Game Times: 6:00PM CST (1/17 & 1/19)
TV/Radio: NBCSN Chicago, WGN-AM 720 (1/17 & 1/19), NHLN, TVAS, SportsNet (1/17)
Polo’d Down To The Socks To The Nutsack: Litter Box Cats
After a predictable opening series in Tampa, the Hawks stay in Florida while it snows here at home to take on the Panthers in Sunrise tonight and on Tuesday. Because the Cats were slated to start the season against the infected and infested Dallas Stars, those games got moved (the first of likely many across the NHL slate this year), and tonight will be their opener, the last NHL team to do so.
For the hosting Panthers, our (unfortunate) namesake Uncle Dale Tallon was finally shown the door after a decade of futility, failing to recreate the foundation of multiple championship runs as he’d done here, making the playoffs technically only twice (the qualifying round in the bubble does NOT count) and failing to win a series. The Dale Era saw the team go from Eye Test to Computer Boys and back again, with Dale purportedly showing his ass on the way out the door. That wasn’t before he was able to lure old pal Joel Quenneville down to Florida, or spend all of their damn money on Sergei Bobrovsky, however. What’s left here now is a team still caught in hockey hell with no clear way out of it.
This off season also saw the Cats lose Evgeni Dadanov and Mike Hoffman to free agency, and they took 25 and 29 goals with them as the team’s two leading goal scorers. That’s not to say the team is bereft of scoring, as do-it-all and completely under appreciated Sasha Barkov is only a season removed from 96 points while getting top matchups nightly, and linemate Jonathan Huberdeau was still better than a point-per last year with 78 points in 69 games. At last report, Q has Barkov and Huberdeau split up, with Carter Verhaghe and one time Hawks project Anthony Duclair flanking him, while Huberdeau is opposite the newly acquired Patric Hornqvist (because Quenneville loves immobile NET FRONT PRESENCE) with Columbus import Alex Wennberg in between. Moving Vinny Trocheck last season and then bringing in Wennberg seems like a bit of a downgrade, but with the financial millstone hanging from the crease, choices needed to be made apparently. The bottom six for the Cats is basically Brett Connolly and nothing but a bunch of lottery scratch off tickets in Frank Vatrano, Noel Acciari, former lottery pick Owen Tippett, and Finnish prospect from the same draft Eetu Luostarinen. It’s more than a little bit funny that Q couldn’t be bothered with any of the youths here at the time of his ouster, and now he’s saddled with trying to sort out what they may or may not have as far as scoring depth there.
On defense, the big CONTROVERSY leading up to this evening’s game has been whether or not Quenneville was going to scratch Keith Yandle and break his currently league-longest consecutive games played streak. Based on what everyone knows about Joel Quenneville and what he demands of his defensemen, the bigger upset is that Keith Yandle is not in a pine box somewhere, let alone is at risk of being benched. But, all reports out of Florida’s morning skate today seem to indicate that Yandle will be dressed tonight and paired with Anton Stralman, which leaves Aaron Ekblad with Mackenzie Weegar as his partner for all of the top assignments. Last year those two were Q’s most frequently used pairing, playing 533 minutes of even strength time together and carrying a 53% share of shot attempts, so there clearly wasn’t much need to change things up. The third pairing however, will apparently feature the perpetually lost Gustav Forsling along side headhunting dope Radko Gudas in one of the most hilarious units this young season has offered yet. Gudas can actually play when he’s not trying to impale someone in the other sweater, and he’ll certainly need every bit of that physicality as Forsling gets ragdolled by light reflecting off his visor. Forsling is also running the second power play unit for Q, so this almost assuredly means he will score on an absolute bomb from the point one of these two games.
In net, the first year of the Sergei Bobrovsky Experience was not a good return on investment, with Bob sporting a robust .903 at evens and .900 overall. And the fact that he’s already day-to-day to this point after years of having things go TWANG on him doesn’t bode well for the long term outlook in net for the Panthers. Chris Dreidger is apparently getting first crack at the cage tonight, and he was more than solid last year in 12 appearances with a .938 overall and .944 at evens. It remains to be seen if that can be maintained over a large sample size, but even if it can be, the Cats are still screwed badly with 5 more years after this one of $10 million per for Bob, who is already 32.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, all signs point to Coach Jeremy Prinze Jr. running back the same lineup that was only marginally less embarrassing against the Bolts on Friday night, which means Sam’s guy Philipp Kurashev will thankfully remain in the lineup over Brandon Pirri, and Collin Delia will get his second consecutive start in the Hawks net.
Because Q is one of the most pathologically matchy-uppy coaches in the league, look for him to have Ekblad and Barkov all over Garbage Dick and whomever he’s being centered by, whether it remains Pius Suter or goes back to Dylan Strome. Given that that unit has accounted for the Hawks only even strength goal in two games, if they’re smothered it should allow Wennberg to get whatever he wants. The goalies on both sides are huge question marks here, so some wacky shit might happen in one or both of these games and the Hawks might even escape with a win. But based on the early returns, the fact that wacky shit is the only real path to a positive outcome isn’t particularly encouraging. Let’s go Hawks.