How Chicago Blackhawks Playmakers Must Adjust as Stanley Cup Heads to Boston
CHICAGO—The Chicago Blackhawks were on a high at the start of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
They had come away with a dramatic triple-overtime victory that had to depress the Boston Bruins. When Game 2 opened, the Blackhawks were not skating around the United Center—they were flying.
They made the Bruins look like they didn't belong on the same sheet of ice as the home team.
Chicago seemed to have control of the puck for the entire period. The stats say the Blackhawks had 19 shots on goal, while the Bruins had just four. Taken just a step further, the Blackhawks launched 30 shots at Tuukka Rask, while the Bruins could only attempt five through the first period.
But when that period came to a conclusion, there was no smile on the face of Joel Quenneville. Despite his team's domination, the Blackhawks had only scored one goal. Their lead was paper-thin, and that was troubling for the Blackhawks and hopeful for the Bruins.
The hockey gods punished the Blackhawks for their inability to seize control of the game. The Bruins would tie the game in the second period and win it in overtime on an artistic strike off the far post and into the back of the net by Daniel Paille.
Series tied 1-1. Both teams had exchanged overtime victories in Chicago.
As the series shifts to Boston, it is reasonable to think that the Bruins will start the game with the kind of momentum Chicago demonstrated in Game 2.
They are returning home to play in front of their raucous fans. That should energize Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic and the rest of the rampaging Bruins.
Quenneville understands hockey momentum as well as any coach in the business. He has 660 career coaching wins on his resume and is one of two men in NHL history to coach 1,000 games and play in 800. (Jacques Lemaire is the other.)
Quenneville knows that patience is often the issue in the Stanley Cup Final and that momentum is fleeting. The Bruins are going to have their foot on the gas pedal early on, and if the Blackhawks can keep the score tied or stay close, they should be able to demonstrate their own talent for playing winning hockey on the road.
The first Chicago playmaker who must demonstrate his talent is goaltender Corey Crawford. He has been thoroughly reliable in the postseason. His 51 saves in the series opener allowed the Blackhawks to push the game into multiple overtimes.
The Bruins like to make opposing goaltenders push hard in the crease and go side-to-side and leave openings for their shooters. Crawford, with a 1.72 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage, should be as prepared for the task as any goaltender.
The Blackhawks are going to have to rely on their swift skating defense to retrieve the puck and skate it out of trouble whenever possible.
None of their defensemen is better or more reliable than Duncan Keith, who won the Norris Trophy in 2009-10. Keith is almost certainly the fastest blue-line skater in the Stanley Cup Final, and the puck is fairly secure when he is carrying it on his stick. He has scored 11 points in the postseason and is plus-seven.
Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya have been nearly as reliable as Keith. Those two are plus-10 and plus-nine, respectively.
But Brent Seabrook has struggled with turnovers. He has made risky passes far too frequently and is minus-two for the Western Conference champions.
Quenneville wants his team to exhibit patience with the puck. They must take advantage of their opportunities, but they can't make forced passes because the Bruins will make them pay.
Notes from CHI Coach Quenneville's presser: against Boston, "trying to make plays can lead to trouble" & Stalberg "could play" in Game 3 ^CS— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) June 16, 2013
Once the Blackhawks start to mount and attack, it seems certain that they will want to get the puck to Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane in the offensive zone. Sharp leads the Blackhawks with nine postseason goals and was their only scorer in their Game 2 loss.
Sharp was also the dominant player on the ice in that first period. He had six shots on goal. While he had numerous chances, Rask seemed to track his shot quite well—with the exception of the one that got in—and he may want to try to wait Rask out rather than blast the puck by him at every opportunity.
Kane's offensive zone stick-handling and array of moves make him dangerous against any opponent. While the Bruins are as sound defensively as any team the Blackhawks have faced, his quickness and ability to change directions regularly lead to scoring opportunities.
Bryan Bickell has not had the same success against Boston that he had in the first three rounds of the playoffs, when he scored eight goals and added five assists. He has not scored a point in the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final, and he has not asserted himself with physical play.
But if there is one playmaker that Quenneville needs to step forward, it's Jonathan Toews. His offensive play throughout the postseason has been a major disappointment for Chicago.
Toews has one goal and eight assists as the Blackhawks prepare to play their 20th game of the postseason. He has been solid on the defensive end and held his own in the faceoff circle, but Toews has scored as many goals as rookie Brandon Saad and one fewer than Marcus Kruger.
Toews knows that his team needs him to be the kind of playmaker he was during the regular season, when he scored 23 goals and 25 assists in 47 regular-season games. Five of his goals were game-winners.
Toews is the best player on the team. The Blackhawks have been good enough to survive and advance through the first three rounds, but it doesn't seem likely that could happen in a fourth and final round.
If the Blackhawks are going to thrive as the series shifts to Boston, Toews is going to have to assert himself and become the game-changing player he has been throughout his career.
Steve Silverman is a credentialed reporter covering the Stanley Cup Final in Chicago for Bleacher Report.
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