The Holiday Road Ahead: 12/23/13-12/29/13

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 chan

As you may or may not have noticed, there was not a Holiday Road Ahead last week. It was finals week and I hope you understand. It is no longer finals week and that means you get another heaping helping of the Holiday Road Ahead. Huzzah.

The Chicago Blackhawks followed up a solid win over the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday with a 3-1 win over the Nashville Predators on Tuesday. The Hawks escaped the first period with a 2-1 lead despite trailing in the shot tallies 17-10. Defenseman Nick Leddy put home a Brandon Saad rebound midway through the second period to make the score 3-1, which would end up being the final score. Special teams led the way as the Blackhawks scored twice on the power-play and killed six of seven penalties. It was the first game the Blackhawks had played at Bridgestone Arena since a 7-1 beatdown on Nov. 16.

Friday's game ended in a 3-2 SO loss at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks. The Blackhawks let the Canucks hang around and they paid for it. The Hawks outshot the Canucks 10-3 in the first period but could only dent the net once on winger Kris Versteeg's 7th goal of the season. Forward Patrick Kane scored his 21st of the year on a big rebound from Vancouver goalie Eddie Lack but the Canucks would pull within one on a Zack Kassian goal later in the second. The Canucks tied it up midway through the third on a Daniel Sedin goal and won the game in the shootout in the eighth round when Ryan Kesler beat Chicago goalie Antti Raanta.

There are three games this upcoming week. The Blackhawks host the New Jersey Devils for the first time since Nov. 3, 2010 today. After today's game, the NHL-wide Christmas break is on for the next couple of days. The Colorado Avalanche visit the United Center on Friday and the Blackhawks will fly to St. Louis to play the Blues on Saturday.

Full Blackhawks fancy stats can be found here.

Goalie Cory Schneider has found himself in very unfamiliar territory; splitting time with an all-star number one goaltender from Montreal. He missed a little bit of time with a concussion but has recently returned to action. Schneider is poised to take over the net when goaltender Martin Brodeur retires but that day has yet to arrive. Schneider has performed better than Brodeur in the limited time each has played in both save-percentage and GAA.

The Devils are third in the NHL in Corsi For percentage despite a record of only 15-15-7. They hold the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference and sit third in the Patrick Plus division. Their possession numbers would indicate they should be higher up in the standings than they are but that should be rectified sometime in the future. They have a team PDO of 95.9, which should improve with more consistent goaltending - the Devils sit last in the league in even-strength save percentage at 89.5 percent - and an increase in team shooting percentage, also towards the bottom of the league at 6.4 percent. All-in-all, the Devils have gotten pretty unlucky this year and their luck is bound to turn at some point if and when they decide to give Schneider the reins and with a little help on the offensive end. Hopefully, the Blackhawks can stave off the Devils' turnaround for at least one more night.

Full fancy stats can be found here.

Also, the folks over at In Lou We Trust did a statistical tracking of the Devils' passes in a game against the Washington Capitals. It tracks the number of passes the Devils attempted, where the passes originated from as well as how efficient the passes were. It is a pretty neat concept and a link to the post can be found right here.

The Avs ended The Streak last year in early March with a pasting at the Pepsi Center and followed it up with another pasting to begin the Blackhawks' annual Circus Trip. Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov had misdemeanor assault charges against him dropped earlier this week. Prosecutors said they could not prove beyond reasonable doubt that Varlamov assaulted his girlfriend and thus were unable to bring him to court. Situations like these are the absolute worst. It is hard to know the exact truth but you have to hope that Varlamov's girlfriend, Evgenia Vavrinyuk, is receiving the support she needs, whether she was assaulted or not. Off-ice issues aside, Varlamov has played exceptionally well after a horrible year last year. Varlamov has a .933 even-strength save percentage and a 2.35 GAA for the season. For what it is worth, his numbers regressed slightly after the accusations became public.

The Avs are a middle-of-the-road possession team. They are 18th in the league in Corsi For percentage at 49.6 percent and have actually benefited from a 103.2 PDO. They are due for a bit of a decline after a very solid start for them. The Avs score 1.29 goals for every goal they give up (5v5), good for fifth in the league, right behind the Hawks. Colorado has six players with over 20 points this season, including 20 from rookie center Nathan MacKinnon; 23 from Calgary's favorite center, Ryan O'Reilly; 23 from winger Gabriel Landeskog; 22 from center Paul Stastny; and 33 from center Matt Duchene. The Avs have unbelievable depth at center. Stastny draws some of the tougher assignments on the team and has been a consistent producer on both ends of the ice ever since he came into the league. Duchene is a stud in his own right and MacKinnon is going to be a pain in #conferenceIII's butt for years to come. The Blackhawks' speed versus the Avalanche's speed will make this a crazy, if not fun matchup.

Full fancy stats can be found here.

Ahh, the St. Louis Blues. The Pride of Missourah. The Blues are an exceptional possession team. They sit sixth in the league in Corsi For percentage at 53.9 percent, although they benefit from a 103 PDO. They roll out three solid lines and have the usual stalwarts of Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jabe O'Meester on defense. They also employ people like David Backes, Ryan Reaves, Maxim Lapierre and Barret Jackman. Fun fact: David Backes missed some time with a concussion - which genuinely sucks because head injuries are no fun - and then proceeded to board someone in his first game back on Saturday. He apparently likes dogs though so at least he treats animals better than he does other humans.

The Hawks have not beaten the Blues yet this season. Seabrook pinched hard late in the first game against the Blues in October and the Blues ended up scoring with seconds left in the game to win it. The Blues then beat the Hawks at the United Center in a shootout win just over a week later. A win over the Blues would provide some breathing room for a Chicago team that only leads St. Louis by four points in the standings with three more games played. Standings in December do not really mean much but any points at the expense of the Blues are good points. As we have seen over the past few seasons, when the Blues play a solid possession game, they are a very hard team to beat. When they get down, they love to goon it up and start hitting everybody. The Hawks will need to get an early goal to take the Blues out of their possession game. The Blues have done a better job at staying controlled against the Hawks so far this season, but it could mean they are due for a goon fest.

Did You Know: Blues forward Alex Steen (Alec's Teen) is currently second in the NHL in goals this season. I know, hard to believe.

Did You Know: Blues forward Alec's Teen will not finish there when the season is complete.

Full fancy stats can be found here.

Player to watch this week

Forward Brandon Saad - Saad has seen his ice time dwindle just a bit over the past couple of games. He has not played more than 22 shifts since Dec. 5 against the Minnesota Wild. He has played over 18 minutes in a game 12 times this year but has not done so since he played 19:48, also against Minnesota. Saad is tied for the Blackhawks lead and sixth overall in the league in Corsi For percentage at 59.9 percent with Andrew Shaw. He is passing the eye test as well, forechecking like a monster night in and night out. His ice time will be something to monitor over the next week, especially against a team like Colorado, where he could really expose some of the Avs' mediocre defensemen.


Western Standings

Anaheim Ducks 38 26-7-5 57
Chicago Blackhawks 38 25-7-6 56
Los Angeles Kings 37 25-8-4 54
St. Louis Blues 35 24-7-4 52
San Jose Sharks 36 22-8-6 50
Vancouver Canucks 39 22-11-6 50
Colorado Avalanche 35 23-10-2 48
Minnesota Wild 38 20-13-5 45
Phoenix Coyotes 35 19-10-6 44
Dallas Stars 35 17-12-6 40
Winnipeg Jets 38 16-17-5 37
Nashville Predators 36 16-16-4 36
Calgary Flames 36 13-17-6 32
Edmonton Oilers 38 11-24-3 25

The Blackhawks no longer lead the Western Conference. That distinction belongs to the Anaheim Ducks of Orange County of Anaheim. The Hawks still lead the division but that lead is dwindling and will probably continue to do so given the Blues have three games in hand. It is only December. The Hawks have played exceptionally well to this point but they have not wrapped this division up by any means. There is still plenty of season to be played. No need to panic if the Blues find a way to catch up to the Blackhawks sometime soon. Rarely do the standings in December resemble the same as they do in April.

Nebraska "Fun" Fact of the Week

David Backes and Blackhawks forward Brandon Bollig both played for the USHL team based in Lincoln, Neb., the Lincoln Stars.

A Milestone Along the Road

This video is almost at 10,000 views. Let's get it there, folks.