When It’s Time For Leavin’ I Hope You’ll Understand

Photo: AP

The battle of wills appears to be over, and it ended with a wave.

In Monday night’s game against the Blues, Blackhawks’ goaltender and ramblin’ man “Myocardial Marty” Turco skated out of his net to field a puck at the left face-off dot. He stopped. He looked up ice. And he waved.

Some background for you who haven’t been following this closely. The word on Turco when the Blackhawks acquired him in the off-season was that he was a skilled puck-handler, able to deftly wander the defensive zone and become an additional mobile asset on breakouts. This, it was reported, would be particularly helpful on power plays and when opponents were trying to execute a line change. Or for beaning Mike Leggo in the melon when he misses calls so obvious that somebody standing outside the United Center and facing away from the arena could have seen them.

During pre-season we saw this in action: both the good, and the bad. In two separate games Turco wandered up-ice and fired a tape-to-tape saucer pass to our right winger on their blue line. Both of those plays ended with the puck behind their goaltender in the next five seconds. This was an incredible crowd-pleaser, and it showed the potential for Turco’s offensive capabilities.

But the down-side was when Turco would go on his fishing expeditions with opponents in our zone. Twice during pre-season Turco either mis-fired on a pass or was stripped of the puck, resulting in an open-net goal for the opposing team, and Turco himself diving frantically back towards the net looking like a leaping tree frog from a nature special on the National Geographic channel.

The TV broadcasters were even nice enough to use their super-slow-mo feature to show Turco, hanging in mid-air for what seemed like an eternity, all four limbs splayed in abject panic as the puck sails gently past him into the webbing. This was the other side of that double-edged sword Stan Bowman had bought at a discount.

So then, about a week ago there was a suggestion amongst the “legitimate” (ha-ha-ha) Blackhawks press corps that insinuated that perhaps there was the possibility that maybe Coach Joel Quenneville could potentially be growing tired of his number one goaltender making plays that made him look like the freshman goaltender on the St. Mary’s School for Girls JV team. This was whispered, few took note, and nothing more was said.

Then, last night, came the wave.

The wave was aimed at Brent Seabrook.

The wave said, “Come here and get this, I’m not passing it to you up there.” Which he did, and the play continued.

But what the wave really said was, “If I do what my instinct tells me to do, and things go badly with me 30 feet out of my net, Coach Q will have the trainers tape my wiener to my butt-crack, the long way, then make me skate side-boards with my skate laces tied together until Captain Serious believes I’ve learned my lesson.”

And thus, the battle of wills ended, with a wave.

I’m sure that we will see Marty Turco out of his net again, and I’m sure we will see him make bone-headed mistakes again. Every goalie does a few times a season. But I’m reasonably sure that the days of keeping a defibrillator charged and ready every time Turco is announced as the starter have come to an end.

(*sigh*) And I spent all that time thinking up a cool nickname for him…

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Shattered Dreams: A Sticky Situation

Pat Foley: “Welcome back to the action here at the United Center, ladies and gentlemen. Hawks down by one early in the third period, they’re fighting to get back in the game.”

Eddie Olczyk: “Hawks showing a lot of heart, they’re really turned up the gas here in the third.”

Foley: “Here’s Duncan Keith keeping it in, up the boards to Patrick Sharp… Holds there for a moment — now has Jonathan Toews racing towards the net, hits him with a pass, he SHOOTS!” OOOHHH and Toews’ stick shattered into a hundred pieces on that shot!”

Olczyk: “Great opportunity for Toews there, just couldn’t convert as the lumber cost him a scoring chance there, Pat.”

Foley: “Now the Hawks head back into the zone, Marian Hossa pulls up and waits, now hits Duncan Keith on the far point, the ONE TIMER: NO NOT AGAIN! Pieces of Keith’s stick wind up in the netting 75 feet above the ice surface.”

Olczyk: “Tough break for Duncs there Pat, he had the goaltender down and out, all he had to do was get that shot on net. But a broken twig stopped him cold.”

Foley: “Off the turnover, here’s Brent Seabrook now, gains the line, he’s got Davey Bolland with him, the pass across to Bolland— OH WHAT’S THIS! Bolland tries to field the pass, and his stick broke midway up the shaft!”

Olczyk: “Yeah, Pat, it looked like Bolland’s stick just crumpled like an aluminum can when he tried to catch that pass from Brent Seabrook.”

Foley: Now heading back to retrieve the dump-in all by himself is Niklas Hjalmarsson, he has plenty of time as he arrives to pick it — NO! Hjalmarsson’s stick exploded like a water balloon when he touched the puck with his stick!”

Olczyk: “I was talking to a rep from a stick manufacturer last week, Pat. They say they are putting new age materials in these sticks, they are so strong that an elephant can stand on one and it won’t snap.”

Foley: “All evidence to the contrary. Now ready for the face-off, Jake Dowell to take the draw, they’re ready and — GOOD GRAVY! Jake Dowell’s stick disintegrated as he began to take the draw! I don’t even think he touched the puck, did he Edzo?”

Olczyk: “Not at all, Pat. As we look at the replay, he set up for the draw, got his stick in position, now STOP IT RIGHT HERE! The referee still has the puck in his hands. As Jake Dowell gets a tighter grip on his stick, the shaft begins to fall apart like it’s made of sand. It was merely the added pressure he put on the stick when he gripped it that caused it to vaporize. All you young hockey players out there, if you’re dad is buying you these one-piece carbon sticks, you need to be on the lookout for this exact thing.”

Foley: “The Blackhawks, believe it or not, have not had a single shot on goal, but that’s not for a lack of trying. They have suffered, by my count, one hundred and thirty-one broken sticks! Trainer Mike Gapski is on the phone with the equipment manager who is in the car on the way to Total Hockey out in Schaumburg right now. Not sure he’s going to get back in time to save the Hawks tonight.”

Olczyk: “As a former player who was around before all of this one-piece composite business got started, Pat, I can tell you: there’s nothing like a good hunk of ash wrapped in fiberglass when it comes to scoring goals.”

Foley: “We’re waiting for them to clean up the debris as you look here at a picture of Patrick Kane, who as we heard this past week was a bit under the weather, in fact it looks like he’s got a bit of an itchy nose there on the bench.”

Olczyk: “Yeah, he’s asking the stick boy to hand him some tissues he has there on the — Holy Moly, Foley! Did you see that?”

Foley: “I sure did Eddie! Patrick Kane sneezed, and the stick he was holding in his other hand instantly turned to dust!”

Olczyk: “I have never seen anything like this before in my years playing, coaching and announcing the game of hockey. And look at that, the officials are now saying there’s too much debris on the ice, they can’t continue playing.”

Foley: “That will do it from here: the Hawks fall for the first time here at home, and as we sign off the United Center has asked us to inform you viewers that the Nickelback concert scheduled for tomorrow night has been postponed. Apparently the UC facilities personnel will be working around the clock to clean up the shrapnel caused by all the broken composite sticks during this game tonight.”

*     *     *     *     *

Major League Baseball only allows players to use bats made of wood. I’m now convinced they were on to something. This is getting fucking ridiculous.

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Boxing with ‘Hawks/Blues, 10/18/10

Here’s your latest edition of “Boxing” from the Blackhawks’ 3-2 OT win Monday against the St. Louis Blues. Sorry about not getting boxing going from the weekend games, but… actually, I’m not sorry. I was tired and lazy and you’re still alive so whatever.

There are two separate images — one for the Summary and one for the Box. Click on the images to enlarge them.

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Monday Evening Blues: St. Louis Visits Sweet Home Chicago

Photo: Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT

The Blackhawks bookend this week with a home-and-home series starting tonight at the United Center against the St. Louis Blues, who aren’t looking too bad so far this young season. Boasting a 2-1-1 record with wins over Philly and Anaheim, the Blues’ new goaltender Jaroslav Halak has backstopped them solidly with a 2.00 GAA and .909 save percentage. The Blues were counting on that, and so far Halak has delivered.

So far offense has been sparse, with the Blues scoring more than 3 goals only once so far this season. All but one game has been a one-goal margin, and two of their tilts have gone to OT. So the Blues aren’t blowing anybody out of the water so far, and since their marquee player had only 24 goals last season and boasts a NHL-career minus-14 rating, you can bet they’re not going to.

It appears from the box scores on their early outings, the Blues are trying to come out at break-neck speed, score quickly, and ride their early lead to a win. This didn’t work on Saturday against Dallas, and now that the Hawks are once again showing the kind of persistence that won them Lord Stanley’s Cup, it shouldn’t work in Chicago either. Blues dirtbag Cam Janssen is still out with a concussion, apart from that the Blues are healthy and ready to be beaten like the dogs that they are.

On the Blackhawks’ end, fans were puzzled and disappointed to hear the club announce that rookie defenseman Nick Leddy was sent down to the AHL affiliate Rockford IceHogs. The kid looked dazed and confused his first two regular-season NHL games, but had steadily improved since then and was showing promise. However this is likely a move designed to get him 20-25 minutes of ice time per game, and groom him for the future. I would not be surprised to see him called up — permanently — after the trade deadline to stick with the Blackhawks through the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. We’ll keep the name on your locker, Nick.

With Niklas Hjalmarsson returning from suspension this past Saturday, that leaves him, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook, as our top-three on the blueline. The bottom-four are now (everybody take a deep breath, this is going to hurt a bit) Nick Boynton, John Scott, Jordan Hendry, and Jassen Cullimore. It appears, with Leddy’s re-assignment, that we are going to have to endure this combination until Brian Campbell returns from his injury. Maalox Extra Strength can be found in the handy 16-oz. size at your local Walgreen’s store.

The good news is that the Blackhawks’ offense is kicking it into gear. The plus/minus numbers are still a little dodgy, but we’re starting to see the kinds of things that made Blackhawks hockey exciting last year. Tic-tac-toe passing. Power-play conversions. Short-handed goals. Patrick Sharp snapping in rebounds. Marian Hossa toying with goaltenders and making them cry. And most importantly, sticking with games until the final horn sounds. Our two wins over Buffalo were come-from-behind victories, and that’s the best news of all.

Marty Turco gets the start, and during his last two outings he has stopped all but 5 of 73 shots against. That’s a .931 save percentage. Let’s hope that keeps up. Coach Q was tight-lipped after practice today about lineup specifics, but spies peering over the dasher boards suggest that Jack Skille will be back in the lineup, John Scott will stay up on the wing, and Viktor Stalberg will get a rest.

Puck drops at 7:30, TV is Comcast SportsNet, broadcast radio AM-720 WGN. XM subscribers can find the game on channel 208. Sirius, aaaah find it yourself.

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Looking Sharp: ‘Hawks take two with help from a very handsome man

Hug me, cuz I'm beautiful. (Getty Images)

Patrick Sharp is a very handsome man. He’s a pretty decent hockey player, too.

The man behind the looks had a pair of two-goal games in Friday’s 5-2 win against Columbus and Saturday’s 4-3 win against Buffalo. Sharp’s performances also block that big spotlight beaming on Saturday’s win that the ‘Hawks pretty much should have lost.

But as my buddy Boston Joe told me earlier today when Michigan State struggled through a win against Illinois, “Good teams win.” The ‘Hawks still play like the champions they are when needed.

That was no more evident than during Friday’s dismantling of the BJs. After the loss to Nashville and with  Marty Turco sitting for two straight games, the ‘Hawks needed to take advantage of a rusty Columbus team that hadn’t played in nearly a week.

Sharp put 13 shots on net Friday. To put that into perspective, the ‘Hawks had 21 shots Saturday as a team. He’s simply playing like a man possessed. To me, it’s clear when someone is playing like they have something to prove when the kid in them comes out. After each of Sharp’s goals Saturday — which includes the game-winner late in the third period — he celebrated like he scored his first goal in pee-wee hockey. It was beautiful to watch, and he’s showing he knew he had to put his name on the scoresheet even more this season with all of the departures during offseason. He’s neat.

All right, onto the meat of this…

♦  Marian Hossa is a goddamn beast. A goal and an assist Friday, another goal Saturday. Him and Sharp have both potted five goals now and are clearly playing like men among boys. Not only is Hossa putting himself on the scoresheet, he’s doing all the things we need to appreciate more: Kill penalties, backcheck like a mother fucker, control the puck and provide scoring opportunities for his teammates. Hossa is the ultimate example of unselfishness, he’s got a six-game points streak and I have a gigantic man crush.

♦  There’s been a  Dave Bolland siting! He’s been playing like  Fat Albert on roller skates up until tonight, when he made a great move on  Patrick Lalime to tie the game 3-3. Bolland also was 13-for-19 on faceoffs tonight after farting on the dot most of the previous five games. Hopefully we see more of Saturday’s Bolland from here on out.

♦  Both of  Brent Seabrook’s assists tonight were gorgeous. He made a great pass on a 4-on-4 to spring Bolland and earlier fed a beautiful lead pass to Hossa for his goal. We haven’t seen the 2009-10 Seabs until tonight, which isn’t surprising given he’s been playing nearly a half-hour per night. But Saturday his passing skills led to two big goals.

♦  John Scott is a 6’8″, 258-pound paperweight.

♦  Anyone else surprised the Sabres didn’t at least try and stir up shit with  Niklas Hjalmarsson tonight? I really felt we’d see some punches thrown or at least a monster hit from someone. Eh, whatever.

♦  O Campbell, Where Art Thou?  Jassen Cullimore belongs in Rockford or on a couch somewhere. He played 18:54 in sheer terror and had me begging for  Brent Sopel’s ugly ass by the 10-minute mark. Also, the ‘Hawks were out-shot 41-21 against Buffalo and let 32 go through against Columbus. PooP.

♦  What a week for  Nick Boynton. He takes a dipshit delay-of-game penalty that doomed the ‘Hawks against the Preds, took another dipshit penalty at the end of the game tonight against Buffalo and played a role in the hotness that is  Jen Patterson getting fired from Comcast Sportsnet. Asshole.

♦  Back to some better stuff,  Marty Turco played really well in both victories this weekend. He may scare the shit out of you and may lead you to brief moments of heart failure, but Turco makes the saves when they’re need the most. The ‘Hawks have made life difficult for their goaltenders so far this year, and Turco has stepped up.

I know there’s more stuff I can add, but I don’t want to make this too long. “Boxing” upcoming… when I feel like it.

‘Til then…

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No Excuses: Blackhawks vs. Not-The-Buckeyes

Photo: ESPN.com

Columbus, Ohio residents were shocked to learn in early October that they still had an NHL hockey team! Paying so much attention to the still-undefeated and #1-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes football team, residents began calling the newspapers and TV outlets wondering who the funny-looking guys were wearing the skates and red-white-and-blue uniforms.

It didn’t help matters that the BJ’s spent late September and early October eating Lutfisk, cabbage, and pickled lingenberries while playing two regular-season games against the Sharks in Stockholm, Sweden. How could anybody pay attention to them, the team wasn’t even in town!

Alas, with so much hullaballoo over OSU and their pigskin performance, not to mention the disappointing season the Blue Jackets had in 2009-10, both media coverage and ticket sales are down noticeably for the Columbus franchise. Add to that a goalie coming off a sophomore slump and a leading-scorer whose effectiveness is waning, and you have the recipe for a, “Who Jackets?” reaction from central Ohio residents.

The just-completed off-season brought one substantial change, and little else. Manitoba Moose head coach Scott Arniel was brought in as a permanent replacement for long-departed Ken Hitchcock, bringing with him a puck-possession style system that the team is having difficulty adapting to.

Apart from that the only brand-name addition to the roster is former Blackhawk and departed Edmonton captain Ethan Moreau who they snatched up on waivers. He is expected to bring some energy back to the team and provide leadership and confidence in what is reported to be a dour locker room scene.

KHL-banished prospect Nikita Filatov has returned to the team after personality clashes last season with Hitchcock and some teammates — many of whom are still on the squad. So while the young sniper has the potential to provide steady and crowd-pleasing offense, there is also the possibility that his attitude presents problems for the team. Only time will tell.

The Jackets have young Steve Mason between the pipes, who followed up a Calder-trophy-winning 33-win/10-shutout season in 2008-09 with a middling performance last year. Flimsy defense in front of him didn’t help the situation, and Mason will have to show his coach that he’s capable of handling the load. The other thing is, even the faithful fans are souring on Mason. If he can’t repeat his spectacular rookie season, or at least show that it’s possible, the coaching staff may lose patience as well and give him the hook.

Though it’s hard to blame Mason exclusively. Word from Columbus is that the Jackets’ defensive corps is big but slow, and they are having trouble adapting to the puck-possession system implemented by Arniel. If the blueliners can’t get with the program, Mason will have his hands full. If he lets in 3 goals on 60 shots, that’s a .950 save percentage. Not Mason’s fault if they lose that one 3-2.

The other factor that that has plagued Columbus is penalties. Their slow defensemen have been compensating with a lot of clutch-and-grab, and the Jackets have already racked up an above-average number of penalties in the early part of this year. Their penalty killing has gotten a workout, and this will likely prove to be a factor as games wear on and benches get shortened.

Let’s hope the speedy Blackhawks forwards take advantage of that, and we should expect to see all guns blazing as the Hawks come into the attacking zone. All guns except one, that is: Patrick Kane didn’t make the trip to Columbus, having sat out practice on Thursday with an illness.

In an unusual move, defenseman Jassen Cullimore got on the plane out of Rockford this morning and will be on the bench tonight. The groans from Blackhawks fans who know of Cullimore’s barely-AHL-caliber play could be heard all the way in Columbus. Goodness knows how Coach Q is going to shuffle the cards tonight — perhaps moving blueliners Jordan Hendry or John Scott up to a wing? — but this twist will make for an interesting game.

Kane’s absence is icing on the cake to a couple of weeks chock full of roster challenges. The Hawks are still without Niklas Hjalmarsson (suspension) and Brian Campbell (injury) on the back end. Expect Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to test the limits of their endurance once more, as the supporting cast behind them is still struggling to, you know, play defense. Marty Turco gets the start tonight amid unconfirmed reports that Coach QStache is growing weary of Turco’s bone-headed out-of-the-crease activities.

But regardless of who is in, who is out, who’s in net, who’s on D, and who’s playing 59 minutes per game, there are no excuses tonight. There are few scenarios where the Blackhawks can’t kick the holy living crap out of Columbus. Most pundits are putting the Blow Jerkers either last or next-to-last in the Conference this year. We should take every game from them, including this one. So I want to see nothing but elbows and assholes tonight, fellas: we need one in the ‘Wins’ column, and I’m not taking no for an answer.

Puck drops at 6pm Chicago time, TV is Comcast SportsNet, WGN AM-720 for broadcast radio, XM channel 204, and you Sirius “Best of XM” subscribers look for channel 208.

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The Evil Troll & Company Steal One In The UC

Photo: The Tennessean

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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Boxing with Blackhawks and Monsters in the Forest in Arnold movies, 10/13/10

Here’s Wednesday’s twisted box score from the Blackhawks’ 3-2 loss to the Nashville Predators. Enjoy.

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Cats Without Fangs: Injury-Riddled Predators Visit Chicago

Photo: The Tennessean

Anders Lindback and Mark Dekanich. Ever heard of them? Me neither. But one of them will be between the pipes for their first NHL start when the injury-depleted Nashville Predators arrive at the United Center for the game against the Blackhawks.

During Saturday’s win over the Anaheim Ducks, usually-impenetrable starting goaltender Pekka Rinne suffered an undisclosed lower-body injury and is out for, well, they’re not saying.

And seriously, is this “undisclosed injury” crap ever going to end? Tell the truth: the guy took a puck in the man-jigglies.

Lindback, a gangly 22-year-old Swede at 6’ 6” tall, is the likely choice to get the start — his first in North America — after coming in to relieve Rinne on Saturday night. He stopped all seven shots in 17 minutes of play during that game. But that’s 17 minutes more than Dekanich has ever played in the bigs, so the Predators had better hope Lindback is up to the task. Not an enviable position to be in when your star goalie is out.

In fact, the Preds will be without many of their effective weapons for this tilt with their Central Division rivals, as Martin Erat, Jamie Lundmark and Sergei Kostitsyn are all out of the lineup with various (wait for it…) undisclosed injuries. In fact, the entire thing is so secretive, I’ve heard that all of the players will wear number double-zero with no names on their jerseys so that the Hawks don’t even know who is on the ice!

Incognito or not, we can expect to see former Blackhawks J.P. DuMont and Speedy Stevie Sullivan, and we can also expect Barry Trotz’s minions to play a style of hockey that could put a crack-addicted gerbil to sleep. Pinch and press, dump and loiter, four-men across at their own blue line. It’s like a concert where the band just plays “Wooly Bully” over and over endlessly.

This will be just the second game of the year for Nashville, so we have little to go on past their 4-1 win over league-scourge Anaheim on Saturday. With so many guns absent from the arsenal, it’s anybody’s guess how the Preds will respond. Look for newly-minted captain Shea Weber to try to rally the troops against the defending champs.

And speaking of the Blackhawks, getting a win under their belt was no-doubt a confidence builder. And in a move that came as a surprise to everyone, late Wednesday afternoon Coach Q named Monday’s winning goaltender Corey Crawford for tonight’s start. No suggestion that Marty Turco was either injured or falling out of favor: the Hawks schedule has them in 4 games over the next 6 days, and the Coach is merely putting his ducks in a row to get the right ‘tender up against the right opponent.

The forward corps are looking reasonably good. Patrick Sharp returned on Monday after missing the Detroit (*spitting noise*) game with — you guessed it — an undisclosed injury, and he was a factor in the win over the Sabres. Newcomers Viktor Stalberg and Jack Skille are working their butts off; Patrick Kane is starting to catch fire; and Marian Hossa is already as hot as a two-dollar pistol with five points in three games.

Some of our expectations of our veterans haven’t been met, in particular Dave Bolland whose face-off percentage looks like he’s using a badminton racquet instead of a hockey stick. Here’s hoping that turns around quickly.

News on defense is not so good. Already reeling from the absence of the injured Brian Campbell, Niklas Hjalmarsson has earned a two-game suspension from the league for his hit on Jason Pominville during Monday’s game. That leaves Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, both already logging 28+ minutes per game, to hold down the fort with an unstable compliment of rookies and lesser-talented veterans behind them.

Never mind the fact that both Dunc and Seabs have made an uncharacteristically large number of bone-head plays themselves so far this young season. All it took was one injury and one ill-conceived hit, and suddenly our best-in-the-league defense looks barely capable of stopping a beach ball. Tonight will be a big test of who can (and does) step up.

Rallying from two goals down in the Sabres victory says a lot about this team. One of the best traits of the Stanley Cup Championship lineup was that they *never* gave up on a game. I’m hopeful that what we saw on Monday was the beginning of that attitude returning to the Hawks’ locker room.

Puck drops at 7:30 at the United Center, TV is Comcast SportsNet, broadcast radio WGN AM-720, XM channel 208, Sirius “Best of XM” subscribers can find the game on channel 217.

Check back here for the wrap-up and commentary Thursday morning.

That’s Gonna Leave A Mark

Photo: Buffalo News

When you play baseball, you can tell when a hit is going for the wall. There’s a certain feeling in the bat, that perfect connection between two objects in motion, and the feel of it says, “Bye-bye.”

Slap shots in hockey have the same feel to them when you “get all of it.” Pros have that feeling pretty much every shot. My slap shot sucks, so I felt it maybe twice in my years of amateur hockey.

But hits can have that same eerie resonance to them as well. Those I was good at. My favorite setup was catching a forward skating towards me, looking back over his shoulder to catch a pass. Happened maybe once per season. Time it just right, and you drop a shoulder into his sternum at the exact instant the puck hits his stick — BOOM. He goes down like he’s been hit in the chest by a wrecking ball.

That was the Niklas Hjalmarsson hit on Buffalo’s Jason Pominville. You could see it on the replays: he dropped like a stone. After his head ricocheted off the boards a couple of times, I mean.

Late Tuesday Niklas Hjalmarsson received a two-game suspension for the hit on Pominville. I had guessed three. During the preceding 12 hours I had heard the Old-Time-Hockey chorus around Chicago chiming in that they didn’t think it even deserved a penalty, let alone a suspension. Similarly, the Buffalo faithful were advocating that the league throw the book at him. That’s to be expected.

I actually read some barely-literate chucklehead comment on TSN.ca and suggest a suspension of 40 games. Holy bird turds, it’s pro hockey, not powderpuff soccer. Get a grip.

Let’s deal with the not-even-a-penalty suggestion first. From the NHL rule book, “Rule 41″ and “Rule 42″ respectively:

Boarding: A boarding penalty shall be imposed on any player who checks an opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to be thrown violently into the boards. The severity of the penalty, based upon the degree of violence of the impact with the boards, shall be at the discretion of the Referee.

“Charging: A minor or major penalty shall be imposed on a player who skates or jumps into, or charges an opponent in any manner. Charging shall mean the actions of a player who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner. A “charge” may be the result of a check into the boards, into the goal frame or in open ice.”

The ref had both of these as options for the Hjalmarsson hit, as the play very easily met both of these descriptions. It was called on the ice as a boarding major, which comes with an automatic game misconduct. So it’s quite plain to all but the most biased observer that *some* penalty should have been called — and it was.

There is also the new “Rule 48″ which addresses blind-side and/or head-targeted hits, which is new this year:

Illegal Check to the Head – A lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact is not permitted.

The league would have announced this as the cause for the suspension if that were the case, since it would have been the first one they ruled on. They made no such announcement, so I have to believe they did not feel the hit fell into the description as noted above. I think most casual observers would agree with that assessment.

So: not a blind-side hit, no intent to injure, not targeting the head, then why the suspension? In my opinion, it’s a question of PR.

This hit made the news. It was likely shown on ESPN’s SportsCenter, because they love good video that they can slow down and make viewers watch as bodily parts do things they were never intended to do in the interest of sport, while commentators who know precious little about hockey at all say, “Yeah Dave, that’s gonna leave a mark.”

It would have made the Buffalo newscasts, and other hockey markets as well. The follow up stories (when they show the hit and Pominville’s stretcher-bound exit yet again) will tell everyone that Pominville suffered a concussion, needed 8 stitches, and will be out a minimum of a week. This presents a PR problem for the league. There’s really no provision in the rule book that justifies a suspension per se, but they can’t do nothing.

If the league lets Hjalmarsson off with no suspension, then sports columnists and commentators get on their high horse about the league turning a blind eye to the needless violence that is now making a comeback. Next thing you know there’s some fool-idiot petition circulating about stopping innocent children from playing or watching hockey. And Lord love a duck, if Don Cherry says something about it on Hockey Night in Canada, then just look out. Every time that old bastard opens his mouth it’s as if somebody had skated to center ice and set a basket of kittens on fire.

Understand that the average person doesn’t follow this stuff. If you’re reading this, you can likely quote the number of games Alexander Ovechkin got for the hit that sidelined Brian Campbell last year. But 99% of the people who only see the news reports about this incident and don’t follow hockey at all. So because these people have the attention span of a gnat, the league only has one shot at controlling the message.

The only way to do that is to move quickly and give the appearance of firm and definitive action. Get the suspension, whatever it is, done quickly — and make sure it’s made public before the 6pm news sportscast goes on the air. You’ll notice that was the precise timing for this announcement.

The league brings this on itself. The rules of the game don’t — and can’t — accommodate for every single circumstance. So when something new or unique comes up, they have to wing it. This opens up debates precisely like this one, and because of the completely secretive and often-times incomprehensible means by which they choose whom and what to punish, they look like idiots, and the sport looks like a joke.

But in the absence of a set of rules that turns hockey into basketball (MOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMM! HE’S TOUCHING ME!!!) we’re going to have to put up with this.

So, Niklas, enjoy your two games off, have some press box popcorn, and we’ll see you next week.

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In other news, the league also handed out a two-game suspension to Islanders’ defenseman James Wisniewski, for being a dick-head.

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