The Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks skate into the Bell Centre Tuesday in a more desperate playoff situation than the Canadiens, which may give them an extra shot of urgency. The Habs’ old Original Six rivals are in the West’s eighth spot, one point ahead of the Flames, although they have two games in hand on Calgary. Those games don’t mean anything if Chicago doesn’t win them, however, and the way they’ve played lately, that’s no certainty.
Chicago has been shut out twice on home ice in their last three games and have scored fewer than three goals five times in their last eight. Blanked in their last game on Sunday against Tampa Bay — 2-0, although really a 1-0 game with an empty netter — they dominated the flow of play and outshot the Lightning 31-15. That matched their fewest shots allowed in a game this season, but were stymied by a solid, if not spectacular, performance from Mike Smith in goal for Tampa Bay and his teammates. The Lightning scored early, a Vinny Lecavlier goal in the first period, then sat back and frustrated Chicago.
“They definitely played a more passive system,” Hawks defenseman Chris Campoli said. “They pretty much had five guys back in the neutral zone. They seemed to be satisfied with the one goal they got. We had our chances … (but) we need to find a way to score goals.”
One area where the Hawks have fallen off compared to last season is in the area of secondary scoring. They’re feeling the offseason losses of Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg, not to mention the injuries to centres Patrick Sharp (knee) and Dave Bolland (concussion). Troy Brouwer has no goals in his last 21 games. Bryan Bickell 1 in his last 11. Michael Frolik none in his last 12. Tomas Kopecky 1 in his last nine. “You need a calculator to figure out the last time Jake Dowell, Fernando Pisani or Ryan Johnson scored,” wrote Tim Sassone in The Daily Herald.
“We’re trying and everyone wants to score goals, that’s the most fun part of the game,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “One way or another, I think everyone has to take responsibility. It’s not just one or two guys that have got to score the goals in here, it’s everybody that can find a way and step up and take advantage of their opportunities. If guys in here are thinking that’s not their role then they’re mistaken. Everyone can chip in that way.”
They’re also missing some grit without Byfuglien and another offseason loss in Ben Eager, as well as the defensive awareness of John Madden, not to mention the depth on their defence corps with Brent Sopel, who played an important role for the Hawks last season. Plus, blueliner Jordan Henry is out for the season with an ACL injury.
As a consequence, Chicago is not the same physical team they were last season and can be expected to play a puck-possession game.
On the other hand, the whole picture for Chicago is a bit brighter than just during the last few games. They were stuck in 11th place in mid-February and have gone 14-6-3 since then, which included an eight game winning streak and some masterful play by Toews.
Plus, the Hawks do control their own destiny and, because the West is so tight, a good last four games could not only clinch a spot but move them up in the standing, depending on how those in front of them fare. They have a game in hand on seventh place Anaheim and sixth place Nashville and moving up could give them a first round matchup against Detroit or San Jose. As it stands now, they’d play the Presidents’ Trophy winner Vancouver if they finish eighth and it would be the third time in three years they would face each other, with the Hawks winning both times.
And they still have some excellent talent in Toews (a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate), Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Hossa has 21 points in his last 20 games, Kane has 15 points in his last 15 games. Keith is averaging nearly 27 minutes a game, tops in the NHL, and almost a minute more than the second place player, the Flames Jay Bouwmeester.
But for Toews, their opponent is not the priority. ““It’s not even about points,” Toews said. “We want to prepare ourselves to be a team that goes beyond the first round regardless of who we play, whether we get home ice or not. When you get to the playoffs anything can happen, but you’ve got to be prepared for it. We’ve got to be pushing to be a better team.”
Twenty-six–year-old rookie Corey Crawford in goal for the Hawks has gotten a good deal of attention in the media the last few days (including from Gazette sports editor Stu Cowan) as the South Shore Châteauguay homeboy plays his first game in Montreal against the team he cheered for as a kid. He’s played 23 consecutive games for the Hawks, which coincides with their rise from 11th and he is likely to make it 24 on Tuesday. Crawford is the first Hawks goalie to post 30 wins in a season since Jocelyn Thibault in 2001-02. His 31 wins and 2.27 GAA are best among rookies, and his .918 save percentage is tied for second.
Veteran Marty Turco is the backup.
Here’s how the Blackhawks are likely to line up on Tuesday (although the search for a winger to play with Towes and Kane in Sharp’s absence is on-going):
Bryan Bickell-Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane
Viktor Stalberg-Michael Frolik-Marian Hossa
Jake Dowell-Ryan Johnson-Fernando Pisani
Tomas Kopecky-Marcus Kruger-Troy Brouwer
Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook
Brian Campbell-Niklas Hjalmarsson
Chris Campoli-Nick Leddy