Game Time: 7:30 PM
TV/Radio: CSN, WGN-AM 720
Rat Patrol: Litter Box Cats
Seventy-two down, 10 to go, and likely 12 to 15 points necessary out of a possible 20. It sounds daunting because it is, especially given the killer game of Crisco Twister currently being played between the 4th and 10th seeds in the Western Conference. Coming into tonight's game the Hawks find themselves in 7th with 86 points, but holding games in hand on those above them. Their 10-game quest begins on West Madison with the visiting Florida Panthers, fresh off getting blanked by the Blueshirts last night in MSG. The Panthers have been for the most part playing out the string since even slightly before the trade deadline, hoping to play spoiler with the pieces acquired in the sell-off of pieces such as Bryan McCabe, Dennis Wideman, Christopher Higgins, Cory Stillman, and Michael Frolik to the Hawks. What remains isn't much, but there's certainly plenty of fight in them. David Booth and Stephen Weiss were counted on to provide some semblance of offensive punch, and did so against the Hawks 2 weeks ago, but now Weiss figures to miss tonight's game, as he did not play in New York last night with a leg injury. Brief Blackhawk Marty Reasoner remained in Sunrise as well, and provides a two-way presence that the Hawks could have certainly used right now. If only they could have had a crack at him, right Fifth Feather? The Panthers' forwards do have a couple of decent young pieces in Mike Santorelli and Evgeni Dadonov, but that hasn't helped get the Panthers out of the very basement of the league in goals per (2.4, 27th), power play percentage (13.6, 29th) despite putting a respectable 30 shots on net per game, which would speak to a paucity of scoring touch and finish. Everything is backstopped by free-agent to be Tomas Vokoun, who just last night single-handedly kept the Cats in the game against the Rangers. With backup Scott Clemmensen hurt, and farmhand Tyler Plante still making his way to the team yesterday, Reasoner's kid brother was dialed up last minute to come get pelted at practice. Nauseatingly cute for sure, but the fact remains that the Hawks are now likely to see Vokoun tonight, who has habitually stoned the Hawks since his Preds days, and catches right handed, something that always gives this group of Hawk shooters fits.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, tonight begins the Marcus Kruger era, for one reason or another. Apparently machinations were being made prior to Bolland or Sharp's injuries for him to come over and join the squad, but despite the tripe being propagated by the beat reporters, that doesn't address what would or could have been done in the event that neither were hurt, or Kruger's SEL team advanced in their playoffs. But alas, that's a discussion for another time. What's pertinent now is that Kruger will be centering Bryan Bickell and the ghost of Troy Brouwer tonight, leaving Michael Frolik as the de facto center between the Slovaks, and Jake Dowell on one of Ryan Johnson's wing along with Fernando Pisani. As for the top line, with Patrick Sharp missing the next stretch of games with a bruised/sprained knee, it will be Viktor Stalberg who rides shotgun with Daydream Nation, at least for the first few shifts before Q gets pissed at him. Over the last 6 or so weeks, Stalberg has economized his game to play more strictly north-south and use his speed to the outside, so he'll have no problem keeping up with Toews and Kane. The question becomes will he be in the spots they expect him to be in? Vik has shown far more sack during this stretch as well, getting dirty in front of the net, so if that's all that was asked of Brouwer when riding with 19 and 88, Vik should...should make for a serviceable replacement.
On the blue line, Brian Campbell is expected to return tonight after missing the last three games with some manner of foot thing sustained in the game in Florida. He figures to be in the third pairing with Nick Leddy, as Marlboro 72 has been reunited as the top pair, and Chris Campoli has stepped into Soupy's role as Niklas Hjalmarsson's walkabout partner. While Campbell and and Leddy aren't ideally suited, that the top 6 has two "thumper" types and 4 free-wheelers, one pair was bound to be mismatched, and these pairings certainly offer more balance than what was being trotted out in the month prior. Overall, though, with Campell in the lineup this could very well be the puck-moviest, rush-joiniest group in the league, and possibly since the lockout. And despite our pining for this game to be an opportunity for Marty Turco to give Corey Crawford a break, the situation in the standings necessitates putting the best option in net out there to gain points, and there's no dispute right now that that person is Crawford, who will now start his 18th in a row.
There simply cannot be a shit effort 1st period like was witnessed in South Florida two weeks ago for the Hawks, as they now know that Vokoun can and will make it stand up. The Panthers, while outgunned on paper, would love nothing more than to drop a big turd in the Hawks' playoff punchbowl, especially considering this will be their first visit to the U.C. under Uncle Dale's tutelage. At this point, any and all points in the standings are necessary and difficult to come by. Get out there and earn them. Let's go Hawks.