Blackhawks start the February road trip in Vancouver
Tuesday evening in Vancouver, the Chicago Blackhawks will kick off the start of their February 9-game road stretch with a tilt against the Canucks. Captain Jonathan Toews will be back in the lineup after missing the January 24th game vs. the Predators and the All-Star Game due to a minor injury. It is also likely that Patrick Sharp will be back for the Hawks after missing a few weeks due to a fractured wrist.
So far this season, the Blackhawks and Canucks are 1-1, each taking a win by four goals in the other's barn - the Canucks won 6-2 on November 6 at the United Center in the infamous "game with all the PPGs" (five, to be exact). Then ten days later, the Blackhawks returned the favor at Rogers Arena, winning 5-1. After Tuesday's game, the two teams will have their final season matchup on March 21st. As play resumes after the All Star Game, the Blackhawks are hoping to kick off their stretch of road games with a win.
During the break, the Blackhawks acquired veteran center Brendan Morrison from the Calgary Flames in exchange for AHL-level defenseman Brian Connolly. Connolly, who played in the AHL All Star Game this weekend, had fallen in the Blackhawks' depth chart, so it was a win-win situation for both teams. Morrison spent half of his career with the Canucks (2000-2008), and brings to the table good hockey skills and an excellent locker room demeanor. It is expected that Morrison will slot into the roster as the second line center, a role the Blackhawks have been trying to consistently fill all season.
The Blackhawks' power play - and more importantly, their penalty kill - have improved since they last saw the Canucks. They've spent most of the past two months at home, and that's where they play their best hockey. However, they have 32 games left on their schedule, 20 of them are on the road -- and of those 32 games. Just 6 are against Eastern Conference teams (Rangers x2; Senators; Devils; Maple Leafs, and Capitals) - and most of those teams are either in solid Eastern playoff contention or fighting for the 8th spot.
In light of that, there's some positives the Blackhawks have shown on the road. Their power play conversion is significantly better on the road (23.1% vs 16.5%), and their PK% is marginally better as well (78.5% vs 77.5%). They allow fewer PPGA on the road.
But there's negatives, too: they score less on the road while allowing more goals. So between those two stats, it's not a surprise they're 10-9-2 on the road, including being shut out 3 times. And unfortunately, the Blackhawks goaltending has been average, with stretches of good; but it's been a long time since either goalie stole a game for the team.
Most important, however, are the intagibles - namely, this team loves the playoffs. Even last year, after a miserable start to the season, the Blackhawks kicked into another level coming down the stretch, scratching out points to hold onto the 8th seed. Chicago's top four forwards: Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, and Jonathan Toews - always seem to reach a higher gear this time of the season. Toews in particular tends to be slower in the first half and a powerhouse in the second; he's already earned 27 goals and 50 points - if his scoring history is any indication, he has the potential to hit 50 goals. Toews and Hossa are both on track for 100-point seasons. Secondary scoring has also warmed up on the team, led by players like Viktor Stalberg and late-addition rookie sensation Andrew Shaw.
The team has had a week off to recharge their bones before the home stretch of the season. Corey Crawford will be starting in net: this game is the best opportunity for him to show that he's willing to grab the reins for another late-season stretch like he had last season, a rock in net, night after night. While he's been "good enough" so far this season, it's been three months since we saw the same powerhouse play we saw last spring.
It will be the battle of Corey vs. Cory in net, as it has been announced that Cory Schneider will be starting in net for the Canucks. The reasoning given was that Schneider had the opportunity to work out over the break, and Luongo had a rest; but there's also no doubt that Schneider is being showcased. Schneider has clearly shown he's ready to be a starter goalie, but due to the length of Luongo's contract, it won't happen in Vancouver. However, don't expect the Canucks to trade him before the season's over - they'll want him hot and ready for the playoffs; he's a proven asset.
Both Chicago and Vancouver have 64 points, but the Canucks have played one less game. Expect a heated game on Tuesday night as both teams come out hot, eager to make a statement win against a hated conference rival to kick off the back stretch of games towards the playoffs.
Keys to the game for the Blackhawks:
1. Stay off the penalty kill. Vancouver still leads the league with a 23% PP conversion, and they've scored 28.4% of their goals on the man advantage.
2. Keep it clean and simple, with defense first. One shift at a time, with a focus on the basics.
3. Skip the smack talk. Instead of talking up the rivalry for the fans' benefit, focus on the game and the play; let the game do all the talking.