Blackhawks push to extend their series life tonight

The last time the Blackhawks and Coyotes faced each other at the United Center, it was game 4 of the series. Phoenix took that game in overtime, just one of five OT games that this series has seen so far. Prospect Brandon Saad made his playoffs debut. Andrew Shaw was still suspended, Marian Hossa was out from the injury inflicted by Raffi Torres's reckless hit in game 3.

When Brendan Shanahan laid down the suspension for Torres last Saturday, it was the second-longest in NHL history. (The current record is 30 games for NYI's Chris Simon in 2007 for stomping on PIT's Jarrko Ruutu's ankle.) The message was clear, not only to Torres but to the rest of the league: we're done with these kind of hits, and they will not be tolerated.

Torres 25-game suspension clock started with game 4 in the playoffs. It will continue for however long the Coyotes last in pursuit of the Stanley Cup, and the remainder of the 25 games will carry over into next season. Torres is signed to a 2-year deal with Phoenix; his $1.75M annual cap hit means he will forfeit $21,341.46 for every regular-season game he has to sit out. He will also be ineligible to play in any pre-season games.

Hossa being treated on the ice 4/17/12 after Torres hitMarian Hossa remains out "indefinitely" with an upper body injury. He was knocked unconcious on the play, so it can be assumed that at the least he suffered a concussion; the Blackhawks are listing him as "no change" to his status, although they have not defined the nature of his injury. In Shanahan's suspension video, he noted that Torres had caused "severe injury" to Hossa, although, again, the injury was not indentified.

Twitter was bursting with opinions over the past week, with many voicing the feeling that Phoenix was coming out with the "better" end of the incident - after all, people reasoned, they were losing a "fourth liner" in Torres, but one of the Blackhawks' best players, Marian Hossa, was out for the series. Rookie winger Andrew Shaw, who brings a lot of grit and energy to Chicago's play, was also suspended games 3-5 for his hit on Phoenix goalie Mike Smith in game 2.

Torres is more than just a head-hunting goon, however. Like Matt Cooke, Torres has made a reputation for himself as a reckless, dangerous player. When Shanahan read off his previous offense list, it was like a highlight reel of "how to inflict an illegal hit to the head" hits. Torres played in 79 games this season, scored 15 goals and 11 assists, plus 128 hits and 21 blocks. Of those goals, 14 came at even strength, and most of them were at home. On a team lacking any true powerhouse forwards, 15 goals was good enough to rank him 5th in goals scored for Phoenix this season. He did all that while playing just an average 11:22 TOI/game. In the first 3 games of the playoffs, he had 19:16 TOI/game, 1 goal, 1 assist, 12 hits, and 8 blocks. On a team like the Coyotes, his absence will be more noticeable than people who aren't familiar with the team might think.

His stats this season are not out of the ordinary for him, either; he's put up 30 points over the past two years - and amazingly, only picked up 34 PIM during the 2009-10 season. Like Cooke, his reckless play and reputation overshadow the fact that he's a capable player. Shanahan dropped the boom on him, and you have to think that the hearing and subsequent suspension are a message: clean up, or get out.

Andrew ShawIn the meantime, Andrew Shaw returns to the lineup tonight for Chicago. His return comes in vital game 6, which the Blackhawks need in order to force a game 7 and keep their playoff hopes alive. The memory of last year's game 7 exit still stings; add to it the Hossa hit and the knowledge that several of the Blackhawks' top rivals - the Red Wings, the Canucks, and the Sharks - have already been eliminated from the playoffs will add more fuel to the fire to pull out a 'W' tonight.

The Blackhawks have played seven OT games in a row, stretching back to games 6 and 7 of their first-round series against Vancouver last year. They joked about the OT streak this week, but in what's a good sign, Chicago has improved the timing of the game-winning goal each game.

It's not really a surprise that the Coyotes are outhitting the Blackhawks, or that Chicago is outshooting Phoenix. What might be startling are the margins: In game 5, for example, the Blackhawks had 38 SOG and 27 hits, while the Coyotes had just 19 SOG and 32 hits. It's when you factor in the attempts blocked (AB) and missed shots (MS) that's the eye-opener. Game 5 saw Chicago have 38 SOG plus 19 AB and 17 MS. Phoenix had 19 SOG plus only 9 AB and 4 MS.

  CHI SOG CHI AB CHI MS CHI HITS PHX SOG PHX AB PHX MS PHX HITS
Game 1 45 27 14 22 34 14 23 48
Game 2 50 17 9 34 33 10 21 40
Game 3 37 15 11 41 34 16 8 39
Game 4 32 21 6 32 19 6 6 50
Game 5 38 19 17 27 19 9 4 32
TOTAL 202 99 57 166 139 55 62 209

 

Chicago has had almost as many SOG (202) as Phoenix has had hits (209), and the Coyotes have had less SOG (139) than the Blackhawks have had hits (166).

Keys to Chicago's game tonight will be continuing to pepper Mike Smith with SOG; driving to the net; and playing a tight, controlled game, because the Coyotes will be looking to pounce on their mistakes.

Tonight's game starts at 8 p.m. CDT and will be carried on TSN, CNBC, RDSI, CSN-Chicago. Find it on radio on WIND 560 (accessible via the Blackhawks website).

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