man advantage as they do at even strength, which is not a good attribute for a team with as high aspirations as the hawks have.

Hawk's Brouwer had a good point blank chance to open the second, but was stoned by Nittymaki. The hawks then got into some penalty trouble of their own, taking three consecutive minors early in the 2nd, including 18 seconds where they were down two men, however, thanks to Niemi, they were able to keep Tampa off the score sheet. Between Tampa powerplays, Niemi made a couple of sparkling point blank saves on James Wright, about 5 minutes into the period. Niemi also was fortunate as Stamkos rung one off the right post that could have tied it and changed the complexion of the game.

Halfway through the 2nd, Hossa chased down a loose puck that was dumped into Tampa's right corner with former hawk Matt Walker & 2nd overall pick Victor Hedman back to defend for the lightning. A communication breakdown between the two defenders however, allowed Hossa to get to the puck in the corner uncontested, and neither dman covered the front of the net either, where Eager was headed. Eager took Hossa's centering backhand pass & fired it past a sprawling Nittymaki on his stick side, to make it 2-0. Hedman, who appeared to be taking Hossa as he skated into the Tampa zone, hesitated & backed off for a split second, and that moment of indecision caused Walker to vacate the front of the net, in an apparent attempt to switch coverages with Hedman, however, they both ended up between Hossa & Eager, not covering either hawk.

Later, it appeared that Smaby and Eager got into a bit of shouting match, and shortly afterwards, Konopka challenged Eager to a fight - Eager was able to land a couple of rights, one of which seemed to stagger Konopka, who recovered his footing while Eager lost his, and Konopka ended up on top of the hawk forward, tho no further damage was done. Each got assessed majors for their trouble.

In the last minute, the chippiness continued, as Smaby, who had taken Kane's skates out from underneath him in the first, nailed Jonathan Toews in the slot in front of Nittymaki after the hawk captain had fired a shot on goal. While the hit was high, it appeared to be a clean though perhaps late shoulder that sent the hawk captain flying. Toews, off balance, fell heavily & awkwardly to the ice head first, with his helmet also flying off. As Toews got up, he went after Ohlund, who happened to be the closest Tampa player, with Toews perhaps thinking it was Ohlund (& not Smaby) who had nailed him, and they both got roughing minors for their shoving match. (Later in the 3rd period, Toews lined up Smaby in the Tampa corner, putting a solid hit on him, presumably sending a message that he wasn't backing down or going away.)

On the ensuring 4on4, Patrick Sharp's cross-ice pass attempt to Hossa on the left side of the Tampa zone deflected off a defender's stick high into the air. Hossa appeared to glove the puck away from the other Tampa dman and to his left, down toward the ice, and proceeded to bat it out of mid-air with his stick and in behind a surprised Nittymaki to make it 3-0. A pretty nifty display of hand-eye coordination on the part of Hossa, though it also appeared that he actually caught the puck with his glove and then moved it away from the Tampa defender before dropping it, which could have been a penalty for putting his glove/hand over the puck. That said, no one from the Tampa side put up an argument on the play, so the goal stood.

Tampa actually outshot the hawks in the second period, 9-7, however were outscored 2-0 and down by 3 heading into the 3rd.

Just over 5 minutes into the 3rd, Toews & Byfuglien combined for the hawks' final goal, with Toews leading Byfuglien with a pass down the right wing. Byfuglien moved into the zone & fired a shot on net, with Nittymaki giving a big rebound that Toews promptly got to first as he drove to the net, and deposited behind Nittymaki to make it 4-0.

With the game now out of reach, the lightning seemed more interested in extracting a pound of flesh, with Downie, Smaby & Fedoruk taking minor penalties, the latter for falling on top of Niemi with just over a minute left, which also earned him a 10 minute misconduct. That caused a scrum around the hawk goal, tho no further damage was done.

On the Smaby penalty, Brouwer got a partial breakaway, with Hedman back - he managed to get a shot off, tho Hedman reached around to try to poke the puck away with his stick, eventually losing it and turning Brouwer around. Brouwer was generously awarded a penalty shot, tho his wrister was right at Nittymaki's blocker and he made a routine save.

Then on the Fedoruck penalty, Versteeg was robbed of a goal as Nittymaki just barely got to a rolling puck on the goal line with his stick, after Versteeg's shot had trickled through the Tampa goaltender. The puck was cleared to the corner, where Hedman elbowed Versteeg for yet another Tampa penalty that gave the hawks another brief two man advantage, in which they threatened but failed to put one behind Nittymaki.

While the hawks did manage to score 4 at even strength, their failure to take advantage of opportunities, particularly 5on3s, is troubling. Their lack of bearing down & urgency is also evident in the defensive zone, where they again made several unforced turnovers after having possession, which gave Tampa more opportunities than they should have had. Fortunately, Niemi was sharp, particularly with the game still in doubt, or the outcome might have been different.

With the win, the hawks move 4 points up on idle Nashville in the tough Central division, and two points back of LA & SJ, who are tied each with 45 points and 34 games played. Colorado jumped into 2nd in the conference (& first in the Northwest) with a win over Calgary, leaving the flames in 5th with 42 points, one behind Chicago, tho the hawks have a game in hand.

It is clear that the western conference is even tougher this year, when you consider that 5 teams currently in playoff positions didn't even make the playoffs last year.

The hawks homestand continues on Wednesday against St. Louis, the hawks first meeting this year against the blues. The hawks will honor Stan Mikita (again).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hawks power outage continues, lose to Buffalo 2-1

The blackhawks have scored only 4 goals in regulation in their past 4 games, amazingly managing to win two of them in 4 on 4 OT by 2-1 scores, however, they were unable to convert on any of their 3 pp chances vs. Buffalo & could only manage to beat backup goalie Patrick Lalime once to drop to 3-3-1 in their past 7 games. Since routing SJ 7-2, a game that featured Marian Hossa's debut as a blackhawk, the hawks have scored only 8 goals in regulation during that stretch, with Hossa scoring only once since his 2 goal debut vs. the sharks.

It may be premature to sound the alarm, but the coincidental timing of the scoring drought with Hossa's arrival in the lineup has to be disconcerting, since he was supposed to make the offensive-minded hawks even more potent. Instead, the hawks have struggled to score, even on the pp, where they have gone 4 for 24 during the past 7 games - a 16.7% clip - which has dropped them to 9th ranked in the league.

Considering the high-salaried fire power on the team, that is simply not good enough. A potent powerplay not only helps during a man advantage, but it causes the opposition to be more wary of taking penalties, thus potentially opening up more room for the fast skating, free-wheeling hawks at even strength 5 on 5 or 4 on 4. One has to wonder whether the 20 minutes of ice time now going to Hossa every night that used to be allotted to other players is causing the rest of the team to not be as sharp or focused in games.

Tonight, the hawks came out with good jump to start the game - drawing a couple of early Buffalo penalties and peppering their former teammate Lalime with a lot of rubber. They managed to get 8 shots on their second powerplay alone, including a couple of point blank chances by Toews and a couple of one-timers by Seabrook that tested Lalime, but he was solid and equal to the task.

After Buffalo was able to weather the early storm, thanks mainly to Lalime's efforts, they seemed to regroup for the last half of the first, getting a powerplay of their own, when Byfuglien was called for high-sticking. During one sequence, the hawks gained possession in their own zone three separate times, but failed to clear. Keith & Madden, normally solid when it comes to defensive zone play, particularly during a pk, both failed to clear when they had a chance. Even when Huet could have frozen the puck to allow the hawks to regroup & change, he failed to do so, giving Buffalo yet another opportunity on the same long shift. Fortunately for the hawks they were eventually able to kill off the penalty & clear the zone with no damage incurred, however, it appeared that the Sabres gained some confidence after being under siege for much of the period.

That added Buffalo confidence carried over to start the second, as the Sabres took it to the hawks, outshooting them 17-7 and outscoring them 2-0, including a powerplay goal early in the period. The hawks' penalty was directly attributable to again having possession in their own zone but failing to clear the zone. Cam Barker had the puck deep in the hawk left corner with time & space, as no Buffalo forechecker was near. Instead of moving the puck up himself, he sent it up the boards to Sharp who was covered by a pinching Montador. The Buffalo dman gained position with Sharp putting an arm on him, drawing the holding call. Sharp complained that Montador had embellished the play by falling down onto the ice, trying to make it appear that Sharp had tackled him, but the refs weren't buying.

On the ensuing powerplay, the Sabres eventually set up Connolly for a one-time point shot which Huet saved, but gave a rebound, with only Vanek in front for the Sabres & Sopel & Hjalmarsson for the hawks. Despite being outnumbered, Vanek nevertheless got to the loose puck first, Sopel & Hjalmarsson both failing to take either Vanek or the puck from in front and Vanek, once he gained possession, made no mistake, beating Huet, who was a bit slow to recover after going down on the initial save.

The hawks had their chances to tie it in the 2nd, with Hossa turning the afterburners on to beat Myers to a loose puck at center and skated in alone shorthanded, but Lalime stopped him. Brouwer also had a great scoring chance when he was set up with a point blank chance in the slot but missed the net. Late in the second, the sabres added to their lead when Keith had possession in the left corner of the hawks zone & fired it around the boards up the right side, however, Hossa was already out at center, thus leaving the right boards open and the puck was turned over to incoming Kennedy. Kennedy promptly found McArthur moving into the slot, having beaten his man Kopecky back, and despite not getting good wood on the bouncing puck, still managed to bank it off the post & in behind a sprawled Huet to make it 2-0.

The hawks came out quickly in the third and scored on their first shift, with Hjalmarsson making the play happen by pinching in and throwing a solid hit on Pominville to prevent him from clearing Rivet's outlet pass. The loose puck went to Kane in the left corner, who quickly spotted Sharp cruising unchecked into the slot. Lalime managed to get a piece of Sharp's shot, but not enough and the hawks were in business with Sharp's 100th goal as a hawk. They continued to control most of the play, as Buffalo seemed to lay back to try to protect the lead, allowing Kane at one point to gain the zone with the Sabre dmen backing in. Kane managed to get off a good wrister that was headed for the top right hand corner that Lalime snagged with his glove. The hawks managed to get another pp opportunity shortly afterwards when Derrick Roy was sent off for hooking, however, they failed to capitalize.

An inopportune high stick by Byfuglien midway thru the final period stalled the hawks attacking mode and a questionable penalty to Keith for hooking (where it appeared the Buffalo player actually grabbed the hawk dman's stick from him) essentially sealed the hawks fate.

Despite outshooting Buffalo 16-5 in the third, the hawks couldn't beat Lalime more than once, as Lalime stopped 39 of 40 hawk shots on the night, while Huet faced 33 Buffalo shots, making several good saves, including chances created off hawk turnovers, to keep the hawks in it.

Patrick Kane looked his usual dangerous self throughout, though also seemed to press a bit, perhaps trying to do too much by himself in his hometown. To his credit, he faced media questions about his summer incident before the game and said the right things. He has shown more maturity on the ice so far this season as well. Nevertheless, he wasn't given the same welcome by the fans that he got his first game in Buffalo, as a smattering of boos could be heard throughout the game whenever he (& former sabre Bryan Campbell, who refused to re-sign with Buffalo a few years ago) controlled the puck.

The hawks next 5 games are all at home, starting Sunday vs. Tampa Bay, followed by St. Louis, Boston, Detroit & San Jose then playing in Detroit the next night before the Christmas break. It would certainly be a good time for the hawks to break out of their scoring drought to take some pressure off their goaltending, and gain some confidence as they look ahead to a busy January schedule with 11 road games of the 15 in the month.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Hawks work overtime to beat Rangers 2-1

Henrik Lundquist and his New York Ranger teammates made the hawks work overtime, but thanks to five power play chances (to only 1 for New York) and sustained pressure that resulted from those man advantages, the hawks were finally able to tie the game late in the 3rd and go on to win it in OT.

Despite the low score line, the game featured lots of action and good scoring chances, mostly created by the hawks. The hawks started the 1st period with good jump, getting several good chances and firing three shots on net in the first minute & a half, only to be thwarted by Lundquist's superb goaltending. Later, they were unable to convert an early pp opportunity, registering only 1 official shot on goal, and as often is the case, the team being outplayed ends up scoring on their first good opportunity.

The rangers took advantage of a fortuitous bounce off the glass as they attempted to clear the zone to make a change. The hawks were also looking to change after a long shift, with Hossa, Seabrook & Keith staying on after noticing that the rangers had gotten possession and were moving up ice, however Toews & Versteeg were caught deep when the puck bounced right to Gaborik at center ice.

Rozsival, sensing the developing opportunity to catch the hawks in a change, jumped up from his defense position, skating down the right side & took Gaborik's lead pass, with Gaborik then following Rozsival down the right side while Higgins & Drury moved into the hawk zone from the left side, both coming off the ranger bench before the hawks could replace Toews & Versteeg.

The hawks still looked in reasonable position, having Keith, Seabrook & Hossa back, but as the play developed, Rozsival dropped the puck back to Gaborik at the top of the right circle and headed for the net with Keith in his path, effectively neutralizing the hawk Dman. That gave Gaborik time & space to move into the slot area, while Seabrook started to focus on him & come out to challenge, with Hossa still backing in deeper, focusing on Gaborik & not Higgins streaking down the open left side.

Hossa's defensive lapse gave Higgins plenty of room and Gaborik led him with a perfect pass in the left faceoff circle & Higgins wristed it up high past Huet and the rangers found themselves up 1-0 despite being outshot 8-3 to that point.

The hawks continued to press the remainder of the period, including a good part of the last two minutes with a 4 on 4, but could not solve Lundquist, who came up big in the dying seconds, first on a screened point shot by Seabrook and on the rebound by Versteeg.

The hawks opened up the 2nd period the way they had ended the first, creating another excellent scoring chance when Versteeg picked up the puck in the right corner behind the ranger goal line, spotting Hossa open in front in the process, and setting him up point blank but Lundquist made yet another sparkling right skate save, robbing Hossa. Midway through the 2nd, the hawks got another good chance after a turnover at the ranger line. Madden somehow managed to beat the defender & found Ladd in the slot & he fired a high wrist shot headed for the top right hand corner but Lundquist fought it off with his glove. Late in the 2nd, Madden with more fine board work after taking a feed from Ladd found Hossa moving into an open slot area from the left side & Hossa was robbed point blank yet again by Lundquist. The hawks outshot the rangers 14-10 in the 2nd, with the teams each having a pp opportunity late in the period.

Early in the 3rd, the hawks went to the attack again, but with greater urgency. Campbell, looking as if to shoot from the right point, fired a hard pass that was deflected in front by Sharp, who raised his stick believing he had beaten Lundquist, yet the ranger goalie reacted not only to make the save but did not give a rebound with Brouwer parked on his doorstep as a screen, ready to pounce on any loose puck.

The rangers then ran into penalty trouble as the hawks continued to press, desperately trying to get a goal. Anisimov took a penalty in the neutral zone for tripping Patrick Kane, though arguably it was a bit of a marginal call in that Kane went down fairly easily. Nevertheless, the rangers managed to kill it off with the hawks failing to even direct a shot at the net.

Two minutes after having killed off Anisimov's penalty, the rangers Rozsival took another minor for high-sticking Brouwer in the ranger zone. The hawks this time created more chances but missed the target several times, and had another blocked, but the best chance came when Campbell fired a shot from the left point that was tipped by Byfuglien in front & eluded Lundquist only to hit the crossbar & stay out.

At this point, the ranger net was literally under siege and less than a minute and a half after they killed their 2nd minor of the period, they got another one to Girardi for tripping Kane in the defensive zone - perhaps another marginal call.

The hawks proceeded to storm the ranger net, and finally got one past Lundquist. Kane working the right half boards, found Hossa at the right side of the net. Hossa moved in close & tried to jam the puck past Lundquist and was stopped, but the puck remained loose in the crease, while Hossa, Toews, Kane & Sharp, off the left point, all converged on the blue ice. After it appeared that Toews jammed at the loose puck in the crease, it squirted in front to Sharp and somehow Lundquist, who had gone down to stop Hossa's stuff attempt, managed to move over to stop Sharp's point blank shot, however, the puck remained loose in the crease, with Hossa & Toews both taking jabs at it, with Toews finally connecting with his backhand to chip it over a sprawled Lundquist to tie the game.

After tying it, the hawks seemed to take their foot off the gas, perhaps wanting to preserve at least a hard fought point rather than risk losing what they had fought most of the evening to get - back to even on the scoreboard. They managed only 1 more shot on net in the 3rd after the goal.

Given Lundquist's shootout record, however, it was in the hawks' best interests to try to win in regulation or in the OT. They managed to open the OT with a couple of chances, but didn't seriously threaten. Late in the OT, the rangers created a couple of good chances of their own, however Drury's deflection from in close on a point shot was denied by Huet, with the rebound going to Prospal in the slot. Prospal's shot hit Keith's skate & bounced out to the high slot, past both Byfuglien & Gaborik.

Both players gave chase with Byfuglien using a bit of a stiff-arm on Gaborik to gain position and propel himself forward, picking up the loose puck with Gilroy the lone ranger Dman back. Byfuglien turned outside, continuing to drive his legs to pick up speed, while catching Gilroy a bit flat footed, later saying he knew they had been on a long shift & tried to take advantage of their being tired. Byfuglien proceeded to blow by Gilroy with the normally speedy Gaborik racing back down center to try to prevent the big hawk from cutting back inside but to no avail. Byfuglien had blown by both ranger defenders and cut in on Lunquist lifting a backhand over the sprawling netminder to give the hawks a thrilling OT win.

In a way, you had to feel for Lundquist who had come within 5 minutes from single handedly making 1 goal stand up for the win. He was simply brilliant the entire game with the rangers having the misfortune of getting 3 times as many penalties and five times the number of powerplays called against them than the hawks did. Lundquist made 39 saves on 41 shots, a save percentage of over .950, with many of those shots from in close, representing scoring chances. He almost got the rangers to the shootout, where his record is even more impressive.

With their 3rd OT win in their last 4 games, the hawks moved back into a tie for 2nd in the conference (& 4th overall), 3 points behind SJ, with 3 games in hand.

Their special teams continue to come through for them - not only the 4 on 4 in OT, but their powerplay as well. Huet in contrast to Lundquist, faced only 18 shots the entire game but came through when he had to. The hawks next play in Buffalo on Friday, with Patrick Kane returning to his hometown for the first time since being arrested over the summer, then have their next 5 at home before finishing their pre-Christmas schedule in Detroit on the 23rd.

With the favorable schedule, the hawks have a chance to position themselves well for the holiday break and for the upcoming road games in January.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hawks win a thriller in Pittsbugh, ice Pens 2-1 in OT

Anti Niemi managed to shut out the Stanley Cup champs for 58 minutes & 28 seconds on their home ice, making several sparkling saves in the process, after Marian Hossa had put the hawks up 1-0 early in the first, however, a fortuitous bounce off of Madden or Keith on a point shot by Malkin, with the Fleury on the bench, went right to Jordan Staal, the extra attacker, and with Niemi out in his crease to play the original shot, Staal had essentially an open net to tie the game late & send it to OT.

In the 4 on 4 OT, the teams looked a bit tentative & perhaps tired, after entertaining their audience with an exciting and well played game that featured plenty of hitting, good scoring chances, excellent goaltending and a bit of a physical edge. The Pens seemed to lay back a bit more in OT than the hawks though, perhaps content that they had managed to tie it late & salvage a point, and the hawks took advantage, creating a couple of chances off of dangerous looking odd man rushes arising out of turnovers that finally paid off when Campbell picked the puck up after his initial shot was blocked, then moved in deep into the left corner, laying it in front of Fleury with Versteeg at his doorstep. Versteeg's first shot was stopped, but he managed to quickly pick up his own rebound & with his long stick move it away from Fleury & fire it into the opening before Fleury had a chance to react, to clinch a big win for the hawks.

While the hawks worked hard and played well, it was Niemi who was the story of the game, especially in the 2nd period which the pens controlled, outshooting the hawks 17 to 6 (and 33-31 on the game), even without Sydney Crosby, who sat out the game with a bad groin. Niemi was sharp from the start, making several big saves, and managing the puck well as the pens tested the rookie often and from everywhere on the ice.

He hasn't played many games compared to Huet so far, but when he is in the net, he seems to exude more confidence than the hawks #1, reading plays better and making quick and good decisions managing the puck in terms of where to steer rebounds out of danger areas or when to cover up at the end of a shift. If he continues to play this way, he is bound to see more action and may even challenge for the starting job, which may afford the hawks the opportunity to move Huet & his $5M+ cap hit after the season.

Niemi made a point blank save off of Kennedy in the 2nd, and a brilliant stop off Gonchar (who had hit the post earlier in the period) late in the second after the Pittsburgh dman moved in off the point, eluding Kane on a 4 on 4, to take a cross-ice pass and fire a point blank shot that Niemi managed to stop with his right leg pad. He made several good saves with his blocker, as well as his glove, stoning Malkin & Guerin in succession. Guerin perhaps frustrated, blasted one off Niemi's upper body late in the 1st to try to intimidate the hawk goalie, though he brushed it off with no noticeable ill effects. Niemi also caught some breaks with a couple shots ringing off the post behind him, and Staal just missing an open net earlier in the 3rd after being left unchecked in the slot.

The game started off with some big physical hits, with the pens clearly looking to get in on the hawks mobile defense and slow them down, not giving them a chance to activate their transition game. The pens registered 7 hits in the first two & a half minutes, but also took a couple of early penalties, with Orpik going off 33 seconds after the pens had killed off an interference penalty to Cooke.

Cooke on his return to the ice caught Keith with a high hit behind the hawk net on the hawks 2nd powerplay, and Keith didn't take long to retaliate, blindsiding Cooke with a high hit of his own on the same shift deep in the pens zone, that sent Cooke flying and negated the hawks' powerplay. Cooke pleaded his case for a major penalty for a clear hit to the head, however, Keith was assessed a minor for interference. Half a minute later on the 4 on 4, after Malkin had nailed Seabrook with a heavy hit in the hawk zone along the boards, the hawks managed to strike, with Hossa knocking down a high rebound from a Campbell shot from the left circle & firing the puck into the net behind Fleury before running into the crossbar & knocking the net off its moorings. 1-0 Chicago.

A few minutes later, the pens sent out their 4th line of Rupp, Goddard and former hawk Craig Adams against the hawks 4th line, with Sopel & Barker out as well. A scuffle ensued with Rupp going after Sopel, and drawing the extra minor with Eager also going off, however, the hawks again couldn't convert on the pp.

More hits ensued later in the period, with Orpik catching Toews with a high hit at center, though Toews appeared no worse for wear. In the second, former hawk Adams anticipating Campbell's spinorama move in his own zone, caught him as he turned his back towards him, sending Campbell flying. Late in the second, Malkin & Fraser got into it, with Malkin effectively pinning the hawk to the ice in a move that resembled a WWF position & cross-checking him while down. Both players received minor penalties. At the end of the second, the pens' Talbot went after Byfuglien who continued into the zone after the buzzer, but no harm was done. Regulation ended with more pushing & shoving in the pens corner, tho no penalties were assessed.

Hossa, who was booed by pens fans each time he touched the puck, played perhaps his best game as a hawk, being a physical presence as well as creating chances and also coming back hard on the back-check, stick-checking the puck away from a Pittsburgh player from behind in the neutral zone, and thereby thwarting a rush attempt. He also stripped the puck off Malkin in the neutral zone in the first, then promptly found a streaking Kane who had a partial break & forced Fleury to make a good glove save.

The other notable hawk UFA addition in the off-season, John Madden, also played a prominent role in the win, playing almost 19 minutes, virtually exclusively against Malkin, and going 7 for 12 in the faceoff circles against the pens' superstar, effectively limiting his chances, tho Madden did lose the late draw on the play the Pens scored. Nevertheless, Madden's veteran presence & experience was especially evident in the 2nd, during a particularly dominant shift by the pens where they controlled the puck & looked to have the hawks on the ropes, running around a bit. Madden eventually was able to gain control & help clear the zone, managing to carry the puck into the pens zone & force Fleury to freeze the puck for a faceoff, allowing the hawks to make a change, relieve some of the pressure and regain their composure.

Keith & Seabrook both played their season high in minutes, playing against Malkin virtually every time he was on the ice. Bryan Campbell & Hjalmarsson's minutes were accordingly cut back, though Campbell was key on both hawk goals, getting the primary assist on each, and made a couple of important defensive zone clears to ease the pressure, ending up with a +2 on the evening. Hjalmarsson played his usual reliable if unheralded game - in some respects the Swede may be the steadiest of all the hawks defensemen, considering he plays with Campbell, whose offensive forays & bias mean his defensive game clearly isn't as strong as Keith or Seabrook's.

Overall, the hawks responded well to this test against the Cup champs - not backing down when challenged physically, and coming through in the overtime after giving up the lead late. While the pens were missing Crosby and clearly not at full strength, especially considering how well Crosby has been playing of late, the pens clearly took this game seriously, giving it a playoff type feel.

The win takes away some of the bad taste left over from the hawks recent efforts, which seemed to lack energy & urgency. It was reminiscent of their win in Vancouver. They get a few days off before the Rangers come in to the UC next Wednesday.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Preds snap Hawks 8 game home win streak, beat Chicago 4-1

The Nashville Predators took a page out of the blackhawks playbook, using speed and a mobile defense to their advantage, getting on the hawks in their own zone, and staying with the hawks all over the ice, to frustrate Chicago on their way to a 4-1 win, snapping their own two game winless streak while ending the hawks 8 game home win streak.

The hawks had a better effort than Monday against Columbus, though still did not look as sharp as they had early in the just completed road trip. They outshot Nashville in the 1st & 3rd periods and for the game, but Dan Ellis was solid and the predators defensemen did a good job of clearing rebounds or preventing hawk forwards from getting to them first.

The game had a promising start for the hawks with captain Jonathan Toews making a brilliant individual effort. He took a pass from Hossa on the hawks side of center and carried in over the predator blue line with three Nashville defenders back. After initially backing off & yielding the zone, Hamhuis moved up to challenge Toews, with Toews moving to his left making as if to shoot, causing Hamhuis to move to his right, leaning over to get his stick in the shooting lane to defend a shot. Toews however, quickly & sharply cut back to the right, getting around Hamhuis and in alone on Ellis.

The Preds goaltender came out to challenge, cheating a bit to favor his glove side as Toews was well off to the right, where it seemed his only chance was a backhand shot. Instead, Toews cut sharply back across to his left in front of Ellis, and patiently waited until he had moved past the scrambling Nashville goaltender, and Toews calmly fired the puck back across to his right, into the opening between the left post & Ellis, giving the hawks a 1-0 lead midway through the first.

However, that was it for hawks' highlights on the night, as Nashville picked up their game. About 4 minutes later, Kane had a chance moving down the left side firing a sharp angle shot from the half-boards that got through Ellis but hit the left post and rolled along the goal line & out the other side.

Shortly afterwards off a faceoff in the hawk end, the hawks gained possession when Ladd won the draw, but Barker failed to clear, thanks to some strong forecheck pressure by Hornqvist, and a missed assignment by Eager, who for some reason had moved off the left boards. That allowed O'Reilly to intercept Barker's clearing attempt along the boards and he moved it back deep into the corner, following it in to join Hornqvist in a battle with Ladd & Barker for the puck. Eager, presumably trying to make amends for not being at the half boards to help clear the zone, then moved into the corner to help Ladd & Barker, leaving the point wide open for Cody Franson. Meanwhile, O'Reilly managed to beat Ladd & Barker for the puck and fed it back to Franson. Kopecky had moved off his position on the right side to help cover the slot vacated by Eager, and when the puck moved back to Franson, Kopecky moved up to try to challenge, leaving no hawk to cover the preds' left side.

Hornqvist at the same time beat a slow moving Barker out of the corner to the front of the net to try to set up a screen on Franson's point shot. Huet made the save, but kicked out a big rebound to the right half boards where Hamhuis had freely pinched in, thanks to Kopecky vacating his position. Hamhuis fired a high shot with Huet down on his knees from the previous point shot, that sailed past Barker who actually moved out of its path to avoid getting hit, watching it zip into the net behind him to tie the game.

In the 2nd, Hossa had an early chance as he cut in on the right side, but Ellis made a glove save. However, thanks to a penalty to Brouwer just over a minute into the period, the preds gained momentum and actually carried much of the play, outshooting the hawks 9-8.

Just over 7 minutes in, the preds went ahead for good on an odd man rush, where dman Suter jumped up into the play with Tootoo & Erat, with Campbell scrambling back and ending up on the left side while Hjalmarsson switched over to cover the right side where the puck carrier Tootoo was moving down. Hjalmarsson made an uncharacteristicly poor decision by going down to try to prevent a pass, however, Tootoo simply waited for him to slide by, then fed Suter who moved in and got a point blank shot on Huet who made a good save but gave a rebound.

Hjalmarsson recovered enough to partially clear the loose puck from in front of Huet, but it went to the open left side, with Kane, Versteeg & Byfuglien overpursuing deep into their own zone after having been caught up ice on the original odd man rush against and still out of position to gain possession & help clear the zone. That allowed Tootoo to recover the puck at the left circle & in one motion, he turned & fired toward the net, with the puck hitting Erat in the skate & deflecting in behind Huet to give the preds the lead, 2-1.

The hawks created a good chance to tie midway through the third off the rush, with Versteeg penetrating down the left side before dropping the puck for Kane in the left circle. Kane moved in, and while faking a shot passed to the trailer Keith who was moving in off the right point, however, Ellis stacked his pads and made a sprawling save without giving a rebound to keep the preds on top. Shortly afterwards, another undisciplined penalty by Byfuglien killed any momentum the hawks may have had.

Late in the 3rd, Marcel Goc beat Madden on a faceoff to the right of Huet, drawing it back to the point where Kevin Klein backhanded it back along the boards deep into the left corner, where Goc tapped it along behind the net. Martin Erat gained position on Keith, cutting behind the hawk net to retrieve the loose puck with Keith in pursuit, however, Erat was able to center the puck for Tootoo who had eluded both Madden & Ladd to one time it past Huet for an insurance marker. Tootoo was able to find the seam between Madden, who was covering down low, and Ladd who was covering the point, & Erat found him streaking open in the slot with a pass & he made no mistake. The hawks actually had all five men back with only three preds in deep, but misread the coverages to give Tootoo too much room.

Less than a minute later, with the hawks turning it over at the pred blueline & getting caught again, Legwand & Ward moved in on a 2 on 1 against Campbell. Campbell went down to try to take away the pass, however, Legwand managed to saucer it over Campbell's stick to Ward, who had Huet at his mercy & buried it. 4-1 Nashville.

Overall, it was a disappointing result for an important divisional game. The preds, like the hawks, have been one of the hottest teams in the league over the past few weeks, though they had stumbled in their previous two games. The hawks had an opportunity to put some distance between themselves & 2nd place Nashville, but squandered their chances and let Nashville (&the rest of the division) move closer as a result. They are just 2-2-1 (1-1-0 at home) with Hossa in the lineup, after going 15-5-2 (10-2-1 at home) without him.

Now the hawks face an even bigger test heading into Pittsburgh tomorrow night, in a game that will provide a good measuring stick as to where the team is in relation to the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Hawks to announce signing of Keith, Kane & Toews

The blackhawks have called a press conference for later today where it is expected they will announce the signings of Duncan Keith to a 13 year deal worth $72M and Patrick Kane & Jonathan Toews to 5 year deals, each worth $31.5M, according to CBC reports.

Keith’s deal will be an annual salary cap hit of $5.54, with the Toews and Kane deals each costing $6.3 million against the cap.

That leaves the hawks with a committed team payroll of $60,682,874 for next season already, with only 15 players signed. That $60M doesn't include John Madden, Nik Hjalmarsson, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, Colin Fraser, Jordan Hendry or Anti Niemi who are either UFAs or RFAs at the end of this season.

Clearly, Stan Bowman will have a lot of work to do to clear out enough cap room to sign Hjalmarsson who arguably is the hawks 3rd best dman, Niemi a promising young backup who potentially could take over the starting job at some point, Ladd who brings a lot of abrasiveness & cup winning experience despite his young age, and essentially their entire 4th line, which has provided much needed energy as well as chipped in with some timely offense.

In addition to signing most if not all of those players, Bowman has to also leave enough cap room to resign Seabrook, Byfuglien & Brouwer after next season when they become RFAs...

and given current league attendance figures, there is a real possibility that the salary cap will go down from its current $56.8M!!

Sopel will clearly be among the first casualties with his $2.333M cap hit each of the next two years, and I suspect Barker with his $3.083M cap hit for the next 3 years despite averaging less than 15 minutes per game (including over 2 mins of pp time) will be next in line for dumping - they simply make too much money for what they bring to the team. Barker should realize a greater return given his age & upside, and perhaps yield a first round pick. Earlier reports suggested that in order for the hawks to find someone to take Sopel's contract off their hands they would have to "throw-in" a 2nd round pick - a steep price to pay on top of a bad contract.

If they move those two dmen (and replace their minutes with cheaper, experienced veteran defensemen - Chris Chelios anyone?), that might get them down to about $56M for 13 to 15 players - which obviously means more moves of dumping larger salary for cheaper (read not as good) players.

Hossa, Campbell & Huet (& Bolland) are virtually untradeable due to their contracts, (to now be joined by Keith) which leaves Sharp, Byfuglien &/or Versteeg. I doubt the hawks want to move any of those players, who each bring considerable, unique value to the table. I suspect if push came to shove, they may just bite the bullet on Huet, rather than one or more of those forwards, especially if they think Niemi is ready to step up and assume a larger role.

What seems clear is that a valuable UFA like Madden can't be resigned unless he's willing to take a dramatic pay cut, and no new UFAs can be brought in.

This team will have several new, younger, cheaper players on the roster next season replacing more expensive, experienced & better players and as a result won't be nearly as deep (or likely as good) a team.

The reasons for Dale Tallon's dismissal should be coming into much clearer focus for those who couldn't understand that move when it happened. That said, Stan Bowman, as assistant GM and responsible for cap matters clearly had a say in the Huet, Campbell & Hossa contracts and has to take some responsibility for the cap mess he finds himself in.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hawks' special teams the difference in 4-3 SO win over Columbus

Brent Seabrook scored the decisive goal in extra time again, this time in the 11th round of the shootout to give the blackhawks a 4-3 win over division rival Columbus in the hawks first home game back after their successful 6 game road trip. It was Chicago's 8th straight win at home, dating back to the mid October loss against Vancouver where Toews & Seabrook were literally knocked out of action.

The hawks again looked somewhat sluggish, as Columbus controlled much of the play in the first period particularly, outshooting the hawks 10-5, in part thanks to a couple of early hawk penalties, though the hawks came close twice with Kane & Barker hitting the crossbar & post within 30 seconds of each other early in the 1st. The hawks' special teams, however, made up for any sluggish 5 on 5 play, with the pk scoring another shorthanded goal on Brouwer's penalty late in the 1st.

On the play, Bluejackets dman Russell was in the hawks corner and made a somewhat blind pass back to the point. John Madden intercepted along the boards, trapping 3 other Columbus players, including both defensmen, deep inside the hawks' zone, while Versteeg & Sopel, reading and anticipating Madden's play, reacted by dashing up ice. Madden made a cross-ice outlet to Versteeg trying to spring the streaking hawk forward at center with only bluejackets forward Voracek back, however the pass didn't connect. Versteeg nevertheless continued on and gathered up the loose puck at center, setting up a 2 on 1 with Madden. As Versteeg entered the zone from the right side, Voracek went down in an attempt to block a pass or low shot, however Versteeg did a toe drag to get by the sprawled & sliding Voracek. That gave time for Umberger to get back in position to try to defend, but Versteeg again patiently made another toe drag move, letting the overpursuing Umberger skate by and putting himself in alone on Mason. He fired a shot mid-high glove side, beating Mason to put the hawks up 1-0 and sent the home crowd into a buzz by the skill displayed on the play.

Early in the 2nd, a long stretch pass by Duncan Keith from inside the hawk line sent Patrick Sharp in alone on Mason, who made a very good glove save to keep it 1-0. About midway through the 2nd, the bluejackets tied it when Huet failed to squeeze his trapper on Kris Russell's point shot, leaving a rebound. Keith had a chance to clear the loose puck & appeared to swipe at it with his stick, but Vermette apparently prevented Keith from connecting, and instead tapped in the loose puck after a goalmouth scramble, Umberger ending up on top of Huet after the puck went in.

Just over 5 minutes later, the hawks defense turned it over in their own zone when Campbell's clearing attempt hit the stanchion on the left half boards and bounced right to Sammy Pahlsson in the slot, who turned and skated to the left circle before firing a high wrist shot that beat Huet, who was down early and out of position, leaving the top half of the net uncovered.

Late in the 2nd, with the hawks on their 3rd powerplay of the game, Kane circled on the right half boards after a give & go by Hossa, and fed a pass that Hossa tipped on to Patrick Sharp standing to the right side of the net, and he slid the puck underneath Mason & in off the far post to tie it at 2.

Early in the 3rd, the bluejackets regained the lead off the rush, where defenseman Russell trailing the play, moved into the open slot and took a nice drop pass from Umberger, firing a bullet past Huet to make it 3-2. Madden & Ladd had their men getting back, but Brouwer was late in covering the trailer and gave Russell the opening he needed to get off a big blast from an excellent scoring position, where Huet had little chance.

A few minutes later, Fedor Tyutin was called for a high stick, and it took the hawks' pp just 17 seconds to connect, with Keith moving to the middle of the blue line from the right point and letting a wrister go that glanced off Toews skate and past Mason into the net to tie it at 3.

Both teams looked like they were happy with a point & didn't take many chances thereafter to potentially risk losing in regulation (and give away a point to a division opponent) which resulted in only 13 combined shots in the 3rd period.

In the OT, the teams traded chances, with Hossa forcing Mason into a good save with traffic in front ready to pounce on any rebound, and Versteeg testing him with a one-timer from the left circle set up by Keith, while Rick Nash got off a couple of shots that required Huet to be sharp.

In the shootout, the hawks elected to "kick", giving Columbus the first shot. After Huet stopped Huselius & Nash, Hossa scored on the hawks second shot, clanging a wrister high off the post and past Mason, giving Huet a chance to win it if he stopped Voracek. However, the Columbus youngster responded by firing it into the top right hand corner with Huet not even moving his glove on the shot. Patrick Kane then had a chance to win it against his former London Knights junior teammate, and tried to lift a backhand over Mason who was going down, but the 2009 Calder Trophy winner thwarted the 2008 Calder winner, sending the SO into extra rounds.

It quickly became a battle between the goalies as both looked unbeatable, making excellent saves, with Huet catching a break when Vermette hit the post, while Versteeg got Mason to bite on his deke to the left before going to the right but also hit the iron. Mason had an easy time with the hawks' next shooter when Ladd lost control of the puck just over the blue line, as it headed into the corner. Ladd was almost at the goal line when he retrieved it, and was easily poke checked by Mason.

Hitchcock tapped a couple of Dmen to take shots in rounds 6 & 10, but both Tyutin & Russell were stopped, Tyutin on an excellent toe save by Huet to stop the Zhamnov-like "reach around" move. After Quenneville used up 10 of his 12 forwards (only Eager & Fraser hadn't made an attempt) he called on Seabrook, who moved in and got Mason to go down on a deke left & lifted a backhand over the prone goaltender to give the hawks their 8th straight win at home.

While the win was unconvincing, the hawks will surely take it in their first home game after a long road trip, and Huet will certainly gain some much needed shootout confidence by making several sparkling saves on the 1 on 1 confrontations, likely his best shootout performance as a hawk, that gave his team the chance to win it.

Ironically, coming into the game the hawks were the better 5 on 5 team, with Columbus having the better powerplay, however the bluejackets outscored the hawks 3-0 five on five, while the hawks scored against the league's top powerplay while adding two pp goals of their own.

With the win, the hawks moved back into a 2nd place tie in the conference with Calgary, and five points up in the Central division on both Columbus & Nashville, the hawks next opponent on Friday night at the UC. The hawks get another important measuring stick game vs. defending Stanley Cup champions in Pittsburgh on Saturday.