First Hawks Game

By the generosity of a friend who is a Jackets season ticket holder, I went to my first ever Hawks game yesterday, and I wanted to share the experience. This ended up being way longer than I intended, but probably not longer than I should’ve expected. Anyway, right to it:

I missed the player introductions, but I was able to get to my seat in time for the Anthem. My first thought was, "Why is it so quiet in here?" But that was soon replaced with, "Holy shit! That’s Oduya, Saad, Toews, Hossa, Hjalmarsson, and Crawford out there on the ice. I mean… of course it is… but they’re… like… right fucking there!" So, it wasn’t my most eloquent thought, but it really highlights the cognitive disconnect between the fan behind the television and the fan behind the glass.

When you’re in the presence of greatness, you know it, you see it, you feel it. The camera can film anywhere, and at any time, and subsequently rebroadcast pixelated projections of the athletes and the pieces of the games that a camera crew assumes I want to see – and all conveniently into my living room. But watching the whole team and the whole game, right here and right now? It’s just somehow more special – in such a way as I can’t describe any more eloquently than the thought I just shared.

As for my own experience, it wasn’t everything I’d hoped for, but it was everything it should have been. If I had gotten everything I wanted as a fan, I’d be tempted not to come back, for fear of failing to live up to the expectation. I know this because it already happened to me in that very same arena several years back. The first NHL game I ever saw live was Jackets vs. Bruins (Dec. 26, 2006), and it was a phenomenal game, with the Jackets scoring to tie with twenty seconds left, and then scoring on a breakaway in overtime to win (added bonus: Tim Thomas smashing his stick and sprinting off the ice as he is/was wont to do).

It was great to watch, but it also put tremendous pressure on future games, and considering how frequently the Jackets lose, the chance of disappointment was high, should I venture back. And so I didn’t for over five years (until I was invited to a Jackets vs. Wings game, which, naturally, the Jackets lost), and in hindsight, I really wish I had. Thankfully, that didn’t happen to me this time. I suppose that could be seen as a backhanded compliment of the Hawks’ play, but it’s written in earnest. It wasn’t the best game imaginable, but I got a chance to see my favorite team play, win, and leave me wanting more. Now, whenever the Hawks come to town, I’ll be looking into tickets, instead of bars.

On a side note, while I’m absolutely disappointed that one of the best rivalries in the game for the past 87 years is being broken up by the realignment, I must say I’m excited to see the Jackets move to the East. I haven’t really made it a secret that I’m a Jackets fan, so long as their success doesn’t interfere with that of the Hawks’, and the move ensures that the large majority of their games will not be the cause of any such interference. I’ll have a team to root for in the East, and since the East sucks donkey balls, the Jackets may have a chance to win a game or two every now and then.

Once they start winning (and they will, now that they finally have a modicum of competence among the management), Columbus will be back to being a pretty decent hockey town, just as it was before the apathy of a decade of suck set in. Yeah, I’ll have fewer chances to see the Hawks each year, but that means I’ll also have fewer chances to hope ostensibly that the Jackets do well, but secretly wish that they all get painfully injured for a day, before making a miraculous recovery (unless it’s a home and home, in which case, fuck them). It’ll probably be better for everyone involved.

As for the actual game itself, since it was my first Hawks game, it was the first time I’ve ever been able to see the play without the network lens. It was the first game I got to analyze with my eyes instead of with numbers, so now I feel completely qualified to make sweeping generalizations about this team from that single game. Feel free to disagree with any of the following statements, but just know that I’ll be right and you’ll be wrong because I was there and you weren’t. Except for those of you that were there too, but then again, you were probably drunk or something. Whatever. Shut up. Here’s what I saw (and what is therefore canon):

• The Hawks are pretty good at hockey, as it turns out. They controlled the play for about 35 minutes, took a 10 minute nap, and then flat-out dominated for the last 15 minutes of regulation. Overtime was fairly even, with a number of heart attack moments at both ends. Even though it went to a shoot-out, I never got the sense that the Hawks were going to lose. I’ve had that feeling throughout this season, and it was cemented last night. In the last two seasons, when the Hawks controlled play and didn’t score, I just knew some 4th line assbag from the other team was going score right after a Hawks missed chance. Now, even if said assbag scores, I fully expect a Hawks goal within 60 seconds to pop the party balloon they just blew up on the other bench. And really, what’s better for a hockey fan than taking a gigantic shit on the happiness of the opposing fans? Nothing. The correct answer is "nothing."

• It seems like the Hawks run into a hot goalie every game. Why is that? Partly coincidence, partly because we tend to remember the bad stuff more easily, and partly because the Hawks are so damn good, and every goalie we face is going to play out of their mind to try to beat the best team in the league. But another part of it is the way the Hawks play, or rather, the consistency with which they play. There is a lot of skill on the roster, and there are a lot of different ways to use the offensive weapons they have, but the Hawks use each of those weapons the same way every time. Bickell shoots a high wrister from outside the dot. Kane passes magically through three defenders across the ice for the one-timer. Toews is looking five-hole. Oduya misses the net by 35 feet. All of them look good looking shots (well, not Oduya), and most of the time, all of them are good shots (still not you, Oduya), but there’s a lack of randomization that allows opposing goalies to be a bit more confident and a little more prepared than they should be. Look at what happened when Oduya switched it up and actually shot at the net: goal. Ok, that may be an unfair example. But right now, the Hawks are pulling a Babe Ruth, and calling their shots, and every goalie knows what’s coming. Even if it’s going to be a tough save, they know what’s coming and can react just that little bit faster than they would otherwise, which results in those spectacular head-standing saves we seem to see in every game. For most of this season so far, the Hawks have been good enough to make it work. But the moment you can get a goalie to doubt what’s coming is the moment you open the flood gates. That said, Bobrovsky did a hell of a job keeping the Jackets in the game, and basically earned that point on his own.

• Speaking of earning a point, this game is a fine example of why the shoot-out should go the way of the dinosaur. The Hawks played a good team game, and the Jackets relied on great goaltending. The unstoppable force and the immovable object crashed against each other for 65 minutes, with no clear victor. Where did this fear of admitting an even match-up come from? I don’t watch the game to see who wins. I always want the Hawks to win. I watch the game to watch the game. I can find out who wins by looking at the box score, but if all I’m looking at is scores, who the hell cares? Ok fine, we’ll have winners and losers. Make it a 10-minute four-on-four. This game got progressively more exciting from start to finish, and that’s because it got progressively more open from start to finish, culminating in a thrilling, five minute four-on-four period. Five more minutes of chances like the ones we saw on Thursday, and there’s a goal scored. No shoot-out necessary. It can’t be an issue of timing with TV. The time it takes to choose the shooters and actually take the shots takes five minutes anyway. Make it happen, Bettman.

• This may be sacrilege, but Anismiov’s shootout goal was more impressive than Kane’s. Bobrovsky dove the wrong way after Kane had already lost the puck. Anisimov roofed the puck with a backhand about a quarter inch from Crawford’s left pad. Style point to Anisomov. Actual point to the Hawks.

• This was actually one of the better-officiated games I’ve seen all year. Sure, there was that abysmal call on Stalberg at the end of regulation (and being in the stands, I did appreciate the referees not having the benefit of replay – but still, I don’t get paid to see that sort of thing, and they do), but for the most part, they put the whistles away, and the players didn’t give them too much reason to pull them back out. There were two big missed calls right in a row, though. One Jacket checked Seabrook legally, knocking him to the ice, and when Seabrook tried to get back up, that same Jacket did a drive-by punch to the back of the head to keep him down. Seconds later, Bolland made a two-handed log splitting attempt on the arm of a Jacket behind the net. Both of these infractions were fairly dirty, and both were on the player who had the puck at the time. This stuff needs to get called, or it will keep happening.

• When the Hawks were on the power play, they looked ok. Not great, not terrible. They should be great, but they’re not. Oh well. On the penalty kill, however, they looked bad. This is a troublesome trend of late, and there have been calls to be more aggressive. I’m not sure I agree with that entirely, since the box they run keeps the puck on the outside. The knocks on Crawford over the past few years have typically been regarding positioning and rebound control, not reaction time. He has always shown himself capable of reacting to a slapshot from the point. Further, with four Hawks down low, he can focus on positioning (key for point shots), and let his teammates grab any rebounds, which, until the last few games, has been working very well. Rebounds seem to find Hawks’ sticks 90 percent of the time – something that wouldn’t happen with more aggressive forwards on the kill. What really needs to happen is an improvement in defensive zone faceoff percentage. The statistics say faceoff percentage doesn’t really matter that much over the course of a season. Over the course of those two seconds between the faceoff win and the shot from the opposite circle, it fucking matters.

• If the Jimmy Hayes we got on Thursday is the Jimmy Hayes we’re getting for this season, thanks, but no thanks. He was well outplayed by Bollig, and that’s about all you have to say. But I’ll say more anyway. He fell down at least four times untouched, won a total of zero board battles, moved about as fast as the drunk OSU kids running the obstacle course without skates during the second intermission, and mishandled a perfect 70-foot pass from Hjalmarsson that would have sent him on a breakaway. I’m hoping this was just new kid jitters, or AHL-lag, but he needs to be better, or we need to try someone else. To be fair to Bollig, this was not the best game to use him as a measuring stick for inexcusable uses of roster spots, as he actually skated fairly well, showed some nice hands, and probably had the two of the best three scoring chances that weren’t Oduya’s goal.

• That third chance was Bolland’s in overtime. If Bolland is going to be the second line center, and he’s going to be 45 percent at the dot, that’s a shot that absolutely has to go in. He had time to settle the puck, and it was on his forehand, with a wide open net. All he needed to do was get the puck three inches off the ice, and he didn’t. His defense isn’t as good as it has been, and his offense isn’t anywhere near where it could be, or should be. That said, Bolland has always been an opportunistic player. If he had a linemate with the ability to forecheck and create turnovers, he could be much more successful. Kane and Sharp both have great qualities – those aren’t they. I’m not the first to say this, and I won’t be the last, but the second line could really benefit from a shake-up. Make it happen, Quenneville.

• Bad news over. On to the warm fuzzies. From my seat, the best players on the ice were Hjalmarsson and Bickell. Hjalmarsson was never out of position, he was always calm with the puck, he made a pass to Hayes that would’ve made Kane proud (if Kane weren’t busy making one of the sexiest passes of the year to set up Oduya’s goal), and he had a few decent shots on net. He’s not Lidstrom, but the way he played yesterday (and all year, really) makes you understand why Bowman was comparing the two players while telling Doug Wilson to go fuck himself with his own offer sheet. On the other side of the ice, Bickell was an absolute beast on the forecheck, and had yet another beautiful behind-the-back pass to the slot that wasn’t put in the back of the net because his linemates are Stalberg and Shaw. He pretty much single-handedly held the Jackets in their zone for minutes at a time on at least three occasions on the night. Honorable mention goes to Crawford. He didn’t give a performance for the ages, and the Jackets shot total was inflated by an inordinate amount of unscreened shots from the point, but he kept his team in it when he needed to, and he made a few great glove saves.

All in all, it was a good game to be a part of. I’m glad it wasn’t a "streak" game, because I probably would’ve been too tense to enjoy it. A few complaints here and there, but the boys put on a good enough show for the two points, and that’s the important thing. It’ll be fun to see these two teams play once the Jackets finally get their shit together. But hopefully, by the next time they meet again, we’ll all be saying, "What Cup hangover?" in the middle of another 24-game streak.

tl;dr version: Go Hawks!

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