Rather than the standard previews of Central Division foes from an outsider’s point of view, I decided to take a different approach. This week, Behind Enemy Lines will take a look at our divisional rivals through the eyes of those invested in the team in one way or another. Today, it’s the Nashville Predators and Dirk Hoag, who runs the fantastic blog, On the Forecheck
Bartl: The major development surrounding the Predators quite obviously was the Shea Weber arbitration award, which set a new record. However, the situation dragged on for a good amount of time, with each side very far off on their requested salary. With no long-term contract, does this situation become a distraction for Weber or the team during the season?
Dirk: Absolutely, this will be a distraction hanging over the team until some long-term resolution is found. You can bet that media will ask about this situation in every NHL city the Preds visit, and the Canadian media in particular will speculate often about how their Olympic hero would look great playing north of the border. When the going gets tough during the season, Weber’s captaincy will naturally come into question – how does it look when your team leader couldn’t even agree on a one-year contract with the team? All those questions and more will be fair game.
Put a log on whatever fire is currently lit under the Blackhawks’ collective ass.
The Blackhawks finally realized that a regulation NHL hockey game lasts 60 minutes, rather than pretending this was Kindergarten and there was nap time after the milk gets passed out.
A few thoughts before we get into Boxing:
♦ You’ll hear this a lot, I’m sure, but Duncan Keith played his best game of the season. I’d love to know why he decided to save it for this long, but we got back our Norris Trophy winner for a night. Keith was all over the place, made smart passes and looked more aggressive and smart than I’ve seen him in awhile.
♦ Niklas Hjalmarsson played only three minutes in the third period after suffering an upper-body injury.
♦ Hi, Marian Hossa, I like when you’re awesome. Pekka Rinne may as well have been Ray Charles on that breakaway, because he had no chance. I like this Hossa. I want more of this Hossa. Please can I have more of this Hossa?
♦ No more bitching about calls from that Vancouver game a few weeks ago. I’ve heard people bring it up once a week since how the Blackhawks got hosed. That makes two phanton goaltender interference calls that negated goals for the opposition, and we won both games. We’re all even. Drop it now.
♦ Why Viktor Stalberg continues to see less than 10 minutes per night boggles my mind. What’s he done so wrong? This looks like another instance similar to when Q got something in his head about Jordan Hendry and he got scratch more than an instant lotto ticket for two months.
♦ Corey Crawford played very well tonight, and his save on Martin Erat right off the initial faceoff to open the game kept Nashville from taking early momentum. If that goal goes in, I might be writing something completely different tonight.
And now, Boxing:
The Nashville Predators sit in a 4-way tie for the 5th through 8th spots in the Western Conference, with the Blackhawks nipping at their heels only 2 points behind. A win for the ‘Hawks tonight puts them into that pile as well, with momentum on their side. Put simply, it’s another must-win game. Just like the last one, and like the other 21 left to be played after tonight.
I’m investing in a defibrillator. This is getting ridiculous.
Another third period collapse cost the Blackhawks a point on Saturday, and it was only due to remarkable goaltending on the part of Corey Crawford that they managed to keep it to one. But the story was different on Sunday, as the Blackhawks erupted for four goals in the third period, turning up the gas and stuffing the previous night’s loss down the Predators’ throats.
Additionally it was a weekend that showed some of the areas of weakness the Blackhawks need to work on: between the two games their superstar forwards scored only one of the ‘Hawks’ eight goals; penalty killing was heinous; and the predictability of the Blackhawks’ shootout participants means everyone but the greenest of rookie goaltenders knows who is shooting, in what order, and where they will be aiming for.
The Chicago Blackhawks have an important two games this weekend with the division rival Predators, who just had a six-game win streak come to an end with a 3 – 2 loss to Florida. We know this team and their strategy well: aggressive two-man forecheck; three-across modified trap defense; and stingy — but not impenetrable — goaltending.
The Preds are 2nd in the league in goals against, but 24th in goals scored. Their leading scorer Patrick Hornqvist has a whopping 13 goals. Patrick Sharp has 25 goals, and the Blackhawks have 6 players with 10 goals or more.
So the key for this weekend will be breaking out of our zone, smashing through their defense, and pummeling their goaltender. Also mission-critical: ZERO mistakes in our own zone. Having Nick Boynton out of the lineup should help to minimize that problem. We lost the first two games to these guys this season, but took the third in a definitive 4 – 1 victory at home on December 22 — battering goaltender Anders Lindback with 35 shots. Repeat that performance, and we’re golden.
So that’s the Predators in a nutshell: now on to more important matters. There are several things to be on the lookout for with the Blackhawks, first among them rookie goaltender Corey Crawford. Craw-daddy has a 120+ minute shutout streak going, and will start again tonight in Nashville.
First up, let’s dispense with the “gotta be a record” talk. The modern era record is 323 minutes set by Brian Boucher with Phoenix in 2004. But the longest shutout streak in the history of the NHL is held by Alec Connell of the Ottawa Senators back in 1927 — 461 minutes, 29 seconds. Seven and a half games.
But the really interesting talk involves a certain trophy that starts with a ‘C’ that is given to the top rookie in the NHL. This, to my way of thinking, is the Chicago media types getting WAY ahead of themselves and creating something fun to write about.
After all, when Steve Mason won the rookie of the year back in 2008-09 he racked up 33 wins. Corey Crawford is currently at 15, and there are 37 games left in the season. Assuming he gets 4 out of 5 starts, he’d have to win 18 of those 30 games to meet Mason’s mark. Not that 33 wins is the minimum requirement, I’m just saying — it’s a long shot. Let’s be happy that we have a hot starter with a strong, veteran waiting in the wings, and hope it continues.
The other thing to keep an eye on will happen when the puck drops, and will be invisible to the naked eye. Rookie defenseman Nick Leddy is playing his 10th game with the Blackhawks tonight. The minute the puck drops, Nick Leddy is likely to be with the Blackhawks for the rest of the season.
The ten-game threshold is the point at which the team “burns” the first year of Leddy’s entry-level contract. That means that the team has decided that Leddy is ready for the NHL, and is willing to back up that opinion by tossing aside a half-million dollars. From a practical perspective, the team would not breech this limit without a firm intention to keep Leddy in Chicago for the remainder of the season. No sense in blowing 500 large if you aren’t going to get your money’s worth.
Get used to seeing Nick Leddy as the fifth D-man with the Blackhawks. A welcome change.
Game time is 7:00pm tonight in Music City. TV is Comcast SportsNet, broadcast radio is WGN AM-720, and XM subscribers can find the game on channel 239.
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Three straight wins, two against opponents above the Blackhawks in the Central and another against a team the ‘Hawks should have fits with.
Oh, and all that was done without Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane.
Wednesday’s win against Nashville wasn’t exactly exciting — is anything against Nashville ever exciting? — but it’s two more points heading into a short Christmas break earned without two of the Blackhawks’ best offensive weapons. Pretty impressive to say the least.
Remember last season when the ‘Hawks were playing well around Thanksgiving and Hossa returned with a two-goal performance? A new season, a different holiday and another return is coming up. Would be nice to have a repeat of that shit.
One quick note: Jack Skille and Dave Bolland each played a hell of a game. (Bartl limbers up, sits back, takes deep breath, inserts foot directly into mouth.)
And onto Boxing we go…
Did you hear? Jim Balsillie came to Nashville! Who? Jim Balsillie! The owner of the company that makes BlackBerry smartphones who has more money than Daddy Warbucks and wants desperately to buy an American NHL team and move it to Hamilton, Ontario except he’s pissed off enough owners of existing teams that nobody will ever let him buy controlling interest in an NHL franchise and even if he somehow weaseled his way into buying one they would never EVER let him move it to Hamilton because Gary Bettman is a butt-munch and has convinced the owners that he should get whatever he wants and he hates Jim Balsillie’s guts! That guy! He was in Nashville!
Does this mean he’s trying to buy the Predators? Is he trying to assemble various minority interests to form a majority stake? I think you’d have better luck trying to pick which reality TV show Kate Gosselin is going to show up on next.
Those of you reading this are probably dreading tonight’s game. My comment to my wife yesterday was, every day the Blackhawks don’t play is a day they don’t lose. That’s what it’s come to.
How bad is it? In our last 10 games we are 3-7 including 5 losses on home ice. The losses are close, four of the seven are by one goal. Patrick Sharp in his last six games has no goals, two assists, and rates a -7. Marian Hossa is a -3 in his last six games with no points, period. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have totaled no goals, five assists and are a combined -10 in their last four games.
To call this a slump is like calling Megan Fox “cute.”
But this goes beyond statistics. When this team took the ice last year, they were intimidating. There was a confidence and a determination about them that elicited fear in opponents, and prepared crowds in other arenas for the inevitable reality that their beloved skate-monkeys were about to be treated like toilet paper.
This year, I don’t think they could instill fear into the hearts of an opposing squad of pee-wee girls. Their passing is the biggest giveaway. Last year it was no-look, tape-to-tape at full stride from the opening minute. Now it’s hard to get them to hit an open man standing still.
They’re skittish, they’re tentative, they’re trying to do too much, they’re trying for highlight-reel goals, and it’s making them look foolish. I hate to say it, but this team more closely resembles the Blackhawks of 10 years ago than team one that hoisted the Stanley Cup.
They’ll get the next chance to redeem themselves and show us that they *can* bring the intensity tonight when they take the ice in Nashville. The last time they faced the Predators it was on home ice, as they gave rookie goalie Anders Lindback his first *ever* win in his first *ever* start by letting a third-period lead slip away with two late goals. This was to become a trend, as the last two games showed us.
The significant change to the lineup for the Hawks is that Dave Bolland will be back at center between Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane. Bolland was activated from IR on Friday after sitting out the last two weeks with an upper-body injury. Bolland’s play prior to being placed on IR was arguably the worst of his career as a Blackhawk, so it’s unlikely that his return will spark anything more than uncomfortable sideways glances.
Nashville comes in at 6-5-3, having just broken a five-game losing losing streak by beating St. Louis in a shootout on Thursday. Lindback has actually been their more consistent goaltender this year, as starter Pekka Rinne has shown some chinks in his armor. No injuries of substance to the Predators, and they will come in eager to get the home-town crowd back on their side.
Game time is 7:00pm tonight. Comcast SportsNet for the TV broadcast, WGN AM-720 is the broadcast radio outlet, and XM subscribers look for the game on channel 238.
By now you’ve either seen, heard, or read about the Blackhawks’ snooze-inducing loss to the Nashville Predators, Barry “The Evil Troll” Trotz leading his crew of injury replacements to a late-3rd-period game winner that sealed the deal against Chicago.
I’m not going to give you the blow-by-blow, as it will likely put you to sleep — just like the second period of last night’s game did. Typical Nashville, but just like last year’s playoff series, whatever it is they do, they seem to throw the Hawks off their game every time. Last night was no exception: the forwards could barely get anything going, and the defense looked like they all had their skates on the wrong feet.
Some quick thoughts about the ups and downs:
- Rookie Nashville goaltender Anders Lindback beat the defending Stanley Cup Champions in his first NHL start. So he’s probably sitting at home milking the moose right now, thinking about last night’s win and dreaming of his Ryan Miller-esque contract demands. Well, don’t rub it raw there, Andy. Next time we see you it may be 50 shots coming at you instead of 25. Even blind mice find cheese every once in a while. This ain’t over.
- Dave Bolland was easily one of the most consistent, over-performing players throughout the playoffs last year. Now he looks like he’s playing over-40 Men’s League. Is he injured? Sick, maybe? Did his hamster die? Something has to change there. He’s a liability right now.
- Viktor Stalberg hasn’t impressed me with any exceptional bursts of speed quite yet. What impressed me last night was his shot. The kid can unload, both slap shot and wrist shot. More accuracy, and he’s going to have goalies wondering how it got behind them so fast.
- If Patrick Sharp hasn’t fully recovered from whatever “undisclosed injury” he suffered last week, get him off the ice. Right now he’s playing like old people have sex: slow and sloppy. We need him at full capacity, and if that means letting him have two weeks off, so be it.
- If there is one thing I would work on with this team right now, it’s conditioning. The Hawks used to out-skate teams by 10 minutes into the second, and dominate by halfway through the third. That needs to happen again if we are going to put up good numbers this season.
- Corey Crawford played even better against Nashville than he did against Buffalo. He was screened on the first goal, the second was a deflection, and the third was a PK defensive lapse that left Joel Ward standing by the far post with enough time and space to smoke a cigarette and chat up the girls in the front row before snapping in the game-winner. Crawford has great reaction time, he’s squaring to the shooter well, he’s seeing the ice much better, and his rebound control is improving. Suffice to say I have a good deal of confidence in our backup goaltender.
- When Niklas Hjalmarsson comes back on Saturday, give Duncan Keith the night off. The guy is killing himself out there, and it doesn’t help his game, and it doesn’t help the team. He can’t be two defensemen, he can only be Dunc. Right now he’s being whipped like a rented mule, and it’s going to take a toll.
- Speaking of which, I would like to see a return to the Niklas Hjalmarsson we saw during the last regular season. He’s been trying to be a cross between Brent Sopel and Brian Campbell, and in the process he’s turned into Alain Nasreddine. Stop it, Nik. You’re no good to us this way.
- The Blackhawks had four — that’s FOUR — shots on goal in the third. That means I had only four shots fewer than the entire team while sitting on my living room couch and arguing with my cat about whose roast beef sandwich that really was.
- It’s my belief that this line juggling and musical defensemen is contributing to this crappy start. I know it’s Coach Q‘s way of doing things, but you can’t develop chemistry with guys who you only play with for three shifts a game. Look at it this way: it can’t get much worse if we stick to set lines for an entire game. Why not try it once, see what happens.
The Hawks are at Columbus on Friday, and you can bet Buffalo will be puttin’ on the foil to get a crack at Hammer when they visit the UC on Saturday. Check back here for previews before and wrap-ups after each game, and we’re always good for some laughs at others’ expense. Hey, they say stick to what you’re good at.
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