Category Archives: Blackhawks

Stanley Cup Preview: Hawks-Lightning

Everyone loves comparisons. Doppelgängers, what-ifs, this guy vs. that guy during this era vs. that era. What kind of world would this be with them? That’s why the overwhelming storyline of this Stanley Cup matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning boils around the similarities between this Lightning team and the Blackhawks team from 2008-09. Both led by very young stars with impeccable speed and skill. Both lacking experience. That Blackhawks team was knocked down hard by the veteran-led Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Final before getting back up and winning the Cup the following season. The Lightning have yet to take that beating, and it remains to be seen whether this Blackhawks team will be the one to come through and deliver it to them.

Make no mistake: Tampa Bay is no joke. They are one of the most exciting teams in the NHL and play the game with such a high aesthetic quality, just like their counterpart. There is star power out the wazzu across both rosters, and all hockey fans are fully aware of the treat that they’re in for this series.

Chicago would probably not be standing here if it weren’t for Coach Quenneville’s decision to unite Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the first line in the last two full games of the Western Conference Final against Anaheim, and it will be interesting to see whether he keeps it that way or not. Regardless, this is a team looking to capture its third Cup in six years and enter dynasty territory, and many pundits feel Anaheim may have had the best chance to stop them. But what does Tampa Bay bring to the table that Anaheim did not? Let’s dive in.

Offense

I’m not gonna lie – the Tampa Bay offense is frightening. They averaged the most goals per game during the regular season at 3.16, and they have one of, if not the, best players in the world in captain Steven Stamkos. After scoring 60 goals in his age-22 season during 2011-12, Stamkos dealt with two injury plagued seasons in a row before coming back strong and ranking second in goals scored behind Alex Ovechkin during his 2014-15 campaign. He struggled mightily in the early going this postseason but got back into his groove against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final, putting up four goals and three assists.

However, Stamkos isn’t actually the real story here for Tampa Bay. That honor goes to the Lightning’s super young and talented first line, otherwise known as the ‘The Triplets,’ which consists of 22-year-old Tyler Johnson, 21-year-old Nikita Kucherov and 24-year-old Ondrej Palat. Johnson, who is an incredible story in his own right after going undrafted due to his small stature (5’9″), leads all players in goals (12) and points (21) this postseason, with Kucherov trailing just behind him (nine goals, 19 points). The three of them have been an unstoppable force throughout the playoffs, leading all lines in cumulative scoring (55 points) and +/- (+17). Both Johnson and Kucherov also rank first and second in game-winning goals scored with four and three, respectively (Patrick Kane also has three). The trio has a perfect mix of speed and skill and is known for terrific passing (sound familiar?). These kids may be young, but they are well beyond their years. I’m excited to see which Hawks line Coach Quenneville chooses to match up with them.

Tampa Bay has the speed to keep up with Chicago, but they don’t really have the depth. Their top two lines have combined for 45 out of the team’s 55 postseason goals – 82% of the scoring. On the other hand, Chicago’s high-end talent at forward is friggin’ ridiculous. Between Jonathan Toews (18 points), Patrick Kane (20 points), Marian Hossa (13 points), Patrick Sharp (12 points), Brad Richards (11 points), Brandon Saad (8 points)… the list just doesn’t seem to end. As a team, the Hawks rank first by a mile in SAT For (remember, that’s team shots on goal + team missed shots + opponent blocked shots excluding empty net) at 986, a very strong indication of their puck possession superiority. On top of that, they are an impossible 32-0-0 this season (regular season/playoffs) when leading after the second period. That obviously has to do with more aspects of the game than just offense, but it’s a stat worth sharing.

On a side note, here’s my crazy stat of the day: Toews became the first player in Stanley Cup history with multi-goal games in Games 5 and 7 on the road. If the NHL had a re-draft tomorrow, he would be the first overall pick without question. Sleep on that.

Defense

Two words: Duncan Keith. The man is a freak. He leads the postseason with a +13, ranks second in assists (16) and, as far as I’m concerned, leads all players in ice time at an absurd 31:36 per game rate (Roman Josi of Nashville played 31:37 in six games, but that was one series – who’s counting?). Keith also has two game-winning goals thus far and owns the highest individual SAT (SAT For – SAT Against) at 89, making his case to become the first defenseman to win the Conn Smythe Trophy since Scott Niedermayer did it with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007 (Toews and Kane both probably have the edge over him, but with seven potential games yet to be played, you never know).

As you know by now, though, the buck doesn’t stop with Keith. Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya continue to make the most out of their ice time. Seabrook ranks first amongst defensemen in goals with six (!!) and fourth in points (10) and +/- (+6). Meanwhile, Hjalmarsson sports a +5 and is tied for third in blocked shots with Oduya at 43. All three rank in the top 18 in TOI per game, but that’s probably a testament to the Blackhawks’ serious lack of depth at the blue line.

Kimmo Timmonen, Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad have proven to be worthless. Literally, they have a combined zero points in 24 games played, and only Cumiskey averages over ten minutes of ice time per game. It’s no coincidence that Oduya owns a team worst -5 +/- rating, as he’s usually paired with either Cumiskey or Rundblad. This trio of defensemen is busted. Hot garbage. Rubbish. Bollocks. Get them out.

Tampa Bay’s defensive unit is similar to that of Chicago’s – an excellent top four but questionable depth. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman form one of the strongest defensive lines in the NHL and have been sensational together this season. Stralman posted career highs in goals (9), assists (30) and points (39) and was pegged by ESPN’s Pierre Lebrun as Tampa Bay’s MVP thus far. Hedman, who ranks second amongst defensemen behind Duncan Keith with nine assists and a +5 rating this spring, is widely considered a top ten defenseman in the league; at 24 years old, he has his best years ahead of him. In addition, Jason Garrison, who led all defenseman in +/- this season (+27), heads up Tampa’s second defensive line. After that? Weak sauce.

All that said, Chicago’s blue line has way too much experience to not have the edge here. Expect the ice time to increase a bit more for each team’s top four this series in order to limit the exposure to the backends of their defensive units.

Goaltending

So, Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop is big. Like, really big. Like, the biggest goaltender to EVER play in the NHL big. At 6’7″ and 215 pounds, Bishop takes up an insane amount of net – not a bad trait to have when your main job is to form a wall in front of a net and ensure no puck gets past you. He legitimately looks like Hagrid (Harry Potter reference – I’m as cool as you thought) in pads, a uniform and a helmet. Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 11.49.54 PM

Anyways, being that large isn’t always great when you’re a goaltender. Yes, he fills a lot of space, with his shoulders covering most shots even in the butterfly, but Bishop doesn’t have the easiest time moving east to west and is at his best when his movements are controlled. With today’s NHL game being so fast, that’s a pretty glaring weakness to have.

That said, the highs have been extraordinarily high during this playoff run, as Bishop has made the history books a couple of times with his spectacular play. According to NHL.com, which features a fantastic, in-depth piece on Bishop, he became “the first goalie to backstop his team to the Cup Final with a road shutout in Game 7 of the conference finals, which Bishop did in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers. He also is the first goaltender with road shutouts in Games 5 and 7 of the same playoff series, and the first to win his first two Game 7 starts, a run that started in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Detroit Red Wings.” Not only that, but Bishop enters the Cup Final with a road shutout streak of 143 minutes and 45 seconds. For all your mathematicians out there, that’s two games and one+ period worth of shutouts (he has three shutouts overall this postseason), so… yeah. On the other hand, Bishop has also given up 15 goals (yes, 15 goals) in his past three home games. If that trend continues (don’t count on it), he stands no chance at leading his team to victory in Games 1 and 2.

Across the ice for Chicago stands Corey Crawford who, as you might agree, has been pretty mediocre throughout the playoffs. He gave up 21 goals in seven games against Anaheim (never less than two in any game) and has had some serious ups (Game 3 shutout against Minnesota; heroic 60 save effort in that triple overtime thriller in Game 2 against Anaheim) and some serious downs (first round against Nashville; three goals allowed in a 37 second span in Game 4 against Anaheim). Crawford ranks last out of seven goalies who have played 10 games or more this postseason with a 2.56 GAA. For comparison’s sake, Crawford posted an insane 1.84 GAA during Chicago’s 2013 Cup run, so it’s quite clear he hasn’t been the player he’s fully capable of being. Some would dismiss the 2015 Corey Crawford as the product of a great team, and a few minutes of convincing may sway me down that road as well. But this is a guy who’s been there, done that, and that experience may prove to be everything when it’s all said and done.

(For a great breakdown of Crawford’s strengths, weaknesses and trends, click here.)

Special Teams

Coming into the playoffs, these two teams had eerily similar special teams units. Chicago ranked 20th on the Power Play (PP) at 17.6% and 10th on the Penalty Kill (PK) at 83.4%; Tampa Bay ranked 14th on the PP at 18.8% and 9th on the PK at 83.7%. Since then, Tampa Bay’s PP unit has been on fire, annihilating New York at a 32% clip in their seven-game Eastern Conference Final, as well as Montreal at a 35% clip in their six-game Eastern Conference Semifinal. Chicago is still middle-of-the road on that front but is coming off a huge Game 7 in Anaheim, where Toews and Seabrook each scored one momentum-grabbing PP goal. Although a top PP unit of Stamkos-Johnson-Kucherov-Palat-Stralman is absolutely petrifying, I’ll still take my chances with Toews-Kane-Keith-Shaw-Sharp every time.

As for the PK, recall from my Western Conference Finals Preview that Anaheim had an unsustainable 31% success rate on the PP coming into the series. And right on cue was Chicago, bringing them back down to Earth and allowing only three PP goals in 16 tries. Chicago is now up to a 75% PK rate, which isn’t great but is steadily improving. Tampa Bay, who owned Montreal on the PK in the Round 2 (allowed only one PP goal out of 16, good for 93.8%), had a decent 70.1% PK rate against New York last round. Although it’s not too dramatic of a decrease, both teams seem to be trending opposite ways. Tampa Bay also has been shorthanded nearly 3.5 times per game this postseason, while Chicago has put themselves in better position, allowing themselves to be shorthanded less than three times per game. Slight edge goes to the Hawks.

Coaching

My Uncle Dan, a diehard Blackhawks fan (and avid follower of this blog) suggested I analyze the coaching matchups as well. Great idea. Problem is, I know nothing about Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper and, to be honest, I don’t really care to. Why? Because Joel Quenneville and his mustache have won two Stanley Cups, while Cooper has made two playoff appearances. ‘Nuff said.

Prediction

Experience, experience, experience. Hawks in 6.

Western Conference Finals Preview: Hawks-Ducks

Raise your hand if you honestly thought the Blackhawks would be able to withstand a brutal best-of-seven series against the hottest team in the NHL – a team that we’d beaten two straight postseasons. With the hottest goaltender. After the Corey Crawford – Scott Darling debacle in round one? If you’re raising your hand like myself, consider yourself a full-blown idiot. I thought Minnesota would win that series handily, and we’d be stuck watching LeBron James neuter each and every Bulls player back to boyhood for the next two weeks, which is exactly what he did.

Good news is, I was dead wrong about the Blackhawks last series as we live to see this potential dynasty continue to build on to its legacy. This is the fifth Conference Finals appearance for the Blackhawks in the past seven years, and most pundits expect them to make their third Cup appearance in that span as well. Let’s break down why.

Offense

As well as the Blackhawks are playing coming into this series after making the scorching Devan Dubnyk look pedestrian in net (which he actually is, by the way), there is no hotter team in hockey than the Anaheim Ducks. They enter the conference finals with an 8-1 postseason record and a +20 goal differential in those nine games. It’s no coincidence, as this team tied St. Louis for most points in the Western Conference this season with 109 and are on a mission to prove their doubters wrong after two hugely disappointing playoff exits in as many years (first place regular season finishes in both).

Anaheim has outscored opponents 16-3 in the third period this spring, and they’ve won games they’ve trailed an incredible six times already, indicating that no lead against them is ever safe. Their 3.89 goals per game also leads the postseason. The Ducks boast three of the top seven points-getters in this year’s playoffs, led by five-time all-star and former Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry with 15 points. At 30 years of age, Perry has undoubtedly been one of the best players in the NHL over the past seven years; he enters the series tied with Patrick Kane for second in the playoffs with a +8, just ahead of his partner in crime, Ryan Getzlaf. The two stars are no strangers to success, as they helped the Ducks win their first and only Stanley Cup in franchise history way back in 2007. Perry and Getzlaf, along with the physically imposing presence of Patrick Maroon, form one of the best lines in all of hockey; each rank in the top eight in points this postseason.

With Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews having anchored two of Canada’s four lines en route to a 2014 gold medal (Perry, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith were all also on that team), the matchup between those two at the center of the ice will be as good as it gets. However, with all-do respect to the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames, neither of whom had reached the playoffs since 2007 and 2009, respectively, the Ducks have yet to face a team as battle-tested as the Blackhawks.

Chicago has not missed the playoffs since 2008, with five conference finals appearances and two Stanley Cups to show for it. They’ve also dealt with the adversity of playing without Patrick Kane for 2+ months, giving 20-year-old forward Teuvo Teravainen (whom I wrote about on draft night 2012) the opportunity to grow as a professional, as well as the Patrick Sharp adultery and sex-obsessive rumors and, of course, the puke-fest that was the Crawford-Darling roller coaster against Nashville in round one. Yet after all that, here they stand, back in the Conference Finals and going toe-to-toe with one of the most physical and consistent teams in the league.

It goes without saying that this Hawks team has been completely rejuvenated by the shocking, premature comeback and heroic play by Patrick Kane. He currently ranks second in the postseason in both points (13) and +/- (+8). He’s playing better hockey than anyone right now, having scored a goal (six goals overall) in five straight games heading into this series. He simply cannot be stopped right now, and it’s been a downright beautiful thing to witness.

The Hawks continue to own arguably the league’s deepest roster in terms of skill and speed. Because of that, they are phenomenal at tracking down the puck and maintaining possession of it, having ranked second overall during the regular season in both adjusted shot attempt differential at 54.4% and SAT at 543. For those of you stat nerds like myself, SAT is defined as the following:

  • Shot Attempts For – Shot Attempts Against
    • Shot Attempts For (5-on-5): Team shots on goal + team missed shots + opponent blocked shots (excluding empty net)
    • Shot Attempts Against (5-on-5): opponent shots on goal + opponent missed shots + team blocked shots (excluding empty net).

The Hawks offensive arsenal, as you know, is not much different from years’ past. They consistently beat their opponents with depth, skill and speed. Big, physical teams like Anaheim have rarely given them fits when it comes to scoring goals, but the game of hockey is much more than that. Let’s see what the blue liners have in store.

Defense

Anaheim is an absurd 33-1-7 (yes, 33-1-7) in one-goal games this season, an indication of a team that isn’t necessarily as great as it is lucky. The scary thing, however, is that they seem to be playing their best hockey at the right time, at least from a defensive perspective. After seeing their scoring chance differential drop below 50% in late February (meaning they were getting out-chanced by their opponents), Anaheim has seen that number jump to nearly 55%, which is driven by a dramatic decline in the number of shot attempts against them (Corsi Against is also known as SAT Against), reflected below.

Screen Shot 2015-05-17 at 10.31.39 AM

Source: SI.com

Not only that, but Anaheim has also posted far and away the best SAT Tied at 48 (followed by Chicago at 35) and SAT Close at 53 (“close” is defined as teams within one goal, or tied, in the 3rd period). The Hawks, on the other hand, seem to have moved in the opposite direction but are weathering the storm as of late. Needless to say, the Ducks are a team that is all but a lock to win close games, so the Hawks will have to get to them early and often if they’re going to win this series and avoid doing so in typical Hawks fashion (which is, as you know, making near miracle comebacks late in games).

From a player perspective, Chicago continues to rely on it’s four-headed defensive monster of reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson. All four men are averaging more ice time per game (with Keith leading the way at 30:38) than anyone on Anaheim in the playoffs, which is probably more indicative of Coach Quenneville’s lack of trust in his two worst defensemen – Kimmo Timmonen, who’s averaging a measly 9:25 on ice per game, and Michal Roszival. With Roszival out for the season due to a fractured ankle that he suffered in Game 4 against Minnesota, David Rundblad now takes his spot.

Keith leads the postseason with a +10, followed by Cam Fowler and Simon Despres of Anahem, and Hjalmarsson, at +7, +6, and +6 respectively. Oduya and Hjalmarsson rank in the top of the league this spring in blocked shots, something that continues to remain constant each and every year.

Both teams match up fairly well defensively, and this series may very well come down to who can win close games. The Hawks clearly lack depth at the blue line right now, and it’s not hard to envision a physical Ducks team taking complete advantage of that over a long best-of-seven series. Based on this season’s results, Anaheim would have the edge. However, there is no defensive unit in the league as experienced and consistently good as that of Chicago, and if there’s any team in the world that can buck Anaheim’s trend of winning one-goal games, it’s them.

Goaltending

You all know the story by now. Corey Crawford was atrocious in the first period of Game 1 against Nashville, so Scott Darling replaced him. Darling held his own for a few games and then was atrocious in the first period of Game 5, so Crawford re-replaced him. Whatever happened to Crawford in between, no one knows, but the man channeled his inner Michael Jordan (Spacejam version with the secret weapon drink, chill people) and has since posted a ridiculous .951 save percentage. The Corey Crawford, as we know him, seems to be back with a hot hand and a vengeance – a man who, I hope, will not allow himself to lose his job again. Crawford still ranked 11th in the league this season in GAA at 2.29, and he, ya know, won a Stanley Cup what, like two years ago? If the confidence is there, watch the eff out.

On the other side of the ice will stand Frederik Andersen, a 25-year-old Danish stud playing in his second year. Casual hockey fans likely have no idea who he is, but Andersen has been really solid during his first two years in the NHL, as he sports a career record of 55-17-5 and career GAA of 2.35. He was pretty mediocre during the regular season but has been a completely different man this spring with a filthy 1.96 GAA in nine games, having allowed only 18 goals and managing to post one shut out. Also, Andersen has stopped 44 of 51″high-danger shots” he has faced this postseason (.862 save percentage), which ranks second amongst goalies with at least 500 minutes played. To be honest, I’ve never heard of “danger zones” in hockey until today, and I cannot find an actual definition anywhere. However, the stat sounded cool as hell, and it makes Andersen sound scarier than I thought. Just go with it.

Of the four goalies still remaining, Andersen and Crawford are the two worst right now (both Henrik Lundqvist of New York and Ben Bishop of Tampa Bay are on completely different levels right now), but they’ve both proven to be somewhat capable of taking over a series. Given Crawford’s experience, I’d say he certainly has the edge, but Andersen seems to be the next, young up-and-coming goalie who could be a force to be reckoned with.

Special Teams

Gun to my head, I’d tell you that this series, without question, will come down to special teams – specifically Anaheim’s power play against Chicago’s penalty kill. The Ducks lead the playoffs by a wide margin with a 31% success rate on the power play, which is nearly double their rate during the regular season, where they ranked 28th out of 30 teams in the league. To see a turnaround that dramatic is unprecedented, and one has to assume that a success rate like that, given such poor play beforehand, is unsustainable.

Chicago’s power play has remained pretty consistent, as they’re converting 20% of their one-man advantages into goals. However, it’s the penalty kill that is a cause for concern. During the season, the Hawks ranked in the top 10, killing penalties at an 83.4% rate. However, since the start of the playoffs, that number has dipped all the way to 72.7% (allowed nine goals in 33 chances), second worst amongst any team that survived the first round. Of the 10 games they’ve played thus far, the Hawks have allowed at least one power play goal in eight of them. If they don’t shore up this short-handed vulnerability in a hurry, they will be going home – no question about it.

One other little nugget: Anaheim’s second power play unit is manned by Ryan Kesler at center. Kesler has completely dominated in the face-off circle this postseason, having won 63.7% of his face-offs – easily the best rate for any full-time center. Chicago cannot allow Kesler to continue to win face-offs at a rate that high, especially when nearly every face-off during those two-minute power plays will occur in their own zone.

Prediction

I believe Chicago will shore up its special teams woes and bring Anaheim back down to earth. Experience will be huge, and a potential Stanley Cup matchup between two goliaths (Blackhawks and Rangers) is on the horizon.

Hawks in 6.

Blackhawks trade Bolland, Frolik; Re-sign Bickell

Thankfully, Bryan Bickell will be staying in Chicago.

In June of 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. Not even a week later, GM Stan Bowman hosted the first fire sale of his young career by trading away (and in Antti Niemi’s case, walking away from) a number of valuable championship pieces and role players, namely Kris Versteeg, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd, and fan-favorite Dustin Byfuglien, in order to free up major salary cap space and maintain the core the future. It was a tough pill to swallow at first, but there was no way around it. Players of Byfuglien’s caliber deserve to be paid and, unfortunately, it was next to impossible for the Blackhawks to sign his next pay check. The NHL is a business; we get hurt, we pick ourselves up, and we move on. That’s the nature of all sports.

Just three years later, Bowman’s plan proved to pay off royally. The Blackhawks were crowned 2013 Stanley Cup Champions, but as evidenced by the aforementioned summer just three short years ago, Bowman wasted no time getting back to work and proved, yet again, that he simply does not dick around. Merely six days after winning the Cup, Bowman simultaneously shipped half of the “17 Second Duo”, Dave Bolland, to his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs for three future draft picks, and Michael Frolik to the Winnipeg Jets for two draft picks in Sunday night’s draft.

Bolland will be entering the final year of a five-year, $16.8 million contract that carries an annual average value of $3.3 million, while Frolik has one year and $1.9 million left on his contract. These two trades got the Blackhawks to just over $11.2 million under the salary cap, giving them more than enough cap leeway to bring back the other half of the “17 Second Duo” and postseason hero Bryan Bickell at a team-friendly four-year, $16 million contract. Fresh off his coming-of-age season, Bickell ranked second on the team (post-season) in  goals (9) and points (17), first amongst forwards in +/- (+11), first in hits (85) and first in shot percentage (18.4%). The 27-year-old left wing was absolutely huge, literally and figuratively, down the stretch, and given the home town discount that he was willing to take, it’s impossible to find any glaring downsides associated with this contract. After losing that monstrous front-of-the-net presence in Dustin Byfuglien after the first Cup run, Bowman saw the true value in maintaining a brutally hard-hitting wing in Bickell and chose not to let him walk for nothing. A+ for him.

Bolland and Frolik will be missed, but they are certainly not irreplaceable. Bolland gave it a great 7+ year run in Chicago, having scored 70 goals and recording 98 assists in 332 regular season games. He will forever be remembered and cherished by fans for his fantastic play throughout the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs (eight goals and eight assists, three of each coming in the Stanley Cup against Philadelphia) and for his Cup-clinching goal in Game 6 against Boston.

The timing to trade Bolland could not have been better, however, as the continuous injuries that have ailed him throughout his career (including throughout the postseason) may have been over-shadowed by the defining moment of his career last Monday night. Bolland is a good player, but those injuries have significantly prevented him from becoming great, as his average time on ice during the regular season decreased by well over a full minute since 2011 (17:39 to 16:20) and stood at a career low 13:30 during the 2013 postseason. He also proved to be one of, if not the, worst at winning faceoffs on the team (39.3% in 2010 playoffs, 42.5% in 2013 playoffs). Hockey enthusiasts will always appreciate the playoff memories he brought to fans around the country, but Stan Bowman made the right decision to move his expiring contract now and get assets in return. We can only wish him nothing but the best as he looks to improve an up-and-coming Maple Leafs team up north.

Frolik, whom Bowman acquired near the trade deadline back in February 2011, had a major impact on the Blackhawks’ success over the past two and a half seasons, specifically on the penalty kill and in this past playoff run. After a down year in 2011-12, the 25-year-old bounced back to identify himself as a central part of the third-ranked penalty kill in the league. Frolik helped that unit kill an incredible 62-of-70 power plays in 23 postseason games, good for 90.8%. On top of that, he recorded a very solid ten playoff points (three goals, seven assists), including the game winning goal on the road in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semis against Detroit to keep the Blackhawks’ playoff hopes alive, as well as four assists against Boston in the Cup. The positive impact Frolik had over the past couple of months cannot be understated; unfortunately, the young talent that the Blackhawks have in the pipeline has made Frolik expendable, as they are grooming some of that talent (and even Brandon Saad) to step in for him and take over on the PK as we speak. Winnipeg has picked up yet another great piece in Frolik from one of the two Blackhawk Stanley Cup teams (Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd) to add to their ever-improving squad and help improve their 24th ranked penalty-killing unit.

None of us can say right now what other moves Stan Bowman has left up his sleeve, but there are a plethora of decisions that have yet to be made. Michal Handzus and Michal Rozsival are amongst the unrestricted free agents who have expressed interest in staying in Chicago. Marcus Kruger and Nick Leddy are young, restricted free agents but coming off somewhat disappointing postseasons. UFA Viktor Stalberg, twice benched by Joel Quenneville during the post season, is eyeing major minutes with a chance to play as a top-six forward and will likely not be back. Ray Emery, despite his fantastic 17-1-0 season, will surely not be coming back either after the Hawks came to terms on a one-year deal with Finnish goaltender Antti Raanta, who led the Finnish league in goals-against average and save percentage this past season. Highly touted youngsters Jimmy Hayes, Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin and Ben Smith are all waiting in the wings and pushing for a spot in the lineup next season. Trading Bolland and Frolik in order to re-sign Bickell was the first of what should be many smart decisions to come, as Bowman has proven time and again that he knows what it takes to build a consistent winner in the NHL. Only time will tell whether those decisions will increase or decrease the Blackhawks’ chances of winning yet another Stanley Cup.

Welcome Home, Lord Stanley

The Chicago Blackhawks are Stanley Cup champions for the second time in four years.

After a three year hiatus, the Stanley Cup is coming back to Chicago.

“Better than sex – almost.”

That’s what Monday night’s stunning finish to the Stanley Cup felt like for Blackhawks fans, from Dave Bolland’s perspective, anyway. Elation swept the streets of Chicago through the wee hours of Tuesday morning, as diehards and bandwagoners alike celebrated one of their proudest sports moments in recent memory.

Rarely, if ever, do you see a team come back down 2-1 in the final 1:20 of a game and win, with a Stanley Cup on the line, mind you, in regulation. Once that goalie gets pulled, everyone approaches the final minute in one of two ways: with the glass half empty or with the glass half full. Whichever way you look at it, though, that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you see your goaltender hurrying off the ice in the top right corner of your screen will always make you sick. It was over. We were heading back to Chicago for a final chance at the Cup. Or so we thought.

The Blackhawks got completely outplayed throughout the first 58 minutes of the game. Faceoff after faceoff, shot opportunity after shot opportunity, this series seemed destined for a Game 7. But when Jonathan Toews found an open Brian Bickell in front of the crease for the game-tying goal with 1:16 left in regulation, suddenly that half-filled glass had quickly filled to the top, and whatever happened in those first 58 minutes was rendered irrelevant. The tide had drastically turned, and the city of Boston was reeling.

Seventeen seconds later, Dave Bolland happened to be in the exact right place at the exact right time, as his miraculous goal that had previously deflected off the left post from a Johnny Oduya wrist shot gave Chicago the rights to the Cup. Within a blink of the eye, the Blackhawks were once again Stanley Cup champions. But had it not been for every single player on the deepest team in the league pitching in at some point down that long journey, the Cup would currently be in the hands of 20+ other men.

Patrick Kane’s unforeseeable surge to claim the Conn Smythe Trophy was truly inspiring. He struggled mightily for a majority of the postseason, and fans all over were unjustly blaming him and his inability to score for our losses. In the end, however, he came through when it mattered most, posting a hat trick in the series clinching win against Los Angeles, one goal in the Game 4 win against Boston and two goals in Game 5. Kane has matured from the binge-drinking frat star that opposing fans know him by (he probably still qualifies as a binge-drinking frat star, but if you were 24 years old and making millions playing hockey, you would too) into the soft-spoken leader that we all had hoped he would become, and for that, he deservedly became the fourth American-born player (and first American-born forward) to ever win the Conn Smythe (Brian Leetch, ’94 Rangers; Tim Thomas, ’11 Bruins; Jonathan Quick, ’12 Kings).

On top of that, Corey Crawford shut up any and all doubters that promised this team could never win a championship, so long as he’s in goal. He came into the Cup scorching hot, hit a rough patch in Game 4 that he ended up winning anyways, shored up his glove side significantly, and closed out the Bruins with a sensational performance in Game 6. He posted one of the eight best Goals Against Averages in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for any goalie to have won all 16 playoff games (1.84 – better than Antii Niemi in ’10 and Tim Thomas in ’11). With Crawford’s performance throughout the postseason being as valuable as any, it’s now safe to assume that no one is jumping off the Corey Crawford Train for a long, long time.

There will never be an explanation for how Monday night’s chain of events could take place during a game of that magnitude, in any sport. Maybe it was the Hockey Gods trying to do something nice for Chicago’s predominantly classy players and fans. Maybe it was straight up luck. Maybe the Blackhawks just wanted it more, or maybe the Bruins just choked. Whatever the case may have been, we will surely never witness an ending quite like that in our lifetimes again. The Chicago Blackhawks were the best team in 2013 from start to finish, and after what they accomplished during the regular season and beyond, they will surely be remembered as one of the greatest hockey teams ever assembled. They brought fans who were ready to give up on the sport back to life, and for six solid months, they gave everyone in the city of Chicago a sense of pride and joy.

It’s a funny thing about sports. Some people don’t understand how or even why they are such a big part of our lives. But if you walked around any part of the city Monday night, or experienced the game at a bar in the suburbs, or watched from the comfort of your own home with friends and family, the answer is simple: sports bring people together. Whether you’re black, white, brown, blue, rich, poor, big, small, male, female, shemale, sports bring out the best in people.

No matter where you turned, people who had never met before were hugging, high-fiving, and jumping on each other’s backs; people were dancing on roof tops and buying strangers drinks. No matter what terrible things may have happened in one’s life over the past year, winning a championship in any sport gives us reason to believe in something, to soothe our wounds, to feel free for one night. The world temporarily stops – for that one night, an overwhelming sense of joy is cast over everyone. We’re all without a single worry on our plate, and whatever was going on in our lives ten hours earlier has been shoved to the back burner to be dealt with tomorrow or the next day. We all choose to savor each and every precious moment to be a part of something special, to feel like a true champion. These are unforgettable moments that we all will hold onto for the rest of our lives, and nothing anyone can say or do will take that away from us. This is the power of sports, the power of witnessing your beloved team prove to the world that they are, in fact, the very best at what they do, and I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.

For the second time in four years, the Chicago Blackhawks are Stanley Cup Champions. And until some other team dethrones them next June, we, too, are champions, my friends.

Welcome home, Lord Stanley.

Race for the Conn Smythe Trophy

Has Corey Crawford been the MVP of the NHL playoffs so far?

The Conn Smythe Trophy winner is one of the most forgotten about awards throughout the four major sports. In fact, many intelligent sports fans (outside of hockey diehards) don’t even know what the Conn Smythe Trophy is – I’ve heard it being mistaken as an alias for the Stanley Cup and the league’s best goaltender, amongst other dumb things – which is quite sad. What exactly is it, you ask? Why, it’s the MVP of the NHL Playoffs, hombre. Time to get yourself out from underneath that rock you’ve been living under pronto.

If some douche bag were to hold a gun to your head and force you to name the past three NBA Finals MVPs and Super Bowl MVPs, could name ‘em? You’re damn right you could (I hope). Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Lebron James, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco. See how easy that was? You just saved your own life. But if that same douche bag were to hold a gun to your head and force you to name the past three Conn Smythe Trophy winners? Unless you’re able to spew out “Jonathan Toews, Tim Thomas, and Jonathan Quick” without hesitation, you’ve got a bullet through your skull before you even get a chance to ask “What’s a Conn Smythe?”

With that, it’s time to show a little appreciation for the most sought after award (in my humble opinion) outside of the Stanley Cup. Let’s break down the frontrunners, trailers and long shots, by team, for the 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy Award.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Frontrunner: Corey Crawford, G

Corey Crawford has been nothing short of sensational between the pipes this postseason. The man came into the Cup with a hot hand, and he kept that hand aflame after his performance in the triple overtime thriller against Boston on Wednesday night. After the 51 saves (in 54 chances), albeit in 112 minutes, that he recorded in Game 1, his playoff-leading goals against average (GAA) improved to an astonishing 1.73, and his save percentage (SV%) now stands at .936. This has been a coming-of-age season for Double C Cup (a nickname I totally just made up), and he contains all the makeup and talent necessary to become one of the best goaltenders in all of hockey. If Crawford continues to stonewall Boston the way he did in those three overtimes and leads Chicago to its second Cup in four years, the 2013 Conn Smythe will be his for the rest of eternity.

Trailer: Marian Hossa, RW

As expected, 34-year-old Marian Hossa has been a model of consistency for this young Blackhawks team. His presence alone has made him as valuable as any over the past four years, and without his four combined points in elimination Games 5-7 against Detroit in the Western Conference semifinals, who really knows where this team would be? Quietly, behind all the Kane/Toews/Bickell talk, Hossa currently leads the team with 15 points (7 goals, 8 assists) this postseason, leads all Chicago forwards and centers with a +8 +/- rating, ranks second on the team in shot percentage (.121) for anyone with over 40 shots on goal, and ranks first on the team in game winning goals (tied with three others) with two. Interestingly enough, the Hawks are 11-1 thus far when Hossa records a point and 2-4 when he fails to do so. That’s how valuable he has been. If the Hawks win the Cup behind an unexpected pedestrian performance from Crawford, the Conn Smythe crown should be Hossa’s to claim.

Longshot: Bryan Bickell, LW

Late-bloomer Bryan Bickell has taken over Dustin Byfuglien’s role as the enforcer of the Hawks offense throughout this playoff run. After spending his first few seasons as a benchwarmer, Bickell finally came into his own as a legitimate left wing in this league. During the 2010 Stanley Cup run, he played four games total; during this one, he hasn’t missed a game, leading the team with 64 hits and a .222 shooting percentage (only 36 shots on goal, but still). He has been extremely physical and enormously clutch, scoring game winning goals in Game 1 against Minnesota, Game 2 against Los Angeles, as well as goal in Games 5 and 6 against Detroit and Game 4 against Los Angeles again. It seems that every season, one player from the Stanley Cup winning team comes out from the mediocrity closet and busts right onto the scene when the playoffs begin. Bickell has been that guy this year, and he’s earned himself the generous pay day that will surely come to him. Unfortunately, his chances of winning the Conn Smythe are remote, but you can never say never, I guess.

BOSTON BRUINS

Frontrunner: Tuuka Rask, G

Tuuka Rask, like Crawford, came into the Cup scorching hot – so hot that it was almost frightening to think about. The Hawks got to Rask late in Game 1, but he still managed to save 59 out of 63 shots from going into his net. The four goals he gave up, though, are twice the amount he gave up against Pittsburgh during their four-game sweep. Outside of a few other four goal games earlier against Toronto and New York, Rask has been an absolute wall while recording a 1.78 GAA and .942 SV%. Tim Thomas posted a 1.98 GAA and .940 SV% en route to his MVP award in 2011; Jonathan Quick posted a 1.41 GAA and .946 SV% en route to his MVP award in 2012. If Rask continues at this pace, and the Bruins win the Cup, he should win the award when it’s all said and done.

Trailer: David Krejci, C

David Krejci continues to be one of the best players for the Boston Bruins, and one of the most underrated players in the league. A true winner, Krejci tends to save his best for big moments, as evidenced by his hat tricks in Game 6 against Tampa Bay in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals and Game 4 against Toronto in the opening round this season. As he did in the 2011 playoffs, Krejci leads the Bruins with 23 points (including a team-leading nine goals and 14 assists), and he ranks second in +/- (+15) and shooting percentage (.191). He has two game-winning goals thus far and has proven to be Boston’s most valuable offensive player at this moment in time. The race to win the Conn Smythe should be neck and neck between Rask and Krejci for the rest of the way.

Longshot: Nathan Horton, RW

This spot is a complete toss-up between Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic, not because the former had to leave Game 1 with a reported “chronic left shoulder subluxation,” but because they both bring very positive characteristics to the table in different ways. Lucic is much more physical (72 hits to Horton’s 22), but Horton gets the edge because he leads the team, by a wide margin, with a +22 +/- rating, ranks second in points (18) and goals (7), and has been the most accurate shooter on the team (.221). There’s a very slim chance, if any, that Horton wins this award, especially if he has to miss any time with that banged up shoulder, but that’s more of a testament to Rask and Krejci than anything else.

Prediction:

I picked the Hawks in 6 and I’m sticking with that, so I’ll take Corey Crawford in this little race for the MVP prize.

Stanley Cup Preview: Hawks-Bruins

The Chicago Blackhawks are heading to their second Stanley Cup in four years.

Two Original Six teams. Two of the four biggest sports markets in America. Two of the deepest teams in the NHL with two of the hottest goaltenders to date. The 2013 Stanley Cup finals has all the makings of something truly historical, containing two teams who know a thing or two about winning a championship. This will be the first playoff meeting between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins since 1978 and the first time they even share the ice together since October 2011. The roller coaster ride to get to this point has been a hell of a lot bumpier than your typical fan would prefer. There have been flashes of dominance: Boston’s shocking sweep of The Golden Boy and his Penguins, Chicago’s comfortable 4-1 series win over the former champs; there have been flashes of desperation: Boston’s unforgettable come-from-behind Game 7 win to stun the Toronto Maple Leafs after suffering a 4-1 deficit in the third period, Chicago’s ability to win three straight elimination games over the Detroit Red Wings. But in another 35 years, most hockey fans will look back on the 2013 season and only remember the best-of-seven ride that lies ahead – a ride that will inevitably end in thrill for one team and nausea for the other.

Offense

Nearly every major contributor on this Bruins team was a part of their 2011 Stanley Cup run. David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Nathan Horton make up one of the, if not the, strongest first line in all of hockey. Krejci recorded 23 points 12 goals, 11 assists) en rout to the Cup two years ago; he already has 21 points (9 goals, 12 assists) this postseason. Him, Lucic and Horton lead all playoff qualifiers with a +/- of +14, +13 and +21, respectively. The chemistry between those three is as good as chemistry can possibly get (somewhere Carmelo Anthony is shrugging upon hearing such a word), so one can only hope that the Blackhawk defense can find a way to slow the trio down. Patrice Bergeron (two game-winning goals in OT) and his little bitch side kick, Brad Marchand, the 5’9 pest who opposing players and fans looove to hate, round out a very formidable and threatening offfense. 87-year-old Jaromir Jagr is playing in his first Stanley Cup since 1992 but has probably had somewhat of an affect on Boston’s improvement from 2.65 GF/G during the regular season (13th) to 3.13 GF/G during the postseason (2nd).

As for the Hawks, we all know the story by now: incredible depth and star power. Patrick Kane, whose head was being called for by many irrational fans for not scoring a goal in seven consecutive playoff games, came through in a monstrous way with a goal in Game 4 against LA and a hat trick in Game 5 to punch Chicago’s ticket to the Cup. But while Jonathan Toews has struggled mightily and has yet to score his second playoff goal, it’s been the play of unsung heroes that can’t be overshadowed. Bryan Bickell has officially earned himself a massive pay day come July with his unpredicatble eight playoff goals; veteran center Michal Handzus has chipped in nine points in 17 playoff games; and lightning rod Andrew Shaw has provided an emotional and physical spark that this team has seemed to lack at various points throughout the postseason. Overall, 12 different Blackhawks have scored goals during this playoff run. Hopefully, those very unsung heroes can rise to the occasion for one last series.

Defense

The Bruin defense is headlined by the three-headed monster of Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid. Chara, who stands at a relatively large 6’9 255 pounds, is a straight-up behemoth. He is literally 7’0 tall on skates, which would make shit seep through the pants and leak down the inner thigh of most normal people were he to ever come at anyone at full speed on ice. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would drop dead immediately after receiving a forecheck from a man of that size – I would probably suffer a heart attack just from the sight of his approach – which makes me think that breaking an opponent’s bone or two from a simple check into the boards isn’t all that uncommon for Chara.

All joking aside, given his size, Chara is as good a defenseman as there is in this league. As expected, he leads all Bruin defensemen with 53 hits to go along with 11 points and a +/- rating of +12. He makes a huge impact on the power play as well with his deadly slap shot, his knack for effectively screening the opposing goaltender with his girthy frame, and his ability to successfully move the puck from the point.

Boychuk comes into the Cup with a league-leading 55 blocked shots (it’s not even close), and his 48 hits ranks him third amongst defensemen (behind Seabrook and Chara). 6’5 Adam McQuaid, fresh off his game-winning goal in Boston’s Game 4 shutout of Pittsburgh, has been solid as well with 36 hits and 27 blocked shots.

The Niklas Hjalmarsson/Johnny Oduya blue-line combo has been arguably as good as, if not better than, the more popular Duncan Keith/Brent Seabrook combo. The former two quietly lead the team in both +/- rating at +10 and +9, respectively, and blocked shots with 32 apiece. Keith is undoubtedly the best defenseman on the roster, and the fact that Chicago was able to steal Game 4 in LA without him will forever be beyond my comprehension. But given the second line’s current level of play, I shouldn’t have been as worried heading into that game. Hjalmarsson and Oduya may not be as big and physical as the Boston blue-liners (leave that to Seabrook and his 58 hits), but their under-appreciated chemistry and finesse have made them as valuable as a second defensive line can be. The extreme difference in style of play between these two opposing defenses is one of the more intriguing story lines out there.

Goaltending

Two summers ago, it was difficult to imagine a goaltender performing at a higher level than the one that Tim Thomas displayed for Boston during their Stanley Cup run. Thomas recorded an astounding 1.98 goals against average (GAA) and .940 save percentage (SV%) and earned himself the Conn Smythe Trophy award. Outside of the shockingly mortal Jonathan Quick (who blew those numbers away last year), no net-minder in recent memory has risen to that level… until Tuuka Rask came along this spring. Behind his 1.75 GAA and .943 SV%, Rask is coming off a series in which he completely stonewalled the Beasts of the East, allowing just two goals in four games and turning in an outrageous 53 saves in Boston’s thrilling double overtime win in Game 3. He’s got the hot hand, and it’s downright scary.

Corey Crawford, however, comes in with a hot hand of his own. After a couple of fairly mediocre postseasons between the pipes (2.21 GAA, .927 SV% against Vancouver in ’11; 2.58 GAA, .893 SV% against Phoenix in ’12), he leads all playoff goaltenders with a 1.74 GAA and ranks second behind Rask with a .935 SV%. The former second-round draft pick has come into his own and become the man we all hoped to see him become – a man we can finally feel comfortable riding for many springs to come – and has yet to ride even a sliver of pine (save for empty net situations) throughout this entire postseason run. If Crawford can improve upon his weakness of occasionally allowing a soft goal slip through the pipes and figure out a way to corral more pucks to avoid second-chance opportunities for the opponent, he will surely come to be known as one of best goalies in the league. Period.

Special Teams

At this juncture of the season, all hope for Chicago’s power play is pretty much lost. After a 1-for-14 showing against LA, the Hawks are now chillin’ at a 13.7% conversion rate on the PP. Boston’s penalty killing unit, on the other hand, has gone from middle of the pack amongst playoff teams to more lethal than one could’ve imagined, holding Pittsburgh and their godly PP unit (28.3% before the series) scoreless (yes – scoreless) in 15 tries during their four-game sweep. Boston and its PK unit are playing some inspired hockey at the most opportune time. Needless to say, this clash does not bode well for Chicago.

The good news, though? Boston’s power play is nearly just as bad, having gone 7-for-45 (15.6%) in one-man advantages thus far. Chicago may have given up two surprising power play goals in the conference finals, but their PK unit, as always, remains deadlier than “The Night Stalker” (too soon?) with a league-leading 94.8% PK%. In a series where both teams simply refuse to give in during shorthanded situations, one measly power play goal could be the overriding difference in a game which, in turn, could end up being the difference in the series as a whole. Let’s just hope that one measly puck finds a way to scoot past Tuuka Rask’s crease and not that of Corey Crawford.

Prediction

I picked the Hawks in five over Detroit; they won in seven. I picked the Hawks in seven over LA; they won in five. What’s the median between the two? Six.

Your 2013 Stanley Cup Champion? The Chicago Blackhawks. In 6.

Western Conference Finals Preview: Hawks-Kings

Hawks-Kings? Expect a series for the ages.

No team in NHL history had ever gone 24 consecutive games without losing in regulation… until this season. Only 20 times in NHL history, in 229 chances, no less, had a team come back from a 3-1 defecit to win a playoff series… until this season. The Chicago Blackhawks have now imprinted their name in the record books not once, but twice in the past two and a half months, yet the season as a whole doesn’t feel completely accomplished – not yet at least. There is still one minor milestone to check off on this memorable 2013 season – a second Stanley Cup in four years, and it’s officially in reach. The reigning champion Los Angeles Kings have yet to be dethroned, and as big of a challenge as the Red Wings posed these past two weeks, the Kings will make life for our Hawks that much more difficult. Get ready for one of the most exciting, gut-wrenching and emotional playoff series you will ever witness between two of the best teams in all of hockey. The Kings aren’t ready to give up the crown just yet, but the Blackhawks will do everything in their power to scalp them if need be.

Offense

It was only one short year ago that the Kings claimed the throne, for the first time ever, in purely dominant fashion. They set a NHL record by winning 10 consecutive games on the road in one playoff tournament and cruised to a 16-4 postseason record, something completely unheralded for an eighth seed. This year? They’re off to a 1-5 start on the road so far. If they’re going to have a chance to beat Chicago, they damn well better steal one in the Madhouse this weekend… and it all starts with something easier than done in these high-octane playoff series: scoring goals.

The Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews/Marian Hossa ménage à trois has combined for a pedestrian eight goals in 12 playoff games thus far (five from Hossa), while the Dustin Brown/Jeff Carter/Mike Richards ménage has combined for 10 goals in 13 games. These two teams are loaded with star power, and the numbers above are more of a testament to the unique depth and underratedness of their respective rosters than a knock on any of their top players. Patrick Sharp may have disappeared throughout most of the Detroit series, but he came through when it mattered most by scoring a huge goal in Game 7 to get us off the schneid. Brian Bickell (goals in Games 5 and 6), Michael Frolik (penalty shot in Game 6) and Andrew Shaw (two goals in Game 5) all also played monstrous roles in helping Chicago complete the three-game closeout. And although Kane and Toews have struggled to put the puck through the net, they’ve contributed positively (for the most part) in other ways, if not through timely passing (15 combined assists in the postseason), then by just simply being out on the ice (both lead Chicago non-defensemen in TOI/G). You’ve gotta believe that they’ll pick it up soon. Like, real soon. They’re too good not to.

As for LA, they’re not nearly as deep as Chicago, but they have great experience and great leadership. Brown and Carter are fantastic – Brown being the captain of the ship and Carter being the team’s bona-fide goal scorer, as he finished fourth in the NHL in goals scored this season (26). Both Carter and Richards played on the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers team that lost to Chicago in the Stanley Cup, and both got totally shut down, combining for four total points and a -13 +/- rating in that series. Needless to say, those two will be out for blood come Saturday. Brown and fellow wing, Dustin Penner, will surely enter the series with similar mentalities, as they both enjoy physical styles of hockey and lead the team in hits (57 and 38, respectively).

Two other names to know: Anze Kopitar and potential x-factor Justin Williams. Kopitar led the Kings in points during the regular season with 42, and Williams, who scored just 11 goals all season, scored two big ones in Game 7 against San Jose.

Defense

Drew Doughty vs. Duncan Keith – that’s the main story-line here. After manning the blue line for Team Canada together in the 2010 Olympics, they come in as two of the premiere defensemen in the league. As expected, they lead their respective teams in ice time per game, something that will surely not change during the conference finals. Keith’s nine points ranks him fourth this postseason, and Doughty’s 24 blocked shots ranks him ninth, right behind LA’s own Rob Scuderi (31 BS) and right in front of Chicago’s Johnny Oduya (23 BS). As ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun put it, “…the game plan from each team will include targeting each star blueliner: pound them every time you have a chance on the forecheck, and wear them down as much as possible.” That’s how important these two are to their teams. If Brent Seabrook can just pick up where he left off after that overtime goal to clinch a trip to the conference finals, then advantage: Chicago.

Goaltending

Not much needs to be said here. If you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, then it’s time to move the f**k out, because the enigma that is Jonathan Quick has taken his giant wooden goalie stick and shoved it up the asses of the past six playoff opponents he has faced. We can talk all we want about offense, defense, special teams, etc., but when it comes to playing the Kings, none of that has seemed to matter whatsoever. Quick has stopped 362 of 382 shots this postseason for a .948 save percentage – somehow better than the .946 he posted last year en route to the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He’s inexplicably unstoppable at this time of the year (he ranked 34th in the regular season in save percentage) and, quite frankly, it’s downright scary. Expect the Hawks to crash the net every chance they get and put a big body directly in front of Quick whenever the puck is in the LA zone. It almost worked for San Jose; I’d like to think it’ll be more effective for Chicago.

Corey Crawford has been pretty unbelievable too, saving 316 out of 337 shots, good for a .938 save percentage and ranking second amongst full-time goaltenders. Fans tend to be hard on him at times because he may allow a soft goal here or there, but after the way he has played all season long and his performances in three elimination games (saved 25 of 26 shots in Game 5; 35 of 38 shots in Game 6; 26 of 27 in Game 7), it’s time for everyone to believe in him.

Special Teams

Nothing has changed since my last series preview: the Hawks’ power play sucks, and their penalty kill does not. To be fair, they did convert three power plays into goals during Games 5 and 6 against Detroit, but for the most part, it wasn’t pretty. There were times that the Hawks struggled to even get one shot on goal due to their inability to either win a face-off (something they struggled to do in Detroit’s zone for most of the series, not just on power plays) or set up their four corners, allowing Detroit to clear the puck whenever they got a stick on it. It was borderline embarrassing to watch at times, but as always, they came through when it mattered. That being said, their power play ranks last amongst the remaining teams (and 10th overall) at 16.2% (6-for-37), something that must be improved upon in order to win this upcoming series. LA’s PK unit has been very solid, killing 86.7% of all power plays this postseason (6-for-43) and ranking fifth amongst all playoff contenders. Given those numbers, plus a goaltender like Jonathan Quick camping out between the pipes, I don’t like our chances for improvement.

Thank god for the Chicago penalty kill, though – the deadliest in hockey. The PK unit has given up one – I repeat: ONE – shorthanded goal out of 41 tries in the playoffs thus far. That’s good for 97.6% which is, if you think about it, just absolutely ridiculous. Detroit was able to convert only one power play out of 24 last series. If that greatness can continue, then hopefully a phenomenal PK unit can offset a weak PP unit. Statistically, LA’s power play unit has been very similar to Detroit’s all season (19.9% to Detroit’s 18.4% during regular season). Because of that, I expect the PK greatness to, indeed, continue.

Prediction

Chile please. Hawks in 7.

Western Conference Semi-Finals Preview: Hawks-Wings

Tough to find a better rivalry in hockey than Hawks-Wings.

Four short years ago, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings met for the 15th time ever in the NHL Playoffs. It was a battle between two very different teams: one with a vast amount of youth and inexperience for an organization that had made one playoff appearance in 10 years, and one with a stupid amount of experience and leadership for an organization that hadn’t missed the playoffs in 20 years (and counting).  Jonathan Toews had just turned 21; Patrick Kane wasn’t even 21. The older, savvier Red Wings unsurprisingly took it to the baby Blackhawks in five games en route to their fourth Stanley Cup trophy in 11 years.

A lot has happened since then. The Bears made the playoffs once and failed to reach the Super Bowl; the Bulls made the Eastern Conference Finals once and have been plagued with devastating injuries ever since; the Cubs and Sox have absolutely sucked; but the Blackhawks have been a model of consistency, having won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years the very next season and set an incredible 24-game point record just two months ago. Tomorrow night, the Blackhawks and Red Wings will take the ice together for Game 1 of arguably the greatest rivalry in professional hockey. However, unless these two teams cross paths some day in the Stanley Cup, they will never play each other again in the postseason, as Detroit makes its move to the Eastern Conference starting next October. So with that, let’s dive right into the nitty-gritty of what’s sure to be a physical and emotional second round playoff series.

Offense

If you were to tell me that the Blackhawks could win their first round playoff series, with ease, without both Jonathan Toews AND Patrick Kane scoring a single goal, I probably would’ve… well, I probably would’ve agreed, albeit very hesitantly, but that’s exactly what happened against Minnesota. The Blackhawks just have so much depth at forward and so many options that it’s nearly impossible for anyone in the Western Conference to match up with them. From Patrick Sharp to Marian Hossa to Brandon Saad to Andrew Shaw to Bryan Bickell to Michael Frolik, the list almost never ends. There is so much firepower and so much talent that opposing teams can’t choose to pick their poison with anyone – every single player on this team contributes. Sharp, Hossa and Bickell combined for 11 goals against the Wild, and Shaw, Frolik and Marcus Kruger all chipped in a goal. It’s no coincidence that Chicago swept the four game season series against Detroit this season – they’re simply over-matched. Hopefully, that success will continue starting tomorrow. And oh, by the way, some center named Dave Bolland, who happened to score eight goals and had 16 points during the 2010 run to the Stanley Cup, will be back from an injury and ready to go for Game 1.

The Bash Brother duo of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have displayed nothing but consistency over the past decade for Detroit. They may be older (34 and 32, respectively), and they may be slower, but one thing’s for damn sure: they know how to win. Neither one has ever missed the playoffs (both have been with Detroit for their entire careers), and they’ve only lost in the first round once in the last seven years. This season was obviously no different. Datsyuk and Zetterberg dominated the Ducks to the tune of 15 combined points and stepped up like the leaders that they are when it mattered most: Datysuk racked up three points in Game 6, and Zetterberg combined for three goals and five points in elimination Games 6 and 7. These two, along with the younger Justin Abdelkader, will man the first line. Look for veterans Johan Franzen, Valtteri Fillpula and Daniel Cleary to improve upon their combined +/- rating of -7 last series, as their performances will be crucial for a Detroit team that lacks some serious front-line depth in comparison to Chicago.

Defense

It’s no secret that the Blackhawks rely on talent, instincts and perfection, as opposed to physicality and strength, like the Boston Bruins, in order to win games. Their blue line is anchored by iron man and former James Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, who led all Chicago defensemen with five points (a goal and four assists) and a +5 +/- rating against Minnesota in round one. Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson bring an abundance of recent playoff experience to the table and a Stanley Cup championship under their belts as well. 34-year-old Michal Roszival and 31-year-old Johnny Oduya have been playing sound, physical hockey, as Roszival leads the team with 11 hits (Oduya has five), while Oduya leads with 11 blocked shots (trailed by Roszival’s 10) thus far in the postseason. Each one of these players, as well as Nick Leddy, at least bring something positive to the table, which is why this unit ranks second in the playoffs in shots allowed per game (27.8) and first in goals allowed per game (1.40). The longer they keep this up, the deeper their playoff run probably goes.

The Red Wings may have played eight defensemen in round one, but only one of them is truly worth noting: Niklas Kronwall. He, like Datsyuk and Zetterberg, has been with Detroit his whole career and is the sole leader of their defensive unit. During the regular season, he led Detroit defensemen in blocked shots with 83 and ranked sixth amongst NHL defensemen in points with 29 . In seven games against Anaheim, he led the Wings roster in minutes per game (25:20 – nearly four minutes ahead of their next best defenseman, Jonathan Ericsson) and their defensive unit in hits (16) and blocked shots (15). The keys for Detroit’s defense will be to limit mistakes and turnovers in their zone (this proved costly against Anaheim), obstruct shooting lanes and not allow Chicago to get behind them in transition. They simply have to play flawless hockey.

Goaltending

Ray Emery should be healthy enough to suit up for Game 1, and that should be a huge plus. But Corey Crawford has been nothing short of spectacular so far this postseason. His .950 save percentage and 1.32 goals against average both rank first for full-time playoff goalies (Kevin Poulin and Tomas Vokoun only played two games each). He has proven to be cool, calm and collected under pressure and has improved upon his ability to control rebounds.

Jimmy Howard hasn’t been nearly as good in net for the Red Wings as Crawford, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get hot. He’s coming off a fantastic performance in Game 7 against Anaheim, where he saved 31 of 33 shots in front of a hostile Ducks crowd. Nevertheless, he has yet to develop any consistency and gain a win against Chicago this season. Until that changes, I’ll remain skeptical.

Special Teams

Let’s just cut to the chase: the Hawks have the best penalty kill in hockey right now. Minnesota had 17 power plays against them last series. How many power play goals did they score? Not a one. Detroit’s power play unit is considered middle of the pack, but they did rank fourth in the first round in power play percentage at 24% (6-for-25). Regardless, a good penalty kill should make fans feel comfortable; a great penalty kill, like Chicago’s, should make fans feel invincible.

On the other had, the Hawks’ power play unit has been mediocre all season long, and that didn’t change against Minnesota. They ranked 19th in the regular season at 16.6% and 10th in the postseason at 15.4% (2-for-13). The good news, though, is that Detroit’s penalty kill is mediocre as well, if not worse. It fared relatively well in the regular season (81.7%), but it gave up seven power play goals against Anaheim in 25 chances (72%), good for 14th out of 16 playoff teams. The Hawks’ power play certainly isn’t anything to write home about, but given the strength of their penalty kill, I’ll give them the edge in the special teams department.

Prediction

“Prediction?… Painnn…”

Actual Prediction

Hawks in 5.

The Blackhawks’ Draft Day Steal

Teuvo Teravainen may prove to be a huge draft day steal some day within the next few years.

Don’t look now, but the Chicago Blackhawks may have just gotten the biggest steal in the first round of the NHL entry draft on Friday night.  Teuvo Teravainen, a 17-year-old left winger out of Finland, is considered by many within the NHL circle to be the number two ranked skater in all of Europe and, according to ESPN Insider’s and former NHL scout Grant Sonier, was the 5th best prospect overall in this year’s draft (also ranked 5th by McKeen’s, 12th by Hockey News and 7th by TSN).

Before the draft, the Hawks thought they stood no chance at getting Teravainen with the 18th pick that they didn’t even bring a nameplate for him. No one in their right mind saw him slipping this far in the draft, but once he did, it was a no-brainer. Yes, the Hawks could use some more depth at defense. And yes, goaltending is a pretty major need right now (although they drafted two goaltenders in the seventh round to make up for not taking one earlier). But it’s not often that you see a player of Teravainen’s skill level fall into your lap at no. 18, so I can’t help but praise Stan Bowman’s decision to deviate from the pattern of selecting defenseman (eight of the first 10 picks were defensemen) and go with the best player available. As Teravainen continues to draw eerily similar comparisons to Patrick Kane because of his amazing puck wizardry, one would have to think about the possibility that Bowman will start (if he hasn’t already after his most recent drunken escapade during Mifflin weekend at Madison) shopping Kane around in order to make up for the holes that the Hawks haven’t seemed to fill up over the past two seasons.

All signs of Teravainen’s draft stock slippage point to his undersized body (5’11” and only 165 pounds). He will need to improve his muscular strength in order to wrestle physically with bigger defensemen along the boards, as well as his defensive game in order to become a complete hockey player. The Hawks front office, as well as a number of analysts, are confident that he will put on the necessary weight with time and will continue to fill out that thin frame of his. In spite of his small stature, Teravainen managed to put up 18 points (11 goals, 7 assists) in 40 games during the regular season as a member of the Jokerit professional team in Finland and win Rookie of the Year (Jarmo Wasara Trophy), which is quite impressive considering the fact that the league (SM-liiga) is filled with men who have been playing professional hockey for years, many of whom even played in the NHL.

McKeen’s Greg Burstyn claims Teravainen has “the best hands in the draft” which, along with his lightning-quick speed, fantastic on-ice vision, superior hockey sense and tremendous offensive skill set, will give him the ability to become an offensive stud in the NHL one day. Here is what TSN had to say about him:

He is elusive and is like a chess player in that he can anticipate moves 3-4 steps ahead of his opponent. Excellent agility and balance & he maneuvers away from danger and opposing checks very well. Great hands in traffic and he’s able to make any type of pass under any circumstance and he has a very good shot that makes him a multiple threat when he’s on the ice.

And that’s not all Teravainen brings to the table. This past season, he was running the power play for Jokerit at age 17, proving that he’s not intimated by the physicality of professional hockey and could be one of the long-term answers to a Blackhawk power play unit that ranked 26th out of 30 in PP% last season (15.2%), dead last in PP% (5.3%) during the playoffs and, to be honest, probably won’t improve all that much next season and beyond unless Bowman makes some legitimate moves.

With Teravainen set to return to Helsinki, Finland next season, it may be one or two years before we see him in a Blackhawk uniform. But once that day comes, another Blackhawk star may be born, only to add to the offensive juggernaut that Chicago has tried to rebuild since losing a good chunk of its players after the magical 2009-2010 season. There’s too much potential here for us not to be excited about what lies ahead.

Click here for a Teuvo Teravainen compilation.

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