Blackhawks' new roster beginning to click; Campbell returns to ice
The Chicago Blackhawks had a trio of games over the past four days that can give the fans plenty of hope for the rest of the season, but which also showed that the Hawks have carried some of last seasons flaws into this one, despite massive roster turnover.
Let's start with the ugly: Friday night's 7-3 loss against the Edmonton Oilers at the United Center. Maybe it was just an bad night for everybody. Maybe they underestimated the young - and very fast, and very hungry - Edmonton team. Maybe it was because this was the first time that the Blackhawks were facing off against one of their own - Colin Fraser was one of the first to feel the post Stanley Cup-win axe, traded to the Oilers despite his extensive play time for the Hawks and relatively low salary.
Whatever the reason, the Oilers owned the UC, and it was without a doubt the Blackhawks' worst game of the season to date.
Edmonton rookie Taylor Hall got on the scoreboard first with his second NHL goal. Jonathan Toews was able to respond to that goal several minutes later, but then the Oilers went on a scoring streak to close out out the first period. 4-2 should be an entire game's score, not just the first period. Marty Turco got pulled, Corey Crawford was put in, but the pinball continued, with the Oilers tallying 3 more goals to the Hawks 2.
Bright spots from Friday's fiasco: the Blackhawks put 41 SOGs to the Oilers 22. (Still... 22 SOG and 7 goals? Ouch.) Defense was improved if not great, and the sole Hawks penalty came early in the second (Dowell, high sticking). In addition, the Oilers blocked 19, which means that the Blackhawks were putting heavy pressure on them - they just couldn't put the biscuit in the basket in proporition to their attempts. In comparison, the Hawks only had 6 blocks on top of the 22 SOGs, so despite outshooting their opponent by a margin of more than 2 to 1, they didn't win.
Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks and John Madden of the Minnesota Wild share a laugh during pregame skate, Saturday 10/30 at the Xcel Center.
On Saturday, the team traveled to Minneapolis to face off against the Minnesota Wild. This was the second game of the season where the Hawks were facing off against another ex-Hawk - this time, John Madden. Watching the pregame skate, it was clear to see that the Cup-winning members of the Hawks were happy to see Madden again - sharing some laughs and smiles center ice as both teams warmed up.
The Wild played well, but it was clear the Blackhawks were remembering the previous evening's drubbing all too well. The first period was tightly contested with good opportunities on both sides. Then it was if somebody had flipped a switch in the locker room between periods; the Blackhawks came out and simply dominated the second, outshooting the Wild - although not scoring until barely half a minute remained in the period - and holding play continually in the Wild's zone. While play in the third evened out - slightly - the Hawks were still the more easily controlling the game: pickpocketing pucks from Minnesota left and right; controlling the pace; and putting in two more goals to the Wild's sole goal.
The biggest evidence of Chicago's improved defensive lines: Chicago had 21 blocks; the Wild had only 11. They also outshot the Wild, 32-26; far too frequently this season, the Hawks have allowed an average 34-35 SOGs.
Turco stops Andrew Brunette's attempts on goal at the Wild game
With a solid win fresh in their minds, it was off to New York for Monday's contest against the Rangers.
By the stats, this looks entirely like a game that Chicago should've won: 35 SOGs vs NY's 23. Add in 15 blocks, a 52% faceoff winning percentage (Sharp had 63%, Dowell 60% and Toews 50%). Most of all, Chicago laid a lot of that pressure on in the third period: 14 SOGs to NY's 6, keeping the puck in the Rangers' zone of extended stretches of time.
The Rangers have not been particularly impressive this season - they carried a 5-4-1 record into the contest. But there's one thing they're very good at: defense. And to back up that defense is one of the top goalies in the league, Henrik Lundqvist, a.k.a. "King Henrik".
The Rangers are clearly aware of the Blackhawks' sniper abilities, and they clogged up the middle and collapsed around the net, narrowing Chicago's chances considerably, even with the Hawks' high SOG count. If it looked familiar, one only needs to look back at Chicago's previous season, where the Hawks would seriously limit opponents' shooting chances, and the 25 or so SOGs they gave up were generally from bad angles. Even Patrick Kane's goal - Chicago's second for the night - bore a striking resemblance to his Stanley Cup-winning goal, potted through Lundqvist's legs from the far, sharp left of the net.
Despite concentrated efforts in the third, it was small, little mistakes that added up to allow the Rangers the win. As Jonathan Toews said to the press after the loss, "We just didn't bury our chances. Small defensive mistakes really cost us."
Evaluating the Blackhawks first month of the season, here's a few things that leap out at observers:
- The scoring needs to get dirtier. Chicago had this same issue last spring: they would pass and pass and pass around the other team's goal, apparently looking for the clean, open shots. This year, that hesitation to just shoot - and crash the net and grab the rebounds - seems to have returned at times. You'll see Kopecky or Brouwer going and planting themselves in front of the net, sometimes even Scott, but in general, the team needs to be shoveling in more goals attempts from up close. Good things happen when you go to the net. Jake Dowell seems to grasp this pretty well; most of his goals have been up-close-and-personal. The entire league knows how lethal Chicago can be with the puck if you give them space; nobody is looking to do the Blackhawks any favors in the scoring department.
- Speaking of scoring, something needs to be done about when opponents score on the Hawks. Last 30 seconds of a period? Less than a minute after Chicago gets a goal? Opening minute of a period? All unacceptable, momentum-deflating goal tallies. The other team is not going to take a break while the Hawks revel in the chorus of "Chelsea Dagger".
- Marty Turco has proven to be a valuable addition in goal, but it seems like the majority of scorers are beating him five-hole. He needs to work on quicker leg reactions, and it certainly wouldn't hurt if he improved his flexibility a little bit more. He's pretty bouncy and athletic, but there's a reason Niemi was called the 'Tush King' - very few of the goals on Niemi went five-hole. Turco makes more saves facing into his own net than any other goalie I've ever seen - and that's ok, so long as he's making the saves. Additionally, he's still overcommitting on some plays, and without the D-lines being where they should be, it's leading to some soft goals.
- Now that Brian Campbell has returned to the ice after a pre-season knee sprain, maybe the D-corps will start getting their act together. Turco's back door is left open way too often without a D-man looking out for the loose opponent opportunities. The vastly improved SOGs allowed this week show that defense is starting to gel, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. Here's hoping that Campbell is at least enough to get his blue line partner, Niklas Hjalmarsson, back on track and out of the +/- basement.
- Let's hope we don't see Nick Boynton benched in favor of John Scott anymore. Nobody wants to fight Scott, Scott doesn't seem all that enthusiastic about fighting anybody either, and his TOI has been highly unimpressive (if not at times downright horrifying). Boynton, on the other hand, has been making a consistent effort, clearly aiming to be the team's answer to Brent Sopel this season - he's become a puck-blocking machine. He also skates better than Scott, so as long as he's not racking up an ill-timed penalty, he's better than having Scott out on the ice.
- Jonathan Toews has woken up from his usual early-season slump and is starting to light the lamp and rack up tallies on the score sheet. He an amazing player who leads by example; it's clear he gets frustrated when his own play isn't living up to his own expectations. He got out of October with a 58.3% faceoff percentage, 3 goals and 7 assists. He said in a recent interview with Bauer that the trophy he'd most like to win would be the Rocket Richard. (What DO you aim for once you get Olympic gold, Stanley silver and Conn Smythe in a single spectacular spring?) Watch for Toews to ramp up as the Blackhawks play their way across Canada and the West Coast on their annual Circus Trip.
- Patrick Kane needs to stop hanging around the blue line and cherry-picking his plays. We all saw that preseason game where Turco blasted a shot up the ice to the waiting Kane and it led directly to a goal; it was awesome. But Kane's performance has not been up to his previous seasons, and he cannot wait for the plays to come to him. He's on the ice for a reason: to make things happen and to score. While he, like Toews, has been off to a slow start, he's also very conscious that he needs to be doing more. Let's hope we see his score sheets tallies continue to build from this week.
- Marian Hossa and Dave Bolland: get well soon. Especially you, Hoss. There's no doubt that Hossa, when healthy, is one of the most lethal, multi-talented players on the ice today. We already saw that before he got injured, and the fans and team alike are anxious to see him back on the ice.
- Patrick Sharp, you keep on doin' what you been doin'. League leader in scoring, BOOM!
The Blackhawks have an interesting month ahead of them. This Wednesday, they'll face off against the struggling NJ Devils.
Saturday is one of the most anticipated games for the entire season: the Hawks travel to Atlanta for their sole season matchup against the Thrashers, where four of last season's Cup-winning team now call home. Dustin Byfuglien seems to have carried over the lessons from the Playoffs; although he's returned to defense, he's started off the season with a bang, tallying 4 goals (3 of them GWGs), 6 assists and 10 points. Andrew Ladd leads the ATL team with 4 goals, 8 assists and 12 points; even Ben Eager has shown an improved game. Brent Sopel rounds out the ex-Hawks foursome. There is no doubt that this will be an exciting and emotionally-charged matchup.
The Hawks then face the Oilers again, then the Coyotes, Predators (at Nashville), and Ducks before heading onto the two-week Canadian/West Coast road trip. They have probably the toughest start of any in the NHL: already more games played (14) than any other team in the league, and most of the games they're playing in October and November are against teams that were playoff contenders last spring.
Should be an interesting run to take us into the holidays.