2010-11 Game Previews
As Chicago finishes digging out from the fluffy white present Old Man Winter dumped on us over the weekend, the Blackhawks arrive in Denver for the first of a home-and-home series with the Colorado Avalanche culminating on Wednesday at the United Center. The first meeting between these two clubs was also in Denver for the season opener, when the Hawks fought back from a 3 – 1 deficit but still managed to come away with a 4 – 3 overtime loss.
A harbinger of the season to come, it would seem.
We have yet to see the San Jose Sharks in the United Center, but the oddities of the NHL schedule have the Blackhawks climbing aboard a plane to visit the HP Pavilion on Saturday to take on Todd McLellan’s squad once more. Hope the boys brought more than just their Speedos.
Our last time swimming with the Sharks they smelled chum in the water, sunk their teeth into Marty Turco and wouldn’t let go, potting goals from Dany Heatley, Joe Pavelski, Jamal Mayers and Patrick Marleau. Antti Niemi had the last laugh against his former team, making 30 saves and coming away with a 5 – 2 win.
The Dallas Stars come into tonight’s game sitting second in the Western Conference, three points behind Detroit, and just suffered their first loss in 7 games on Monday. If we’re lucky enough not to get Kari Lehtonen in goal, we get Andrew Raycroft: 3 – 1 record, 1.65 GAA, .951 save percentage. Brad Richards, Loui Eriksson, James Neal, and Mike Ribiero are all comfortably north of 20 points in 26 games.
Dallas is burning as white hot as… as… hmm. What’s a good analogy?
There are two reasons for the Blackhawks to kick it into gear tonight against the Calgary Flames. First, getting shut out by Vancouver two nights ago on home ice. Second, the embarrassing loss the Hawks suffered at the hands of the Flames two weeks ago by the score of 7 – 2. That absolutely must be avenged tonight.
We tend to scoff at the Canucks in general, because we have Roberto Luongo’s number and we tend to knock them around like a piñata pretty much every time we see them, especially at the United Center. But we had better take the game more seriously this time: the Canucks come in fresh off a 7 – 2 win over Calgary. That game included a noteworthy hat-trick from Mason Raymond — one tally on the power play, one at even strength, and one shorty. Not often you see that.
So you can bet the Canucks will be feeling their oats and itching for a scrap when they hit Chicago tonight, especially after the bitch-slapping we gave them in GM Place the week before last. We showered the Vancouver net with 41 shots, chased Bobby Lu before the end of the 2nd, and walked out of there with a 7-1 victory. They will be looking for some payback. Expect Vancouver’s Tanner pain-in-the-Glass to be the latest fool to challenge — and get bludgeoned by — John Scott early on.
It’s been an exciting few days for Blackhawks fans, as we wound down the Circus Trip with four wins, our star winger got injured at practice, and the phrase “goalie controversy” threatened to rear its ugly head again. But we’ll get to that in a minute. The task at hand are the boys in blue and gold, and game time is not even 12 hours away.
Since the LA Kings visited the United Center on October 27th, the Kings went on a tear. Los Angeles won six in a row, followed by a six-game stretch in which they allowed the opposing teams to take 11 of the 12 possible points from them. The Blackhawks arrive in Los Angeles on the occasion of that 13th game, wondering if the Kings will break their streak of bad luck, or start a new one.
The teams that de-throned the Kings in that stretch were nothing to sneeze at, including Columbus and Montreal, both in the top four teams of their respective conferences. But the key to these wins appears, statistically at least, to be dependent on two players. With rare exception, the following maxim is true: if Jonathan Quick plays, LA wins. If Jonathan Bernier gets the start, LA loses. Chicago faced Bernier in their game at the United Center.
Tonight, the Blackhawks will face Jonathan Quick.
The last time we saw the Anaheim Ducks it was less than two weeks ago at the United Center, and it was one of the games we want to remember from this year. Okay, Duncan Keith getting his pocket picked in the deep slot and allowing a goal less than a minute after we had taken the early lead wasn’t highlight-reel material. But the Blackhawks shelled Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller with 43 shots, allowing only 26 against, and Viktor Stalberg gave Corey Crawford the win with a late-OT goal.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was a nice send-off victory for the Circus Trip, as we now pay a visit to the Honda Center in Anaheim to see those same Ducks again. The Hawks are fresh off a loss in San Jose, where a stop-and-start effort ended in a 5 – 2 defeat, the salt in that wound being the name “Niemi” pasted across the jersey of the opposing goaltender. Hopefully the ‘Hawks get angry and hand it to the Ducks for some payback…
Well! What a difference 6 months makes.
6 months and one day ago, Antti Niemi was stellar between the pipes for Chicago as the Blackhawks swept the San Jose Sharks from the Western Conference Finals on their way to winning the Stanley Cup.
Now, Niemi is struggling in net for the Sharks, and both teams are shadows of their former selves. Chicago is hovering just one point above the 8th spot in the West; and if the playoffs were to start today, the Sharks would be scouting good tee times. So while on the surface this game appears to be a heated re-match of last year’s playoff encounter, in reality it will likely come down to which team sucks less.
The Sharks have been streaky this year: win two, lose two. Win three, lose three. They are coming off a loss and two OT defeats in their last three games, due in no small part to feeble goaltending. Neither Niemi nor starter Antero Nittymaki could get their team through overtime in their previous two efforts, and neither Colorado nor Dallas needed more than 3 shots to dent the twine for the game-winner. With Niemi’s 3.93 GAA, that honestly should come as a surprise to nobody.
Offense has been San Jose’s bread and butter for some time now, with Uber-Players Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley leading the charge on the team’s first line. They are getting goal support from other players too this year, with Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski and defenseman Dan Boyle close behind in the points race. That explains why the Sharks have scored five or more goals in 5 of their 9 wins so far this season.
Defense hasn’t been stellar so far, with half of their core lineup hovering at or below the +1 mark, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic bringing up the rear with a -10 on the season. Former Blackhawks draft pick Kent Huskins is a bright spot, with two assists and a +7 in 19 games.
The slow start to the year has San Jose fans puzzled, and the blogosphere talking trade. One thing is for sure: this is not last year’s Sharks.
So much the better, because this is not last year’s Blackhawks either. This time last year, the Blackhawks were wrapping up an 8-game winning streak that would leave their record at 16-5-2. This year, the Hawks longest winning streak is 4 games, and their record is 11-10-2.
Confidence should be high in the locker room, however: the Blackhawks’ had 13 players with at least one point in Saturday’s 7 – 1 win over Vancouver, chasing long-time whipping-boy Roberto Luongo in the process. It was a night for the stars to come out and play: Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews all lit the lamp, and Marian Hossa had 3 assists on the night.
Also starting to shine more brightly is Troy Brouwer, who has two goals in as many games and is starting to assert himself more decisively. Recently-written-off Fernando Pisani has four points in five games; and don’t look now, but Viktor Stalberg is fifth on the team with six goals, and he hasn’t even adjusted to playing with Kane and Toews yet. If that line ever gels the way it potentially could, they could change games all by themselves.
Goaltending remains solid: both netminders are above .900 save percentage and below 3.00 GAA, and one more win puts Corey Crawford back at the .500 mark for the year.
The weak spot continues to be defense, where the play of (though it pains me to say it) Duncan Keith deserves to be singled out as particularly sub-par. At least once a period he’s making a bad pass, getting his pocket picked, or losing a battle against the boards that allows a scoring chance for the opposing team.
It’s almost to the point of asking, “What’s wrong with the kid?” Bad breakup with the fiancee? Family member sick? Paying too much for car insurance? This is *not* the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman we saw last year, and honestly, something needs to be done about it. I have a feeling that if Dunc gets his act together this team will start to see a substantial rebound. In my opinion, somebody needs to take the reins on that task. Coach Q…
Late start tonight: puck drops at 9:30pm Chicago time. It’s a national broadcast on the NHL Network, though Chicago viewers will see the game on WGN. Broadcast radio is WGN AM-720, and XM subscribers should tune in to channel 205
Okay, well that was torture.
The Blackhawks followed up a dominant performance against the worst team in the Western Conference (a 5 – 0 win over Edmonton) with a middling effort against the second-worst team in the Western Conference (last night’s 7 – 2 loss to Calgary). The ‘Hawks are now back to .500, for the Circus trip, and for the season.
Tonight it’s the Vancouver Canucks, the team Chicago has bounced from the playoffs the last two years straight — turning Vancouver fans against their starting goaltender and team captain in the process. Now Roberto “WWWWWWWWWAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH” Luongo is just a plain old goalie, the captain’s ‘C’ now residing on the jersey of Henrietta Sedin.
But the change hasn’t improved Luongo’s play any, as the Canucks fell to the Hawks 2 – 1 earlier this year at the United Center, each of the Blackhawks deking Luongo out of his panty liners in the shootout to seal the win. Luongo’s 2.69 GAA, .913 save percentage and 7-5-2 record suggest that this year is bound to disappoint Canucks fans once again.
Offensively, the Sedin twins have been the Canucks bread and butter this season, and sure enough they are tied for the team lead with 24 points each. Mikael Samuelson and Ryan Kessler are the next most prolific forwards at 12 points apiece, so you have a frame of reference for exactly how much the Canucks are relying on the Sedins’ output this year. Suffice to say, stop the Sedins and you stop the Canucks.
But the Blackhawks have been having a hard time stopping anyone this year, as the loss to Calgary illustrated rather embarrassingly. Brian Campbell was the only blueliner that ended the night in positive territory, but the carnage was spread pretty evenly among the remaining defensive corps. Marty Turco’s barely-above-.800 save percentage from the tilt is the worst performance since the Edmonton shellacking on October 29th, and the most goals-allowed by him this season.
Marty, this is NOT the time to turn into Marc Lamothe. Coach Joel Quenneville has decided not to take that chance, and is starting Corey Crawford between the pipes tonight.
The Blackhawks’ offensive stars were kept off the score sheet completely in the Calgary game, another bad sign. The fact that we are wondering which of our million-dollar men are going to earn their keep on any given night is an indication that this team is not firing on all cylinders, and in fact has a long way to go.
And so, we cross our fingers, and hope for the best.
9:00pm CST game time this evening. Comcast SportsNet for TV here in Chicago, and Canadian viewers will see this game as the second part of a Hockey Night In Canada double-header on CBC. Broadcast radio is WGN AM-720, and XM subscribers will hear the game on channel 204.