Third line production
The Hawks third line last year dominated other teams. Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, and Dustin Byfuglien were all let go or traded last year after the winning the Cup. Their production and dominance on the third line was the biggest bonus Coach Quenneville could have asked for. To be able to send out three lines in any situation kept the Blackhawks rested and fresh for the grueling two month journey of capturing the Stanley Cup.
With all three gone, new faces had to step in. It has been a work in progress all year with lines shuffling and everyone on the roster being mixed and matched to find some cohesiveness, which the Hawks struggled to do so for the majority of the campaign.
Viktor Stalberg, Fernando Pisani, Michael Frolik, Ryan Johnson, and Troy Brouwer along with rookies Jake Dowell and Bryan Bickell are rounding out the bottom six forwards for this Hawks team. The production of the bottom six collectively has taken a dip from last year. Last year they scored 103 goals and 130 assists as a bottom six. This year they have only scored 70 goals and 81 assists as a unit. It is very hard to replace the production from what was, to what could have been from this year for three departed Hawks. Captain of the Atlanta Thrashers Andrew Ladd 29 goals, Kris Versteeg 23 goals, and Dustin Byfuglien 20 goals, 53 pts are sorely missed. Mistakes were made by former GM Dale Tallon and the salary cap became an issue for this organization. Decisions were made, and the roster was dismantled. It has taken the Hawks quite some time to figure out chemistry within the lines and for the new Hawks to learn Joel Quenneville’s system.
The penalty kill is another reason the Hawks are struggling this year. They are 25th in the league in penalty kill at 79.2%. They have lost many games because of sloppy play when they have had the lead. In this series with the Canucks, they must be the better specialty team. They have to convert when on the power-play and kill off penalties almost flawlessly to have a chance. Last year, they were afforded the luxury of being able to shuffle many lines and players around, and not lose production. The lack of depth on this team is shifting more and more ice time to players who already are used too much during the season. The team who wins this battle will win the series.
Big Man factor
Who can be the man in front Luongo? Bryan Bickell 6’4” 223lbs? Tomas Kopecky 6’3” 203? It just might end up being the captain, Jonathan Toews. Toews, in the latter part of the year has parked his caboose in front of opposing goalies and looked for anything he could get. That is what is going to be needed in this series. We have not only had good success against these Canucks the last three years including this one, but we have won the mental aspect of the game as well. The Canucks have lost their cool more than a couple of times over that span, which has resulted in extra-time on the power play as well as victories To keep the dream alive, they must win the mental game and cause extra power play situations.
Roberto Luongo has worked with the new goaltending coach Roland Melanson for the Canucks on his depth in the crease all year. He has tried to lessen the amount of contact by opposing big men. Something tells me we will see him more than once have an issue with where one of the Hawks is skating. Look for a few extra penalties to be called, in either direction with regards to this.
4th Line Checking
Another difference between this year and last for the Hawks is not having a reliable fourth line you can send out to check and cause some havoc on the ice. No one is better than departed Ben Eager and Adam Burish at stirring up the other team’s superstars. They would spray ice at the goalie, take an extra leap into an opponent to keep them honest, and drop the gloves whenever need be. The 2011 Hawks are missing all of those features. This team fights sparingly, and even worse, allows other teams players to antagonize our goalie without any repercussions. Time and time again I watch other teams throw Kane, Toews, and Kopecky to name a few, down on the ice when they take an extra swipe at the goalies glove. This team does not have that quality and the intimidation factor has lessened. The Blackhawks need to show more of this nastiness to lengthen their playoff run.
Duncan Keith’s drop-off
Where is the reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith been this year? Has he been the victim of too much time on the ice? He leads the league in that category, which is not a good thing, if you ask me. He always shows flashes of the great poke checking skills and quickness he possesses, but the “cute” plays have put his goalie in many of bad situations this year. He needs to stick to the basics and be the defensive stopper he was last year for this team to make a deep run. Without his play picking up, the Hawks are destined to be watching other teams chase Lord Stanley this summer.
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Also check out my First Round predictions for the Western Conference here