The Holiday Road Ahead: 1/6/13-1/12/13

Jeff Zelevansky

This is a weekly feature that will run throughout the season on Mondays. It will briefly recap the last week, preview the upcoming week in Chicago Blackhawks hockey and look at where they sit in terms of playoff contention. Additional snippets, notes, content, blurbs and oddments are subject to change week-to-week. If there is something you want to see included in this, lemme know and I will see what I can do.

If you can read this, congratulations; you are not an icicle. Or maybe you are and the only thing keeping you going is the natural human tendency to hope for a better tomorrow, knowing full well that tomorrow is going to be just as cold, thereby crushing any last modicum of optimism you may foolishly cling to because you are and will thus continue to be an icicle. Either way, grab a blanket, some hot chocolate and your favorite footie pajamas and try to keep warm because this week's edition of The Holiday Road Ahead is going to be so cool, you are going to want to run outside to warm up.

The Chicago Blackhawks ended the week with six of eight possible points. Six of eight points is a pretty good week but it was just a bit of a letdown given the nature of the game on Long Island. With that said, six points is still six points. The Hawks beat the Los Angeles Kings at their own game on Monday, played down to their competition against the New York Islanders and lost in overtime on Thursday, pulled away in the third against the New Jersey Devils on Friday and lost a close game to the San Jose Sharks on Sunday.

The Blackhawks defeated the Kings 1-0 on Monday. Goalie Antti Raanta recorded his first NHL shutout in a 26-save effort. Sam Fels over at The Committed Indian brought something up in his post-game review that day that rings very true. He mentioned how the Hawks rarely get the credit they deserve for being able to adjust their style of gameplay to match what the game calls for. The Blackhawks generally play a more speed and skill oriented game and the Kings are known for their physicality. After taking the lead on a goal from winger Brandon Saad, the Hawks clamped down on defense, got physical and played a tight checking game for the remainder of the game. It was a good effort for the Blackhawks against one of the best teams in the NHL.

2014 did not begin too well for Chicago, however. They began the new year with a clunker in the Big Apple. The Islanders beat the Hawks 3-2 in overtime behind a Kyle Okposo game-winning goal. The Hawks played down to the Isles and gave up 34 shots in Corey Crawford's first game action since early December. Crawford played well enough to win but the team in front of him did not. Okposo's goal was essentially a giant metaphorical middle finger to USA Olympic team committee members Brian Burke and David Poile for leaving him off the roster. If there had to be an Islander that scored the game-winning goal (there had to be, it happened), Okposo was the fitting choice.

In the second day of a back-to-back, the Blackhawks rebounded and beat the Devils 5-3 on Friday thanks to the heroic handsome efforts of winger Patrick Sharp. The game was fairly even throughout the first two periods, with shots favoring New Jersey 18-17. Sharp knocked the puck loose from New Jersey winger Michael Ryder, Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews took the puck and fed it to Sharp in the slot who slung it over Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur's glove for the first goal of the game early in the second period. The Devils tied it up a couple of minutes afterward. The third period was not fairly even. The Hawks scored four goals on seven shots, including two from Sharp to complete his second hat-trick in five games. The Blackhawks had the Devils on the ropes and pushed them over to complete a fun win.

Most games between the Sharks and the Blackhawks are very fun. Most games where two teams put up a combined 77 shots are very fun. Somehow, last night's game was rather boring. The Sharks came into the United Center and beat the Blackhawks 3-2 in a shootout. Most of the offensive chances both ways were relatively one-and-done early on, aside from poor defensive play in Chicago's end, which led to a Jason Demers goal. The third period started off well for the Blackhawks. The Blackhawks tied and took the lead within four minutes of the third on goals from defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson and Michal Rozsival, respectively. Things fell apart as the Sharks took over the third, eventually finishing the period with 15 shots. San Jose tied it up on a nice feed from Joe Thornton to Brent Burns, who cross-checked Hjalmarsson to get space in front of the net and beat Crawford for his 14th of the year. The Sharks beat the Hawks 2-0 in the shootout.

There are three games on this week's agenda. Two are against Eastern Conference teams and the third is against an AHL team. Chicago hosts the New York Rangers on Wednesday, travels to Montreal to play the Canadiens on Saturday and comes right back home to play the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday.

Full Blackhawks fancy stats can be found here.



The Rangers are a bit of a disappointment. They have failed to live up to preseason expectations to this point and things are not looking up for the blueshirts. They have little-to-no punch on offense and have gotten horrific goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist has consistently been one of the league's top goalies since he entered the league following the 2005 lockout but that has certainly not been the case this year. He has a .912 even-strength save percentage and a giant 2.78 GAA in 31 games this year. Backup goalie Cam Talbot has gotten several starts recently instead of the struggling Lundqvist and played very well. Nothing like a good ole goalie controversy to make Rangers coach Alain Vigneault feel at home.

New_york_rangers_2013-2014_player_usage_medium

(Shift chart courtesy of www.extraskater.com)

Possession-wise, the Rangers are decent enough. They are 11th in the NHL in 5v5 Fenwick For close percentage at 52.1 percent with a PDO of 97.4. Only three Rangers have a negative Corsi For percentage; Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore and Taylor Pyatt. Shots have not been as much of an issue as much as which shots are going in both for and against the Rangers. The unlucky PDO can be attributed to the terrible goaltending they have had and an abysmal 5.4 shooting percentage. Forward Mats Zuccarello leads them with 30 points. No other Ranger has more than Brad Richards' 28. They have a 16-2-1 record when scoring first this year so it is important to get the first goal against them. Putting them in a hole early forces them to play catch-up offensively, which they may not have the firepower to do. They have struggled at home (8-10-2) but have managed to play better on the road (13-10-0).

Former Blackhawk and future Buffalo Sabre Daniel Carcillo will make his triumphant return to the United Center press box on Wednesday.

Full team fancy stats can be found here.




The Canadiens have managed to hang around the playoff race because of their special teams and goaltending. They are an awful possession team and are totally incapable of scoring at even-strength. Carey Price has stood on his head all season and the PP, PK and a second PK, this one of the Subban variety, has kept them in games. Their power play is the eighth-best in the league, scoring on 20.4 percent of their man-advantages. A little under 30 percent of their goals come when on the power-play. This is essentially their biggest form of offense. Their penalty kill is fourth-best in the league, killing 85.7 percent of their penalties.

Montréal_canadiens_2013-2014_player_usage_medium

(Usage chart courtesy of www.extraskater.com)

Again, the Habs are a terrible possession team. They have four forwards who are at 50 percent 5v5 FF or above. One of those is Travis Moen, who plays against some of the weakest opposing competition on the team. Max Pacioretty is one of the few Montreal forwards who is above 50 percent and will represent Team USA in Sochi this February. He is a decent possession player and an excellent scorer. He leads Montreal with 19 goals, albeit only 6 assists. Subban, a defenseman, leads Montreal with 33 points. That should pretty much tell you all you need to know about Montreal's offensive struggles.

The defense corps does not exactly inspire fear. Apart from Andrei Markov and Subban, no other Canadien defender is above 50 percent in 5v5 CF. Alexei Emelin can be and has been beat fairly routinely this year and Douglas Murray is a human pylon. Emelin and Murray have a 5v5 FF close of 42.6 percent and 39.1 percent respectively. Subban and Markov far and away spend the most time out on the ice for the Canadiens and for good reason. Look for Montreal coach Michel Therrien to continue to throw out Subban and Markov against the Red Wedding Line and Kane's line, because if he does not, the Blackhawks' skill players may devour the subpar blueliners lower on the depth chart than them.

Full team fancy stats can be found here.




The Oilers are not a good hockey team. Like, at all. Nonetheless, they have seemed to have the Blackhawks' number a lot in the past few years. Their speed and skilled forwards have struggled to put together a consistent offensive effort night-in and night-out but they have found a way to do so against Chicago several times the past few years. The Blackhawks blew them out of their own building earlier this season 5-1 on Nov. 25 and edged by them at the United Center on Nov. 10. The Hawks will look to continue this recent trend of actually beating the Oilers on Sunday.

Edmonton does not really do anything well. They are an abysmal possession team, currently third-worst in the league in 5v5 close FF percentage at 45.4 percent. Not a single one of their players has a 5v5 FF above 50 percent this year. They signed Ilya Bryzgalov off of an ECHL Las Vegas team because they were so desperate for goaltending from anyone who is not named Devan Dubnyk. Their power-play is bottom third in the league and their penalty kill is 18th best in the league. Edmonton's blueline is literally manned by tires on fire.

Edmonton_oilers_2013-2014_player_usage_medium

(Usage chart courtesy of www.extraskater.com)

Their scoring is top heavy, which makes sense given they have drafted number one overall several times the past few years (and may end up doing so again) while neglecting to address depth and defense. The Oilers have four players with over 30 points but only five with more than 20; Ales Hemsky with 21. Taylor Hall paces the Oilers with 41 points and is one of the few bright spots on this team. I cannot help but wonder if Hall is just going to waste his most productive years away while the team around him continues to spin its tires. Same goes for Jordan Eberle, who is second on the team with 35.

This should be a team that the Blackhawks run out of the United Center but recent history suggests this game could be closer than the stats suggest.

Full team fancy stats can be found here.

Players to watch this week

C Michal Handzus - Handzus has been absolute dead weight on whatever line he has been playing on all year, which has mostly been the second line. When he re-signed this offseason, it seemed he could finally be relegated to the fourth line like he was not last year. Nope. Coach Joel Quenneville has thrown him on Patrick Kane's line all year expecting production much in the same way I continually send love letters to David Franco expecting a response. Jay Zawaski over at 670 The Score wrote a great piece on just how badly Kane has been hampered by Handzus. One of the key takeaways from the piece is that Kane has not scored with Handzus on the ice this season. Not once. Q split Handzus and Kane for a few shifts in New Jersey and on Sunday but then he went right back to the combination late last night. Do not expect different results when the Hawks take the ice again on Wednesday.

Standings


Central Standings

GP W L OTL PT
Chicago 45 29 7 9 67
St. Louis 41 29 7 5 63
Colorado 41 26 11 4 56
Minnesota 44 22 17 5 49
Dallas 41 20 14 7 47
Winnipeg 45 19 21 5 43
Nashville 43 18 19 6 42

(updated 1.6.2014 at 2:32 AM CST)



Western Standings

GP W-L-OT Pts
Anaheim Ducks 44 31-8-5 67
Chicago Blackhawks 45 29-7-9 67
St. Louis Blues 41 29-7-5 63
San Jose Sharks 43 27-10-6 60
Colorado Avalanche 41 26-11-4 56
Los Angeles Kings 43 26-13-4 56
Vancouver Canucks 44 23-13-8 54
Phoenix Coyotes 41 20-12-9 49
Minnesota Wild 44 22-17-5 49
Dallas Stars 41 20-14-7 47
Winnipeg Jets 45 19-21-5 43
Nashville Predators 43 18-19-6 42
Calgary Flames 41 14-21-6 34
Edmonton Oilers 45 14-26-5 33

Those games in hand for the St. Louis Blues are going to loom ominously and catch up on the Hawks like Slenderman for a long time, it seems.

The Hawks still sit in second in the Western Conference, which is a nice spot to be over halfway through the season. But the Western Conference is full of tremendous teams, and the Anaheim Ducks of Southern California of Los Angeles, California, the Blues and the Sharks are all in good position for that top seed in the West.

#Cool thing of the week

A cool and good story about a North Korean hockey player turned ambassador for the sport. Link. And here is the link to the piece.

Nebraska "fun" fact of the week

President Gerald Ford was born in Omaha, Neb.

A milestone along the road

I'm going to keep plugging this until it gets 10,000 views.


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