Blackhawks Update 12/11/2011

Seeing the lack of Blackhawks game previews for the past few games I have decided it would be more worthwhile to write a weekly to bi-weekly analysis on the team. This is coupled with my schedule that does not leave much time for writing cohesive previews as well as the tendency of the Hawks to lose whenever I predict them to win.

Over the past 7 games the Blackhawks have a record of 5-1-1. It has probably been the quietest, most ridiculed 5-1-1 streak a team has ever gone through. By the way fans and other writers have looked at it, you would figure the Hawks to be in a free-fall. While this team does have several holes to fill and is showing a lot of concerning signs that plagued the team last year, the fact that they are second in the Western Conference and have been winning games albeit in an ugly manner, is a sign for optimism.

Take a look at the problems that plagued the 2010-2011 Hawks. Not playing a complete game, frequently on the losing end of be goal games, and the inability to comeback from behind. The lack of playing a complete 60 minutes has hurt this years Hawks team, however, they have found a way to not only win the tight games, but also win them when trailing from behind. A perfect example of this is the recent 4-3 shoot out loss against Phoenix. After trailing 3-0 early in the second, Jonathan Toews led an inspired comeback that took the Coyotes to the shoot out. If it wasn’t for Keith Yandle’s great bailout of goalie Mike Smith on a Marian Hossa open net shot, the Hawks would have come out as winners and everyone would be praising this teams comeback abilities.

Still, for Hawks fans it has to be encouraging that the team didn’t quit after being down early. I think the main problem for the Hawks so far is still their motivation. As we saw even with the great Stanley Cup team of 2009-2010 the Hawks are frequently guilty of mailing in some games. If you remember the first games of the Nashville and Vancouver series’, the Hawks treated those games more as an exhibition than a Stanley Cup playoff matchup.

This tendency to not show up for games is not new for the Hawks. It has been an issue with the team for the past couple of seasons. However, they have shown time and time again that when they show up, they are one of the toughest teams in the league to beat. This year is no different. Come April the Blackhawks will be fine. When the game is on the line, the Hawks show up to play. Their core has the championship mentality that will not quit and it carries over to the rest of the team. This was only reinforced after the Hawks took the Canucks to game 7 overtime after being down in the series 3-0.

Which brings me back to the current situation the Hawks are in. For all the struggles and fears fans have about Crawford not being reliable, Duncan Keith being inconsistent, the team being to soft and unfocused, the Hawks have still managed to get 11 points out of a possible 14 in the past seven games. I’ll take that stretch anytime of the year no matter how they attain it. The issues this team has will get resolved. It’s better that they are going through this funk now earlier in the year. It’s even better that they are still able to win games while not playing at the level they could be at.

The key difference this year is that the newcomers to the Hawks for the most part are all veterans with playoff experience. Looking up and down the roster, there is no player on it that hasn’t appeared in a playoff game. Last year you had Viktor Stalberg, Michael Frolik, Nick Leddy, Ben Smith, Marcus Kruger making their playoff debuts while having deadweights like Fernando Pisani, Jake Dowell, and John Scott in the lineup.

Stan Bowman has received criticism for his moves this past offseason because they all haven’t panned out the way Hawks fans hope they have. Bowman has to receive credit though for picking up players that have experienced the grind of the Stanley Cup playoffs and know what it takes to be successful in the post season. This is the biggest advantage the Hawks have moving forward. Unlike last year the Hawks will not have to worry about making the playoffs barring an epic collapse. Rocky Wirtz had a quote recently discussing the state of the team basically saying that he has full faith in the players because they know when to turn it on and to take their game to the next level.

This team is fully capable of it. Yes they have had their struggles the past few weeks, but Hawks fans should be encouraged that despite all of these struggles, they have managed to win games. If they keep winning, I can deal with the weaknesses of the team. Two points is two points whether you win 10-1 or win 7-6.

Blackhawks vs. Sharks Preview 11/23/2011

After getting outscored a combined 14-3 the past two games, the Blackhawks kick off the second half of their annual circus trip tonight in San Jose. Much controversy surrounded the team’s trip to Las Vegas following the embarassing 9-2 loss to Edmonton. Personally I think the trip will be more beneficial for the team than harmful. It seems over the past few years when the team has gotten in a funk and has had to play multiple games in a few days, it’s difficult for them to break out of it and get a win. The time off should allow the boys to refocus and come out strong tonight.

Former Hawks netminder Antii Niemi has played his former club well since signing with the Sharks last year and has maintained his top tier play since guiding the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup in 2010. San Jose as usual is among one of the top teams in the Western Conference and is two points behind the Hawks with 25. The Sharks are currently on a roll winning their past 11 of 14 games and are sitting atop the Pacific Division.

The matchups between these clubs have been close ever since the Hawks re-emerged as an elite hockey team in the 2008-2009 season. One bright spot of the past few days has seen defenseman Brent Seabrook and winger Michael Frolik return to practice with the team. Since Seabrook went down against Edmonton on November 13th, the Hawks defense has struggled. Duncan Keith was a combined -8 against Calgary and Edmonton after playing perhaps his best game of the year in the 5-1 victory over Vancouver. With some time off to get some rest and the possible return of Seabrook, look for Keith to have a strong game.

Players to Watch: Jonathan Toews (10 points in 6 games) Duncan Keith (-8 last two games, looking to bounce back)

Injury Report: Although both Seabrook and Frolik were back practicing with the team, they are both listed as questionable for tonight. Sharks back up goaltender Antero Niittymaki is out recovering from hip surgery.

Prediction: Whenever the Blackhawks get in a funk, the most infuriating part is that they collapse against teams they should beat. In the past few seasons, the Hawks always seem to rise to the occasion against elite teams making this matchup with San Jose almost ideal for them. Bound to face a raucous crowd at the Shark Tank, look for the Hawks to play with a jump in their step after getting pounded in Western Canada. This is going to be a close game as it has always been with these two clubs. With the extra days off and with something to prove look for the Hawks to take the first matchup of the season between these two clubs.

Blackhawks 4 – Sharks 2

Blackhawks vs. Flames Preview 11/18/2011

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Coming off a convincing 5-1 victory against Vancouver, the Blackhawks look to extend their winning streak to 5 games tonight as they visit the Calgary Flames.  Perhaps the most noteworthy headline from this game is the return of forward Ben Smith to the Chicago lineup.  Being the unanimous choice amongst the Hawks brass, much speculation has occurred since Rostislav Olesz was waived on Tuesday as to where Ben Smith will fit in this lineup.

Smith became an instant favorite for Hawks fans in their first round match up against Vancouver for his gritty play and his ability to score key goals (see game 6 game winning goal).  If it wasn’t for a concussion this preseason, Smith would likely already be playing for the club.

With the struggles of Bryan Bickell as of late and the success of the fourth line, Smith figures to replace Bickell on the third line alongside Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik.  Frolik took a hard fall in the middle of the third against Vancouver and did not return to the game after that.  His status for tonight’s game is questionable.  If Frolik can’t go look for the third line to be Smith-Bolland-Bickell.

The Flames and the Blackhawks met one week ago with Chicago running over the Flames with a 4-1 victory.

The lack of scoring has plagued the Flames all season long and has led to speculation that the organization is preparing to completely overhaul the team and begin a rebuilding process.  Calgary has only two players who have reached double digit point totals so far, star Jarome Iginla not included.  Compare that to the Hawks who have six players with double digit points.

With back to back games this weekend, look for Ray Emery to get the start tonight as he owns a 3-1-1 record with a 1.19 GAA against Calgary in his career.

Players to Watch: Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa both have 8 points during this 4 game win streak.  Steve Montador (4 goals and 6 points during streak). Patrick Sharp (3 assists against Calgary on 11/11/11).

Injury Report: Brent Seabrook will miss his second consecutive game with a lower-body injury.  Michael Frolik remains questionable after crashing into the boards during the third period against Vancouver on Wednesday.  For the Flames, defenseman Anton Babchuk and forward Brendan Morrison are on injured reserve while forward David Moss is questionable with a lower-body injury after missing Tuesday’s matchup with Ottawa.

Prediction: With the struggles the Flames have had in both the offensive and defensive zone it will be difficult for them to generate many chances against a hot Hawks team that has shut down opponents offensive attacks during their 4 game win streak.  The one downside to this match up is that the Hawks are prone to falling flat against weaker teams after performing brilliantly against tough opponents the game before.  If the Hawks don’t bring the same level of intensity that they have had during this 4 game streak, this game could be a lot closer than some may think.  However, since the 2008-2009 season the Hawks have had much success against the Flames going 15-4-0 against them.

Blackhawks 5 – Flames 3

Blackhawks vs. Canucks Preview 11/16/2011

Oh boy do we have a show in store for hockey fans tonight. If you’re new to the game or don’t have much exposure, this game, this rivalry, is exactly the way to be introduced or re-introduced to hockey.

Meeting for the second time this year, both teams are coming into this matchup on a hot streak with the Blackhawks winning their past 3 games and the Canucks winning the past 3 of 4. 10 days ago the teams met at the United Center where the Blackhawks failed to show up getting drilled by the Canucks 6-2. Many Hawks fans had high expectations prior to the first matchup. The lack of grit allowed the 2010-2011 Hawks team to get pushed around by Vancouver throughout their epic 7-game series this past year. With the additions of “gritty” veterans such as Jamal Mayers, Daniel Carcillo, Steve Montador, Sean O’Donnell, and with players like Bryan Bickell finally discovering his ability to deliver crushing hits, this game was supposed to be revenge for Hawks fans.

View from my seats right before puck drop, Hawks vs. Canucks 11/6

Didn’t happen. Hawks fell flat and this team eerily looked like the same Hawks team that was out-skated, out-hit, out-everything by Vancouver last playoffs. The Hawks managed to continue this funk by getting shut out by St. Louis 3-0 two days later before finally breaking out against Columbus with a 6-3 victory that saw Coach Q rolling all 4 lines and someone on the defense not named Nick Leddy step up and deliver some goals.

This is a different Blackhawks team than the Canucks faced 10 days ago. With the breakout play from Steve Montador and the rejuvenation of Duncan Keith, this Hawks team is playing the same style of play that gave the Canucks fits during their past playoff matches. Look for tonight’s game to be a much tighter and for the Hawks special teams to be much more effective. After giving up 5 power play goals to the Canucks, the Hawks have been penalized 11 times while yielding 4 goals. While you would like the Hawks penalty kill to be able to have a better percentage of killing off penalties, the fact that the Hawks have only been on the PK 11 times is showing they are playing a more disciplined game.

After going 5/62 to start the year, the Blackhawks power play has gone 5/11 the past 3 games. While finally being able to find the back of the net on the man advantage, the Hawks have also been able to keep the puck in the offensive zone for a much longer time while keeping the defense on their toes by abandoning the backdoor pass that has failed time and time again. Look for the Hawks to try and weather the early storm Vancouver will put on in front of a loud and rowdy Rogers Centre.

Players to Watch: Steve Montador (4 points in 3 games), Jonathan Toews (5 points in 3 games), and Dan Carcillo (21 PIM last game against Vancouver).

Injury Report: The Blackhawks will be without Brent Seabrook tonight as he is out with a lower body injury while center Dave Bolland is questionable with a lower body injury as well. The Canucks will start Corey Schneider tonight with Roberto Luongo being sidelined with an upper body injury. Forwards Andrew Ebbett and Steve Pinizzotto are listed as day to day with upper body injuries while forward Byron Bitz is out indefinitely with a hip injury.

Prediction: Whenever the Hawks travel to Vancouver it is always a tight contest. Losing Seabrook and potentially being without Bolland will be huge tonight in countering a powerful Canucks offense. Unlike their last meeting though, the Hawks have become a more cohesive group and are playing with more confidence. If they can weather the early attack that the Canucks are to bring, they should be able to garner enough chances to defeat their foes.

Hawks 4 – Canucks 2