The Holiday Road Ahead: 12/30/13-1/5/14

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

Yesterday was awful, for those of you who are Chicago Bears fans. It flat-out sucked. But be happy you do not have to watch that defense for another week. Imagine 49ers running back Frank Gore gashing the Bears for 180 yards and three scores and quarterback Colin Kaepernick torching the Bears "secondary" for a couple of scores as well. Now take a deep breath. Exhale. That is going to happen to the Green Bay Packers instead of the Bears. Feel better? No? Well me neither. Fuck.

On to hockey.

Last week started off well with a clubbing of the New Jersey Devils 5-2 on Tuesday night. It was probably the Blackhawks' best-played game of the season to that point. They outshot the Devils 37-12 and other than Antti Raanta giving up his obligatory two goals, never really gave New Jersey the impression they were in the game. The Devils evened the score at one a little under six minutes into the second period but two minutes later, Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane batted a Devils goalie Cory Schneider rebound out of the air and into the net. The Hawks never looked back and wrapped this one up with a pretty little bow when Hawks forward Patrick Sharp converted a breakaway goal that started with a great stretch pass from Hawks forward Marian Hossa.

The Blackhawks put up 37 shots again on Friday against the Colorado Avalanche. For all of the talk about how the Avalanche could give the Hawks trouble with their forward corps, it was the defense that played a huge role for the Avs in this game and not in a good way. Birthday boy Sharp had a hat-trick 20:37 into the game and that still may not have been the most impressive thing he did. In a clinic in back-checking, Sharp lifted the stick of Avs forward Matt Duchene on a breakaway, stole the puck, turned around and hit Toews on a lead pass at the Colorado blue line. Toews waited out Avs goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere and flicked the puck past his blocker. Former 2006 first overall pick Erik Johnson was pushing Marian Hossa for some reason and his pairmate, defenseman Jan Hejda, was picking his nose in the neutral zone. It was a good time.

Saturday's game was not a good time. Christmas came a little late as Chicago gifted St. Louis two points they had no business getting. The Blackhawks played their puck possession game fairly well for most of the first 40 minutes. The Hawks had a 5-3 lead with just over four minutes left in the game. Then it all collapsed. Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko took a pass that bounced off the end boards, waltzed right into the slot and beat Blackhawks goalie Antti Raanta. Hawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson took a dumb holding penalty, which the Blues would later capitalize on because defenseman Brent Seabrook failed to clear the puck after about thirty attempts. The Blues won the shootout, thus ending what turned out to be an embarrassing night for the Blackhawks.

There are four games on this week's agenda. The Hawks host the Los Angeles Kings for the second time this season tonight. The Hawks will get a couple of days to prepare for and recover from vicious New Year's Eve hangovers until they begin a quick East Coast swing on Thursday. The Hawks will play their 11th back-to-back of the year on Thursday and Friday with visits to Long Island and Newark, respectively. The San Jose Sharks will visit the United Center on Sunday to close out the week.

The Los Angeles Kings will try to prevent a three-game losing streak when they hit the ice tonight. Overall, they have a 7-3-0 record in their last 10 games and boast the league's stingiest defense, giving up only 1.97 goals per game. The combination of the third-lowest average shots against per game and the third-best save percentage in the league will do that for you. The last time the Kings visited the United Center, the Hawks ambushed them with three goals in the first period and cruised to an easy 3-1 victory. Do not expect an easy victory tonight. The Kings are still an elite possession team, sitting right behind the league-leading Blackhawks in Fenwick for percentage in close 5v5 situations at 55.5 percent. Expect Kings goalie Martin Jones to get the nod tonight in net. He has been electric in the few games he has played.

Full team fancy stats can be found here.

And go bother John Carroll over at Jewels From the Crown. He is a good guy and a good follow for those of you on the tweeters. Say something mean about the Sharks and he will love you forever.

I picked this team to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

In my own defense, the pick was based solely on the fact that I did not want to pick the Boston Bruins or the Pittsburgh Penguins but wow, swing and a miss, strike three. Anyway, the New York Islanders have just been a train wreck this season after Isles captain and center John Tavares almost singlehandedly dragged this team into the playoffs last year. Tavares is still producing at a high level this year, but he cannot play defense or goalie too. The Isles are 23rd in the league in FF 5v5 close percentage at 48.2 percent. The only Isles defenseman with a FF over 50 percent playing respectable competition is Lubomir Visnovsky, and he has been sidelined since mid-October with a concussion. The Isles have what is left of Evgeni Nabokov in goal and he has been a total sieve this year. He has a 2.88 GAA and is tied with Henrik Lundqvist (!) with a .914 even-strength save percentage, good for bad for 30th in the league. If he does not get the call on Thursday night, it will be even sieveier (?) Kevin Poulin. I would be shocked if the Blackhawks do not ring in the new year with a large crooked number to hang on one of these goaltenders. One last thing; center Frans Nielson is criminally underrated in this league. Excellent defense and 30 points in 40 games from your second line center should be enough to get some national appreciation but oh well.

Full team fancy stats can be found here.

The Blackhawks will travel to Newark following their game in Long Island to play the Devils for the last time this year. The Devils are still a decent possession team numbers-wise, sitting ninth in the NHL in FF 5v5 close percentage at 52.5 percent. But if last week's game at the United Center is any indication, the Hawks defense should be able to stifle what little offense the Devils have rather effectively. The Hawks spent the majority of the game with the puck, and just about everything the Devils had was one-and-done. The Devils defensemen just looked outmatched against the Blackhawks pretty much all game, as well. Chicago has had a pretty good record in the second game of back-to-backs the past couple of years and hopefully, the trend will continue on Friday.

Full team fancy stats can be found here.

San Jose visits Chicago for the first Blackhawks home game in 2014 on Sunday. The Sharks are an excellent possession team and are second in The Other One to the Anaheim Ducks of Orange County, Los Angeles. They have the third best FF 5v5 close percentage in the league at 54.7 percent and score a crap-ton of goals. Sharks center Joe Thornton is doing Joe Thornton things (5G-38A-43P); winger Patrick Marleau is on pace for his highest point total since 2009-2010 (17-19-36, currently); and center and another player I feel is underrated, Joe Pavelski, also has 36 points. The Sharks have seven players with over 20 points, including four over 30, the fourth being Logan Couture at 31. The Sharks finally jettisoned human tire fire Douglas Murray, much to the chagrin of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The now Murray-less Sharks blueline is rather formidable. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun make for a very good defensive pairing and they will be tough to beat. They face the toughest opposing competition and still manage fantastic FF numbers; Vlasic at 58 percent and Braun at 55.8 percent. Sharks blueliner Dan Boyle is doing his thing to the tune of a 55.7 percent FF, albeit to lesser competition than his fellow teammates. Bottom line is that the Sharks are a very good team, especially since it is the regular season. This should be a fun game. Fortunately for the Blackhawks and unfortunately for the NHL, they will be without rookie sensation Tomas Hertl, who will have knee surgery today to determine how badly the knee is injured.

Full team fancy stats can be found here.


Players to Watch This Week

G Corey Crawford - Crawford will be making his first start since Dec. 8 at some point during the East Coast swing. Coach Joel Quenneville has not confirmed whether the start will be against the Islanders or the Devils, but my guess would be that he gets the nod in Newark. Chances are that Crow may have to shake off some rust before returning to form. Granted it is not like he was lighting mups the world this season anyway, but Crawford has played better than Raanta has to this point and it will be nice to see the Hawks get at least league-average goaltending for the first time in a month. A start against an Eastern Conference team in the bottom third in scoring should help him get reacquainted to the net.

LW Patrick Sharp - I mean, this one may seem obvious but when you have six goals in three games and 11 in 10, you are going to be a player to watch. Sharp is now fourth in the league in goals with 22, eighth in points with 41 and third in shots with 158. His Handsomeness had a terrible regular season last year but made up for it with a better postseason. His production has absolutely soared this year. He is on pace for 44 goals and 82 points, easily a career high. Sharp has always been a streaky player, so it would not be shocking for him to slow down a tad at some point, but playing on a line with center Jonathan Toews and Hossa is certainly going to help with consistency.

Match-up of the Week

Blackhawks power play v. Kings penalty kill - The seemingly inverse relationship between the Blackhawks power play and their penalty kill has flipped from last year. The penalty kill is atrocious and the power play is vicious. The Blackhawks boast the third-best PP in the league at 24.8 percent. The Hawks have thrived off of their power play this year and they should get plenty of chances against the Kings tonight. According to Jon Rosen of LAKI, only the Philadelphia Flyers and the Ottawa Senators have more penalty minutes than the Kings. The Kings have the fifth-best PK in the league at 85 percent, so they will make it tough on the Hawks' PP. But if the Kings spend all night marching to the box, they are going to have a rough time. Three of defenseman Nick Leddy's five goals have come via the man-advantage. 15 of defenseman Duncan Keith's 38 points have come on the PP.


Central Standings

Chicago 41 27 7 7 61
St. Louis 38 26 7 5 57
Colorado 38 23 11 4 50
Dallas 38 19 12 7 45
Minnesota 41 20 16 5 45
Winnipeg 41 18 18 5 41
Nashville 39 17 18 4 38

(updated 12.30.2013 at 8:33 AM CST)

Western Standings

Anaheim Ducks 41 28-8-5 61
Chicago Blackhawks 41 27-7-7 61
St. Louis Blues 38 26-7-5 57
San Jose Sharks 39 25-8-6 56
Los Angeles Kings 39 25-10-4 54
Vancouver Canucks 40 23-11-6 52
Colorado Avalanche 38 23-11-4 50
Phoenix Coyotes 38 19-10-9 47
Dallas Stars 38 19-12-7 45
Minnesota Wild 41 20-16-5 45
Winnipeg Jets 41 18-18-5 41
Nashville Predators 39 17-18-4 38
Calgary Flames 39 14-19-6 34
Edmonton Oilers 41 13-24-4 30

The Ducks have the tiebreaker over the Blackhawks because they have more wins, so they currently sit atop the NHL. Even after the phenomenal start to the season, the Blackhawks still only lead St. Louis by four points, and the Blues have three games in hand. It is shaping up to be a two-horse race between the Hawks and the Blues for the Conference III title. It does not seem likely that the race will be decided until the very end of the year.

Man, those two points on Saturday would have been nice to have.

#Cool Thing of the Week

Sharks forward Bracken Kearns scored his first NHL goal yesterday. A cool feat for anyone but it is even cooler when you are 32 years old and playing in your eighth career NHL game. Here it is. What a cool moment for a guy with a cool name. Cool.

Nebraska "Fun" Fact of the Week

The Nebraska state fossil is the mammoth.

A Milestone Along the Road

Still inching toward 10,000 views.