As Sam pointed out earlier today, even two game losing streaks have been a rarity over the last nearly two years for the Blackhawks. Rarer still are the three gamers, with two of them being at home. But just because the odds are against it happening tonight does not mean that tonight doesn’t pose a real challenge on West Madison, this time in the form of the visiting and sometimes mighty Anaheim Ducks.
The Orange County water fowl have once again bucked a bit of expectation this year by remaining at the top of the conference and in the dogfight for the Pacific, even after last year’s stats and first round exit at the hands of Scum revealed them to be a bit of a paper tiger. But Bruce Boudreau has at least been synonymous with regular season success in his two stops in the NHL, even if he’s also been synonymous with barbecue sauce, Haagen-Dazs, and the word “fuck”. Befitting of any Gabby-helmed squad, the Ducks can score in bunches, like to get up and down the ice, and are fairly top-heavy offensively. And yes, that is a sideswipe at Dustin Penner’s moobs.
But Penner and inexorably linked rectal warts Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry do form a formidable top line, with all three hovering around a point per game. They also pose a unique threat in that all three are large, large men, which is something the Hawks have not dealt well with in the past, specifically against this team. Past that trio, Boudreau has found a fair amount of complimentary waterbugs, most notably in the form of the House of Medici line of Nick Bonino, Kyle Palmeiri, and Andrew Cogliano. Cogliano has thrived as a two way centerman under Boudreau since being cast off by Edmonton’s MENSA chapter, and Bonino is having a breakout year on his wing with 19 points so far this season. They’ve acted as a de facto second line in Saku Koivu’s absence after getting brained, but he returned last week, and Jakob Silfverberg, who was meant to replace the departed Bobby Ryan not being on the ice since October. And of course, there’s the matter of the Teemu Selanne farewell tour, which will still make one more stop at the UC later in the year. Selanne has a meager 3 goals and 4 assists so far, but will naturally have two and one tonight because that’s just what he always does to the Hawks.
On the Ducks back end, they’ve quietly groomed two very nice puck moving defensemen in Cam Fowler and gangly rookie Hampus Lindholm, who has been tossed in the deep end with 20 minutes a night in the west. Lindholm has 2 goals, 7 assists, and is a +12, even if he is slightly sheltered, starting 55% of his shifts in the offensive zone. Francois Beauchemin continues to be a rock in all situations, but he’s been out since November 20th. With Luca Sbisa and Sheldon Souray out, the Ducks have lost a bit of their thump, but Bryan Allen returned earlier this week from injury, and can be a road grater in front of the Anaheim net.
That net will be manned tonight Jonas Hiller, one part of the three-man tumbling act the Ducks have tried to pull off in their crease, including rookie Fredrik Andersson and injured sensation from last year Viktor Fasth. Given his contract, Hiller figures to be the odd man out if and when Fasth ever comes back. While competent at a .910 save percentage and 2.64 goals against, Hiller certainly isn’t making things difficult for red assed GM Bob Murray one way or the other. Hiller’s overall career numbers against the Hawks are good, with a .928 save percentage, but that seems to vary wildly between a complete matador act and standing on his head. With the Ducks allowing 28.9 shots per game while putting 32.4 on the opposition, Hiller has generally had to work less than his counterparts.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, it’s right back on that old pogo stick after blowing a late lead and losing in regulation to Minnesota in The X last night. The penalty kill has continued to be the Hawks undoing allowing two goals last night, and will need to be tightened up as the schedule meanders through the Western conference for the remainder of the month. It’s basically a top to bottom disaster at this point, from personnel choices, a 1-1-2 structure that is fooling no one, and a goalie that can’t seem to get a stop when he needs one, and it’s undoing all of the good things the Hawks are accomplishing at even strength by not forcing the opposition to have to score in that situation.
At press time, there’s no word on if Shaw or Handzus will be back in the lineup, but Judd Sirott has stated that Antti Raanta will get his first start on home ice tonight. With Florida coming up on Sunday, it looks like Crawford might finally get a bit of an extended breather, which will hopefully rejuvinate his game. Or Quenneville gives him the softball on Sunday to get his confidence back after a couple of softies the past couple games, so who the hell really knows. Raanta has been fine in his 7 and a half periods of action so far, allowing two goals in each appearance. But this will be the first time he’ll have to contend with men this large and this skilled divebombing his crease.
As is always the case with teams that like to punish on the forecheck, patience from the Hawk blueline will be of the utmost importance. Absorbing hits to make a breakout pass should lead to room for the Hawk rush behind the Duck forwards, and allow them to use their speed against the likes of Allen. Coming back the other way, those same Hawk forwards will need to back pressure heavily to impede the progress of the Ducks and give their defensemen as much time as possible on chip ins, as the Hawk blue line is built to stand up rushes at the blue line, which the Ducks will simply avoid by throwing the puck into a corner and then attempting to battle for it. The best way to win those battles is to avoid giving them the opportunity. Let’s go Hawks.