The Holiday Road Ahead: 12/1/13-12/7/13

This is a weekly feature that will run throughout the season on Mondays. It will VERY 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

The Chicago Blackhawks did not clown around on their annual circus trip. They finished with a 6-1-0 record on the road trip, including an ongoing six-game winning streak and a 4-0-record last week. The record was great but not all of the victories came easy. The first one did, however. Usually a thorn in Chicago’s side, the Edmonton Oilers rolled over and died against the Blackhawks in a 5-1 Monday night beatdown. The Blackhawks looked relatively flat against an awful Calgary team on Wednesday but still managed to eke out a win with some late third period scoring from forwards Patrick Kane (two goals, including the game winner with 18 seconds left on the game clock) and Patrick Sharp. In the first game of a back-to-back, they won a sloppy game in an 11-round shootout against the Dallas Stars on Friday. In the second game, the Blackhawks came out roaring against the Coyotes in the first period with a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes. The Coyotes crept back into the game after the Blackhawks took some dumb penalties, but a late wrister from Blackhawks forward Brandon Bollig(!) got past Coyotes goalie Mike Smith and sealed the deal for Chicago.

There are three games slated for this upcoming week. The Blackhawks return to the United Center on Tuesday to face the Stars, hop on a plane to the Twin Cities for a game against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday only to bounce back to the United Center for a Friday showdown against the Anaheim Ducks. The Blackhawks will not get a break this week simply because they play at home for two of the three games. The Stars, Wild and Ducks are 11th, 7th and 9th respectively in team 5v5 close Fenwick for percentage (FF%).

While the Stars record may not necessarily reflect how good of a possession team they have been, the Blackhawks should not overlook this game. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are each averaging about a point per game and will probably be matched up against defensemen Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson, who have been matched up against the toughest opposing competition all year. It is also worth mentioning that goalie Kari Lehtonen can stand on his head on any given night and often plays well against the Blackhawks. He owns a .919 save percentage against them for his career to go along with a 2.49 GAA. Full fancy stats can be found here.

The Wild currently hold the first wild card spot in the Western Conference and have been one of the better possession teams in the league this year. The Blackhawks will visit Minnesota for the first time since late October and will hope to solve goalie Josh Harding. He has an absurd 1.52 GAA to go along with a .936 save percentage and two shutouts. If Harding is not one of the biggest stories of the year, I do not know what is. If he gets the night off, goalie Niklas Backstrom will go and he has been pretty bad with a .896 save percentage and 2.77 GAA. Full fancy stats can be found here.

In the second game of the back-to-back, the Blackhawks will host the Ducks. Anaheim was a pain in the butt for Chicago all of last year and will probably be a pain again. They sit second in The Other One and boast two of the top 10 scorers in the NHL, forwards Ryan Getlzaf at three and Corey Perry at eight. The Ducks finally traded away forward Bobby Ryan, who had been the subject of trade rumors for the past couple of years. They replaced him with....forward Dustin Penner. Penner has nine goals and 21 points in 22 games, but he is shooting at a 17.6 percent clip and has a PDO of 108.6 so expect his production to regress some. Full fancy stats can be found here.

Blackhawks players to watch

Duncan Keith – Defenseman Duncan Keith has played extremely well this year. Through 28 games, Keith has 23 assists, good for fourth in the league. He is the only defenseman in the top five. His defense has been rock solid and his possession numbers are great, as he is third in the league in 5v5 CF% among defensemen behind Jake Muzzin and pairmate Brent Seabrook. It is still relatively early in the season, but Keith has to be among the favorites to win the Norris Trophy this year. After winning the NHL’s third star of the week award last week, it will be interesting to see whether he can sustain his current level of play against tough competition this week as well as moving forward.

Kris Versteeg – Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg scored a goal in his first home game at the United Center since 2010 but has totaled only four points in the nine games he has been in Chicago, none since the Nov. 21 Winnipeg game. Not that the Blackhawks are dying without him denting the net, but the depth scoring always helps. His shooting percentage is 4.7, down from his career average of 11.8 but actually taking a shot or two would help. He has registered zero or one shot on goal in three of his last four games despite starting most of his shifts in the offensive zone.

Key Matchup

Minnesota Power Play v. Chicago Penalty Kill - Much has been made of the bad Blackhawks PK and for good reason. They are second to last in 4v5 GA/60 in the NHL with about 9.8. Only the New York Islanders are worse at 10.5. The Wild power play hums to the tune of 7.5 5v4 GF/60, good for seventh in the league. It seems like coach Joel Quenneville has made up his mind on who will man the penalty kill but riding the same guys every single time is going to eventually wear them out. And it is not like the PK has been that effective to this point anyway. Q should throw somebody new out there like Sharp just to see if something else will work. Forward Marcus Kruger could sure use a hand.


Western Standings

Chicago Blackhawks 28 20-4-4 44
San Jose Sharks 26 18-3-5 41
Anaheim Ducks 29 18-7-4 40
St. Louis Blues 25 18-4-3 39
Colorado Avalanche 25 19-6-0 38
Los Angeles Kings 27 16-7-4 36
Minnesota Wild 28 15-8-5 35
Phoenix Coyotes 26 15-7-4 34
Vancouver Canucks 29 14-10-5 33
Nashville Predators 27 13-11-3 29
Dallas Stars 25 12-9-4 28
Winnipeg Jets 28 12-12-4 28
Calgary Flames 26 9-13-4 22
Edmonton Oilers 28 9-17-2 20

Central Standings

Chicago 28 20 4 4 44
St. Louis 25 18 4 3 39
Colorado 25 19 6 0 38
Minnesota 28 15 8 5 35
Nashville 27 13 11 3 29
Dallas 25 12 9 4 28
Winnipeg 28 12 12 4 28

(updated 12.2.2013 at 8:05 AM CST)

Fresh off a fabulous 6-1-0 road trip, the Blackhawks are sitting pretty atop the Western Conference and the NHL with 44 points and a 20-4-4 record. A couple teams below them have some games in hand like the San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche but this is a great spot to be right now if you are the Chicago Blackhawks. I mean, you cannot get any better than first. With just over a third of the season over, the Blackhawks have shown no signs of the much maligned Cup hangover. The Blackhawks are on pace for a ridiculous 128.86 points. It is great that the Hawks have stockpiled all of these points so far, especially given the condensed Olympic schedule and they have not yet reached the tough months of January and February. What makes the fast start even more remarkable is they are doing this after a summer that ended a week before July. While a hangover may come sometime down the road, there does not seem to be any sign of it yet.

Nebraska "Fun" Fact of the Week

Memorial Stadium at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is the third most populated entity in the state of Nebraska on Cornhusker gameday.