Western Conference Playoffs Round 1 vs. St. Louis: Game 2

image

While it would have been nice to take Game 1 of the series on Wednesday, the Blackhawks showed that they are ready for playoff hockey. A return to the ice for arguably their most important playoff performer and maybe a little better puck luck should get things back on track for the Hawks and get this series tied heading back to Chicago. 

Corey Crawford played well enough to win and some of the defensive issues we’ve seen over the past month or so were not apparent on Wednesday night. The Blackhawks had plenty of chances to score, but didn’t cash in on several odd-man rushes or power plays. Sometimes a goalie can win a game in the playoffs, and it appears Elliott was able to do just that and the Blues won on a fluky deflection off Trevor van Riemsdyk that trickled past Crawford. Oh well, that’s why they play up to seven games.

Joel Quenneville often says that the Blackhawks offense starts from the back end, with the defense making quick breakout passes from their defensive zone, leading to rushes and possession the other way. It didn’t seem like the Hawks had much trouble with that in Game 1, and they should be even better with the return of Duncan Keith, last season’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner awarded to the MVP of the playoffs. Keith is coming back from a six-game suspension for smacking a guy in the face with his stick and should be well-rested and raring to go. Keith usually looks like a jackrabbit out there while logging big minutes for the Hawks during the playoffs and I expect he’ll make a difference tonight.

In his press conferences since Game 1, Blues coach, and doppelganger of former WWE character Paul Bearer, Ken Hitchcock called for his team to be more physical with the Blackhawks. The Blues were credited with 41 hits on Wednesday night, but Hitchcock says he wants the Blues to increase that number to 70 for tonight’s Game 2. Hearing an opposing coach say things like this gives me joy for two reasons. First, the idea of 70 hits in a game is ridiculous. That would also mean that the Hawks have the puck almost the entire game while the Blues are wearing themselves out chasing them around. Second, as everyone should have finally learned from the Anaheim series last year, that approach doesn’t work against the Hawks. So if Hitchcock wants to be a boob and encourage his team to concentrate on physicality rather than puck possession, it is the Blues who will find themselves in a sarcophagus of pain tonight, OOOOHHH YYYEEEESSS!!!!

Western Conference Playoffs Round 1 vs. Nashville: Game 1

IMG_0484

You know you’ve been waiting all day for it. My yearly experiment that mixes equal parts vanity and self-deprecation has arrived! It’s time for my 6th (hopefully) annual Blackhawks Hockey Playoff Beard Blog. As you can see, I’ve started my own blog page for this year’s edition. I heard enough complaints last year about having to see my “goddamn face every other day for six weeks,” so hopefully a thumbnail will be less annoying than a photo blowing up your precious News Feed. I didn’t hear any complaints from the ladies (just saying), but let’s move on.

You know the drill, start clean on the day of the first game and then watch it grow. For those of us with jobs that require grooming, it’s allowed, but only in between rounds. There’s nothing worse than a gin-soaked mustache, so grooming in between rounds is kind of encouraged to keep the magic out of your drinks.

The Blackhawks started the 2014-2015 season off slowly. Through the first month, it was apparent that they were having a hard time getting up for regular season action after a devastating loss in a great Conference Final to the LA Kings last season. The Hawks missed the thrill of the big game and took until November to really turn it on. For the next two months until the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, they were nearly unbeatable despite starting goalie Corey Crawford breaking his foot at a Rise Against concert at the House of Blues in early December.

I’ve also tripped going down those stairs drunk before, so I’m not going to begrudge Crawford for that, especially since backups Antti Raanta and Scott Darling were really good during his absence.

Since the turn of the new year, the Blackhawks have been frustrating to watch. It took until an embarrassing weekend in late February, featuring a 4-0 loss to Colorado and a 6-1 loss on a national broadcast to Boston, for most hardcore fans like myself to realize that the Hawks were just coasting until the playoffs. Games against Eastern Conference or non-playoff teams didn’t seem to matter much to them. The Hawks would play well against contenders like St. Louis, Anaheim, or LA, but then barely show up for games against the bottom feeders like Arizona and Edmonton. And then it happened…

In a game on February 24th against Florida, just seven weeks ago, Patrick Kane got crosschecked from behind, lost an edge, and went crashing into the boards, resulting in a broken collarbone. This was the reaction from the collective Blackhawks nation. Kane was given a 12-week prognosis after surgery and it seemed like all hope was lost.

In the following weeks until the trade deadline, GM Stan Bowman made a few deals to help the Blackhawks tread water. He cleared salary cap space by trading fan favorite and future Blue Islander BENSMITH! to San Jose for forward Andrew Desjardins (day-ZHAR-den), picked up grey beard defenseman Kimmo Timonen from Philadelphia for draft picks, and also brought in Antoine Vermette, who was considered the best available forward for rent at the trade deadline, from Arizona for a pick and a prospect.

Since then, the Blackhawks have continued their up-and-down play, but have at least looked better and played with a little more effort most of the time. Despite a 4-game losing streak to end the season, the Hawks clinched the 3rd seed in their division, setting up a matchup with the 2nd seeded Nashville Predators, who have had some end-of-season struggles of their own.

Before we get into the series preview (600 words later…), we need to address the magical unicorn in the room. In case you haven’t been following, team doctors cleared Patrick Kane for full participation this past week, making him available for Game 1 of the playoffs. According to his initial prognosis, he wasn’t supposed to be ready for another 5 weeks. This was me in my classroom when I read the news. This will most definitely give the struggling Blackhawks’ offense the shot in the arm it needs. Even a rusty Patrick Kane is better than most NHL players on any given night.

That being said, the Nashville Predators, despite their front office and local media doing their best to make the whole city look like a bunch of a-holes, have a pretty solid lineup. They feature elite scorers in rookie Philip Forsberg and James Neal. Shea Weber is one of the best defensemen in the NHL. He’s flanked on their top pair by Roman Josi. The two of them are as good as anyone at shutting down an opponent’s offense while letting it rip from the point on the other end.

Looming over the entire series will be goalie Pekka Rinne. We’re sure to hear about the fact that Rinne is 6’5″ and how he has returned to form after an injury-plagued 2013-2014 over and over again. However, like the rest of the Preds, he’s been slumping after playing very well for the first 4 months of the season. Rinne was key in the heart attack-inducing series between these two teams back in 2010, and if Nashville has any chance of winning this series, it will be Rinne that makes the difference.

Speaking of that series in 2010, I’ll just leave this here. There were so many man hugs that day and I didn’t care who wanted one or not. This guy knows what I’m talking about. Three days later we moonwalked out of that series like we knew they would win it all along.

The Nashville Predators play strong defense, have a very good goalie, and have enough scoring to beat just about anyone in the NHL. However, when I put on my homer glasses, it looks to me like the Blackhawks should win this series because they are the deeper, more playoff-experienced team. The Hawks have been waiting for months to “flip the switch” and start playing to the level that they know they are capable of. We’ve been waiting impatiently for months now and the time has come. The Blackhawks will take this series in 5 games. Nashville is more concerned with who is sitting in their arena than who is out on the ice. That has to be a distraction to the team, right? RIGHT? Anyway, LET’S GO HAWKS!!!