Blackhawks take a bite out of the Sharks
The Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks last faced off in San Jose in early December, a tight 3-2 OT win. Before that was the 0-1 loss in San Jose the night before Thanksgiving, a game which saw Chicago battling back after suffering a crushing - and humiliating - 9-2 loss to Edmonton a few nights before.
Since that time, Chicago has played well enough to land themselves in constant competition for the number one position in the West. Likewise, the Sharks have finally found some smoother sailing after rough patches to start the season, and have now clawed their way to the top of the struggling Pacific division. Of course, they still have ex-Blackhawk (and Cup-winning) Antti Niemi signed in goal as their #1; and Niemi has proven a winning record against his old team: last year he went 3-1 versus Chicago. It took until the last matchup of last season for the Blackhawks to beat him - this year, Chicago is currently 2-1-0 versus San Jose.
While the Blackhawks dominated most of the first - pickpocketing pucks, forcing turnovers, and firmly holding possession - the shots on goal were nearly even. But it was Chicago who burst onto the scoreboard first, late in the period, with a goal by Dave Bolland at 18:01. Red-hot Viktor Stalberg scored again at 19:39, and suddenly, the Blackhawks were taking a 2-goal lead into the locker room.
It's been mentioned more than a few times that the Blackhawks can have a bad tendency to take their foot off the gas with a lead, but Chicago also has a pretty good record this season when holding lead after the first period. The Sharks, on the other hand, have one of the best records in the lead for second-period scoring, so it's with no surprise that San Jose brought the pressure in the second. Joe Pavelski got the Sharks on the board just 1:42 into the period, and Jamie McGinn tied the game just 26 seconds later.
The abrupt change in score seemed to give the Blackhawks a jolt from their brief mental lapse, as they buckled down on defense again. Jonathan Toews scored at 7:06, and then Niemi managed to keep the Blackhawks off the scoresheet again until rookie sensation Andrew Shaw charged the net, whacked his own rebound back at Niemi, and finally beat the Sharks goalie with his third shot, with a jaw-dropping leap over Niemi's sprawled leg and then whacking the puck home while Niemi was out of position.
It looked like Chicago might cruise out to more goals, but Niemi then closed the door. Tommy Wingels, a native of Evanston who grew up watching the Hawks but now plays for the Sharks, pulled San Jose within one by scoring with just under 5 minutes left in the period. Although the Sharks pressed hard from that point, they just couldn't solve Chicago's defense - or its goalie, Corey Crawford, who once shared goaltending duties with Niemi for the Rockford IceHogs (AHL).
The scoresheet said it all for the game: the Blackhawks won 58% of the faceoffs; had 16 takeaways; and had 40 SOG to San Jose's 24. Aside from a lapse early in the second, it was mostly a very complete game by Chicago.
San Jose coach Todd McLellan noted after the game that his team had been completely outworked, stating, "We're not overly flattered with the 4-3 score. It could have easily been a lot worse."
One of the more interesting interviews happened during the second intermission, when WGN interviewed Jonathan Toews. They asked him about "weather(ing) a little bit of a storm early in the second period", and asking if it was a wake-up call.
Toews responded: "Well, maybe just a little bit of a wake-up call. They're not going to go anywhere. They're going to keep working for sixty minutes here. If we want to get two points, we have to earn it against these guys .... We need to bring the same effort in the third that we did yesterday in Detroit." Toews also noted they still had the lead, could win without scoring again, and mainly needed to play smart defensively, and stick to puck possession.
The interview seemed a little odd. Was Toews practically admitting that the team felt confident about the lead, and they'd taken the foot off the gas? It felt a little weird having him point out that the team "didn't need" to score again - after all, the Bruins aren't satisfied with a 1-goal lead, and the Blackhawks certainly shouldn't be, either.
While the Blackhawks showed what kind of game they're capable of, the team needs to remember to play that way every night - and play the full sixty (or more, if needed -- see Saturday's game in Detroit). When they do, they are very dangerous, very hard to keep up with, and put a lot of pressure on the other team's defense.
As the Blackhawks close out the month, they'll be facing the struggling Buffalo Sabres before seeing a strong Florida Panthers team, and then have home-and-away games with the surging Nashville Predators. When they return after the All-Star break, they'll close out the month by kicking off the February "ice show trip" on the road in Vancouver against their archnemisis, the Canucks.
On a side note, Andrew Shaw has been remarkable thus far, collecting 4 goals (including Sunday's GWG), 5 PIM, a 26.7 S%, 16 hits, 6 blocks, and 54.8% FOW - and that's in just 7 games. As he told Peggy Kusinski of NBC in an interview this week, after being passed up in 2 drafts and finally being picked by Chicago in the 5th round of the 2011 Draft, he's "out to prove teams wrong". He's definitely impressing his own team: he's already averaging 14:35 TOI/game (and rising), including plenty of time both on the PK and PP. The timing of Shaw's rising could not have been scripted better: he fills the same role Daniel Carcillo did before Carcillo went down with an injury - and Shaw does it with far less time spent in the box.
Fellow rookie Jimmy Hayes also continues to impress, being the kind of "big body with a scoring touch" that the Blackhawks have been looking for in Bryan Bickell for two years. Both players are making excellent cases for sticking around with the main club when other players return from injury.