One more day until we find out the Blackhawks opponent in the Western Conference Finals. Lot of stuff to digest across the league during the best months of the year. Here are some things on my mind.
Ironing Out the Bottom Six
At this time last season the buzz was about how Jonathan Toews would come back after getting locked down by Henrik Zetterberg. While the captain will have his hands full with a (healthy for a change) Anze Kopitar or Ryan Getzlaf, it's the bottom of the roster that needs to start humming. The Blackhawks are better with four rolling lines and it's no secret that they got their heads caved in by Haula and company as well as the Blues bottom feeders. Of the regulars, only Kruger is keeping his head above water in CF%.
Part of it is the lack of roster consistency. Aside from Toews and Hossa, every forward has spent some time in the bottom six as Q looks to balance scoring punch. With Smith, Regin, and Kruger all needing to rotate in for out-of-place second line center Michal Handzus, it's tough to get regular shifts going. I don't expect the revolving door at 2C to stop either, as both California teams are stronger down the middle than the Hawks.
No quick fix here, but there are bright spots. The insertion of Peter Regin has bolstered the wheels and board play. He is centering the third line at the morning skates, so it appears that his roster spot is safe as the Blackhawks still wait for Andrew Shaw's return. Regin has also gone Miracle Worker on Kris Versteeg and pumped some life into his Macklemore coifed corpse.
Fresh from suspension, Brandon Bollig looks like he will be reinserted on the fourth line in place of Joakim Nordstrom. Nordy hasn't set the world on fire, and rode the pine pony for almost the entirety of the final period in game 6 against the Wild. Would I rather have Morin? Obviously. Is that going to happen? No. It will be curious to see if Q drops Bollig when Shaw returns in the conference finals. Regin is slightly above "a guy," but his ability to occasionally win a draw (9/22 for 41%), skate, and play defense helped tame the Wild.
Greg often calls this the Golden Age of Blackhawks hockey, and he is not wrong. A large part of that is Patrick Kane being an executioner and swinging the sword like he is Warden of the North. The stat tell the story; 4 overtime winners in the playoffs. Kane's ability to find that extra gear, or make a necessary move at a critical juncture, is unparalleled in the game today. Cherish it.
Corey Crawford should have eradicated the notion that he's a product of the Blackhawks strong defensive system last year when he should have won a Conn Smythe. But the stigma remains even though he is playing his nuts off right now. Every time he has needed to play better he has called himself out and put in a stellar performance. His shorthanded save percentage is 95.2%, tops among playoff netminders. While people will point to the stiff effort the PK position players have put in, your goalie is your best penalty killer. You have to give him props when necessary.
Furthermore, if you look at the teams moving to the next round they all have the common thread of above average goaltending. Price, Hank, and (possible) Quick are three go to names when discussing the league's elite. Crawford is never going to be mentioned alongside these guys, probably rightly so, but it's foolish to think he isn't nipping at their heels. Success speaks for itself.
Big, Bad Teams
Whether it's the Kings or the quack attack, inevitably there will be a stink about the trouble that big, physical teams give the Blackhawks. Both California squads have size up front, and noted piles of crap Corey Perry or Dustin Brown will do what they do. Expect a media feeding frenzy about it if they drop 1 or 2 games on the coast. Everyone knows it's impossible to beat a team like the Blues, Kings, or Boston when you don't play heavy, or with size, or nasty enough. Of all the useless cliches that spill out during the playoffs this is my least favorite.
I picked the Kings to win this series, and I they have the edge right now. Gaborik is proving to be a big difference maker which is the exact reason they picked him up at the deadline. Kopitar is healthy and playing at a high level. The Hawks probably match up better with the Ducks. Not quite as deep, their defense can be taken advantage, and they have goaltending issues. Alas, I'll take the Kings 3-2 tomorrow night.
Eastern Quick Hits
- P.K. Subban is marvelous and we should relish at the chance to see him play in more big games.
- Neither of these teams frighten me. I'm not looking ahead, I know the Ducks or Kings are a solid opponent that the Blackhawks pretty pay attention to, I'm just calling it as I see it.
First night since the playoffs started without hockey. I have no idea what to watch.