Shaw, Bickell Lift Hawks Over Caps
The Chicago Blackhawks did just about everything necessary tonight to pad their sixth place playoff spot lead with another two points, while narrowing the gap between themselves and their division rivals, the Nashville Predators, who sit just two points ahead in the Western Conference race.
The Blackhawks played a consistent and focused hockey game en route to their 5-2 win over the struggling Washington Capitals, who have Buffalo and Winnipeg right on their heals for possession of the eighth and final eastern conference playoff spot.
Rookie Andrew Shaw scored twice, Viktor Stalberg scored his 18th goal of the season, and Patrick Kane potted his 19th goal of the year just before Bryan Bickell sealed the win with his empty netter.
The Washington Capitals did a poor job of restricting the Blackhawks' puck possession throughout the entire game. When the Blackhawks are allowed to control the puck for a substantial amount of time, opposing teams struggle to match up with them defensively. That's exactly what happened in this particular game.
Andrew Shaw gave Chicago a one goal lead less than four minutes into the first period when Duncan Keith's rebound shot through the slot caught a piece of Shaw and caromed into the net.
Considered by many to be one of, if not the fastest skater in the NHL, Viktor Stalberg made it 2-0 a few minutes later when Patrick Sharp shoveled the puck into the Capitals zone and a streaking Viktor Stalberg blew past Capitals' defenseman Dmitry Orlov, deked past goaltender Michal Neuvirth to put the puck home.
Washington got a big boost a little over two minutes into the second period when the Capitals dumped the puck into the Blackhawks zone and Niklas Hjalmarsson, who has missed a significant time of late, failed to clear the puck out and Washington easily capitalized. Keith Aucoin fed a perfect pass across to Mike Knuble who ripped a wrist shot past Corey Crawford to cut Chicago's lead to 2-1.
But that would be as far as the Capitals would get in this bout.
Patrick Kane made it a 3-1 game a little more than seven minutes into the second period when Marian Hossa, Andrew Brunette and Kane simply out-worked the Capitals in their own zone. Hossa lugged the puck into the Washington zone, fed it to Brunette, who drew the Capitals' defensemen towards him and he quickly fed Patrick Kane on the right side to put the puck into a wide-open net.
The Blackhawks fourth goal midway through the second period by Andrew Shaw very accurately portrayed the significant edge held by the Blackhawks over the Capitals throughout the duration of the game, when Shaw made a very simple play behind the Washington net to make it a 4-1 game. Shaw battled along the boards for the puck behind the net and made an effortless wrap-around attempt to slip the puck underneath Neuvirth.
Understandably, Capitals' Captain Alex Ovechkin clearly was not about to let his team get completely embarrassed and made it a 4-2 game three minutes later when he used his unique speed and strength to take the puck wide-right and then quickly cut back in to fire a laser of a wrist shot past Crawford. Ovechkin's 30th goal of the season would wrap up the scoring for the second period.
Despite the fact that Corey Crawford wasn't tested very much by facing just 18 shots on net and allowing two goals, he did make some challenging saves to maintain the Blackhawks lead throughout the game. Not an easy task against a Capitals team with that much fire power.
There were a few flashes of a Blackhawks team tonight reminiscent of the one from 2009-2010 when they won the Stanley Cup. It's a much different team now, but fans saw tonight quite a few of the same things that made the Blackhawks so successful that year, particularly in their possession and protection of the puck.
The good news is that the Blackhawks have won three games in a row, are 7-2-1 in the last ten games and have a five point lead over seventh place Colorado in the playoff race. However, what's worrisome is that all the teams chasing Chicago right now, with the exception of Colorado, have at least one game in hand.
The Blackhawks have nine games left to play before the post-season and if they can replicate the all-around consistent effort from tonight's game for the remainder of the season and beyond, they will be in great shape for mid-April.