Similarly, I asked her five questions about the Blackhawks; the questions touched on the final month of the Blackhawks' season, the Kane/Toews Hart Trophy debate and the team's less-than-stellar goaltending. From the 2010 Stanley Cup Final to the last-second game-winning Pronger goal to the 7-2 drubbing we all saw this season, games between these two teams are never boring.
It would be great if the Blackhawks could move into second in the Central in order to have home ice; however, it is probably not an utter necessity. It would be nice to win the Division, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen. As it stands right now, it looks like either second or third in the Division will lead to a series between the Blackhawks and the Colorado Avalanche. With that in mind, my larger concern is with overtaking the Avs.
Earlier in the season, the Blackhawks Penalty Kill was in serious trouble. That is a real problem if a team wants to succeed in the playoffs even more so than have an ineffective Power Play. In running the numbers since January 1st, that has really turned around. The St. Louis Blues have the best PK in the Western Conference, but the Blackhawks are right behind them
The Blackhawks PP has fallen off a bit from the goal scoring machine it was in the beginning of the season, but that is certainly a more manageable problem with the type of scoring depth the team has.
The only other real concern is the second line center position. This is really becoming a broken record situation in Chicago. Several players have been tried there throughout the season with varying degrees of success. Coach Joel Quenneville has indicated that he is fine with leaving Michal Handzus in that spot. While I like Handzus, as he’s responsible, smart and kills penalties, I do not like him centering a line with Patrick Kane on his wing. Until very recently, Kane had not scored a goal all season while on the ice with Handzus. Patrick Kane…not scoring…that’s a problem.
It would appear that the organization is bringing in highly touted prospect Teuvo Teravainen from Finland for the end of the season or the playoffs (we don't really know yet), and this will give some flexibility at the center position.
2. We've got one player -- potentially -- in the midst of the Hart Trophy race (Claude Giroux.) The Hawks have two in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Can you make a case for one over the other?
That’s a tough question, and perhaps the question itself will lead to neither of them winning the Hart. The player most valuable to his team, at least to me, means someone that the team would absolutely fail without. Granted not having either Toews or Kane would likely crush the Blackhawks dreams of another Stanley Cup this season, but I certainly think the team could pull off a post season series win in that situation.
Just to play along though, I think there is a great case to be made for both of them. Toews is the foundation the team is built upon. He’s so steady and reliable that even an off-night for him is better than most of the other players on the ice. He has an amazing ability to make even the best defenders look like pylons when he drives the net. His first line with Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa has been absolutely lethal. It’s even spawned the nickname "The Red Wedding Line" based upon that particularly bloody chapter from A Game Of Thrones. Toews’ off-ice contributions as the captain of the team also make him a special player.
Patrick Kane is probably even more deserving for his on ice contributions compared to Toews, which is really saying something. Kane is an offensive juggernaut put in a small package. In every game he leaves me thinking "How in the world did he do that?" several times. It’s not always scoring goals, which he is obviously very good at, but other things like his neutral zone play, back checking and his ability to make a cycle on the PP or 5 on 5 look like his own version of the Icecapades. It’s really quite amazing.
Even more amazing is that he does all of this with little to no consistency in his line mates. He seems to constantly have a different center or winger to play with and still manages to do these things. In a sport where "chemistry" is so often talked about, he has to make it up as he goes.
3. How has the team looked since the Olympic Break? The Hawks, if I'm not mistaken, sent the most amount of hockey Olympians over to Sochi. Are you worried about the final stretch in terms of fatigue, especially since the team played the most amount of games over the past two seasons (playoffs included)?
The Blackhawks had ten players go to the Olympic, while the rest of the team lounged around in some tropical paradise. It’s true that they did have a very short summer but actually that helped all of them come into camp in better shape to start the season than Quenneville had ever seen them. I am not a big worrier when it comes to fatigue issues, because the majority of these guys are absolute machines.
The only players I worry about a little bit with regard to the extra wear and tear of the Olympics are Marian Hossa, Michael Handzus and Michal Rozsival. They are a bit older than the other players and all of them have dealt with injuries over the past two seasons. Rozsival has been on a rotation with other defensemen, so he should be fine for the playoff run. Hossa just got back from injury, and, frankly, after he played and produced in the playoffs last season when he couldn’t even feel his foot from his back injury being so severe, I tend to think he’ll tough it out no matter what.
My major concern going into the game on Sunday evening against the Red Wings was the Blackhawks looking bored. The last several games have looked that way. The team is obviously talented and so the recent losses have been close regardless of the level of play. It really seemed like they were bored with the regular season and wanted to get to the "real season", the playoffs. Quenneville was not at all happy with them and actually made them have a practice the other day. The horror. Believe it or not, the Blackhawks practice very little. It has worked out pretty well for them over the last few seasons, so when they need an attitude adjustment, Quenneville puts them through a rigorous practice. It always seems to work too. They perked up very well on Sunday and so I am hopeful that their outlook has picked up.
I guess we shall see tonight.
4. Hawks are racking up the wins despite less-than-average goaltending. Are they being carried by their offense? Special teams? Even-strength play?
Very early in the season, the goaltending was a little sketchy. Corey Crawford looked great in 5-on-5 play and not so great on the PK. This had a lot to do with the Blackhawks PK as a whole as well. Nikolai Khabibulin, as great as he once was, could not stop a puck to save his life. He’s out for the season after a groin injury and rotator cuff surgery. Antti Raanta, the Blackhawks rookie Finnish goalie, filled in well for Crawford when he was injured. They are very different goalies. Raanta is the smaller, super athletic goalie who often gets pulled out of position and has to make a highlight reel save. It's fun, but incredibly stressful, to watch.
Crawford is the exact opposite. He is a positional goaltender. You will rarely see him pulled out of position, and he rarely needs to make a highlight reel save. I think this is one of the reasons that lots of people think he isn’t very good. I disagree of course. He is one of the strongest goalies in the league when it comes to holding his ground in the net mouth scrums as well.
Since returning from injury, I think Crawford has looked much better than he did early in the season. Even if he’s not a perennial Vezina candidate, the Blackhawks have more offensive firepower than any other team in the league. I say that without hesitation. The only team I can think of that comes close to the amount of firepower they have is the San Jose Sharks. The PP was very strong early in the season and has cooled off a bit; however, the 5-on-5 scoring is completely ridiculous. Even the PK scores shorthanded goals. That kind of firepower, which starts with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and works its way forward to line after line of offensive threats, can make up for other shortcomings.
5. A Flyers-Hawks rematch for the 2014 Stanley Cup: amazing or amazing?
AMAZING. Both teams look pretty different than they did in 2010, but it would be a treat to see a rematch.
Thanks again to Jen for the answers and the insight into the Blackhawks' current situation. She's the best. Our preview for tonight's game is already up. Go Flyers.