Whenever the Nashville Predators are in town, there is a noticeable buzz around the stadium. Blackhawks fans still have a bad taste in their mouth from the first round sweep by the Preds in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. It was a significant moment in both franchise’s history. On the Blackhawks side, GM Stan Bowman expressed his disappointment and declared changes will be made during a press conference. Artemi Panarin was moved to the Columbus Blue Jackets, fan favorite Niklas Hjalmarsson was shipped out to the Arizona Coyotes, and 2015 playoff hero Scott Darling was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes. Remember this save by Darling?
On the other hand, Nashville grinded their way into the Stanley Cup Finals with all the momentum they gained from sweeping the Hawks, who were the first seed that year. Consequently, Nashville cemented themselves as a contender in the Western Conference.
Last night at the United Center, the Hawks got some revenge with a 2-1 victory. Similar to the 6-3 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins last week, the Hawks played a competitive 60-minute game. Before puck drop, Coach Jeremy Colliton spoke about compete level. He talked about how every shift needs to be high intensity. Taking a few seconds off in the NHL will result in the puck in the back of your net. If you battle hard and win shifts consistently, you will win periods. If you start to win periods, you will win games.
For the majority of the game the Hawks drove possession and forced Pekka Rinne to make numerous elite saves. They outshot the Preds 36 to 31, and as depicted by the Shot Heat Map, the Hawks had the majority of the scoring chances around the blue paint and in the slot.
The Hawks deserved to earn two points last night.
Let’s jump into the stock report.
In Strome’s last seven games with his new team, he has three goals, 14 shots on goal for a 21.4 shooting percentage, and is averaging 17:33 mins of ice time. When Bowman traded Schmaltz for Brendan Perlini and Dylan Strome in late November, many analysts talked about how a change of scenery and realigning Strome with his old Eerie Otter teammate, Alex DeBrincat, could spark some immediate progression and confidence in his game. Clearly, Strome has been playing like a difference maker lately. He is burying the puck when he has the opportunity, setting up line-mates with chances of their own on rushes into the offensive zone, winning face-offs, and has noticeable hockey IQ that makes up for his average foot speed.
Here is a shot chart for Strome over the last 10 games. He is generating lots of dangerous looks from the high slot and right around the crease.
One of the most impressive moments for Strome was when he held the puck for an extra moment, while driving the net against the Winnipeg Jets, and put the Hawks on the board after a disastrous first period.
Last night against the Preds, Strome and his line-mates, Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane, were buzzing for most of the game. They were all around the net, making one touch passes back and forth, driving possession, and had numerous A+ chances. Here is one of their best moments.
He also spent some time on the first power play unit below the goal line and in front of the net. Strome is making some significant strides in December. He is slotting in as a second line center of the future.
Ward stepped up big time for the Hawks last night. He made 30 saves on 31 shots for a .968 save percentage. One his best sequences was late in the third period when he stopped a crazy deflection off the stick of Matias Ekholm who was driving the net.
All throughout the game, Ward looked very stable in net. He controlled his rebounds and was a major factor in the Hawks 2-1 win. With Corey Crawford out for the foreseeable future, Wardo is going to slot in as the starter. He will be a calming influence and mentor for Collin Delia, who just got called up and will share some of the starts. He understands what it takes to win at the NHL level with a loaded pedigree from Carolina, and will continue to give the Hawks a chance to win if he can find a way to consistently play like he did against the Preds. Check out the 1st star’s post game interview.
Gustafsson scored another big goal for the Hawks last night against the Preds. He has clearly progressed from previous years. He looks slimmer, faster, stronger, and has improved his defensive positioning significantly. He will have an off game here and there like any other player, but over the last six games he has three goals, two assists, 11 shots, five hits, averaged 21:24 mins on the ice, and scored a game tying one timer from the blue line against the Jets to send the game to OT.
Here are his two most recent goals.
Colliton spoke about Gustafsson’s potential after the 2-1 victory over the Preds.
Gustaffson has the ability to be a top 4 defenseman in the Hawks system for years to come if he wants it. Every game he dances around a defender with a nifty move, makes a no look pass or one touch give and go that sets up a high quality chance for his team, and is consistently getting better in the defensive zone. Collition is showing his confidence in Gustafsson’s game with his 20+ mins of ice time. That confidence is well deserved.
This will be short and sweet. He is a 7th defenseman at best. With Gustafsson, Gustav Forsling, Connor Murphy and Carl Dahlström all playing relatively well, Manning is going to be a healthy scratch most games. He is making $2.25 million this year. Currently on the season, Manning is -14, has one goal, two assists, and has a 47.2 CF%. To put that into perspective, Ryan Ellis, who is one of Nashville’s top defenseman, is making $2.50 million this year. Ellis has three goals, 12 assists, and has a 53.2 CF%.
Bowman needed to sign a depth defenseman to slot in while Murphy worked his way back from injury. Murphy is back and younger defenseman on the Hawks are starting to progress. Additionally, the Hawks have a handful of D prospects a year or two away from coming up. It is going to be tough to move Manning before the deadline, but Bowman needs to cut ties with Manning. Jan Rutta cleared waivers and is in the AHL working on his game. He can be the call up if there is an injury or someone’s game abruptly regresses. To put it bluntly, Manning is taking up space on the roster and in our budget. If we can get a later round draft pick for Manning, I would do that in a heartbeat.
It is clear that Sikura has high end skill and above average speed. He is absolutely an asset on the wing for years to come. However, his strength and tenacity does not look NHL ready just yet. He has had a few moments since his call up on December 12th, but he needs to start proving he belongs in the NHL on a consistent basis or he might find himself packing his bags to Rockford in the near future. I am starting to see signs of growth with better possession driving shifts, more patience with the puck, and an ability to drive the net when there is an opening. One moment that impressed me was his near goal against the Sharks on Sunday.
Hopefully over the next week or two, Hawks fans will start to see Sikura shine like he did at Northeastern University and with Rockford before his call up.
In Hayden’s last five games, he has zero points, is -3, has only two shots on goal, and is averaging just below 11 minutes of ice time. There have been stretches where Hayden was flying around, finishing checks, driving the net, and forcing turnovers with a strong forecheck. Recently, Hayden has been doing a lot of fly-bys on opponents when he should be finishing his check, and looks lost in the defensive zone. The only way he can get back to playing top 9 minutes, is to get back to the game the Hawks expect him to play - going to the front of the net, using his size advantage to drive the net off rushes into the zone or from below the goal line, cycling the puck, and finishing checks. When he plays with a gritty mindset, he is at his best. Hopefully he returns to that type of style on Thursday against the Dallas Stars or he might find himself being replaced by Andreas Martinsen or Luke Johnson, who just got called up today.
The Blackhawks hit the road to start a tough back-to-back against the Stars and Colorado Avalanche on Thursday and Friday night respectively. Look for Delia to start one of those games, and for Chris Kunitz, Johnson, or Martinsen to slot in for Kruger, who has been placed on IR for a concussion suffered against Nashville.