RECORDS: Hawks 5-7-3 Penguins 9-6-1
PUCK DROP: 6pm
TV: NBCSN Chicago, NHL Network
WIGLE IS A DAMN FINE WHISKEY: Pensburgh
Something of an old home week for the Hawks. It started with the Kings, whom they once sat upon the top of the West with for years. Then it was the Canucks, with whom they shared the league’s fiercest rivalry, but long enough ago that you have to start to squint to keep seeing it. And now it’s the Penguins, their Eastern counterpoint, a team they were always compared to, and one that’s outlasted them in NHL relevance. They will always be connected as long as Toews and Crosby are around, the two pillars of two Canadian gold medal teams. But that’s about where they stop sharing similarities now.
As is always the case with the Pens, they’ve steered their ship successfully through injuries, and injuries to just about the same guys as always. Geno Malkin has only played five games but recently returned. Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist are out at the moment, as is their way. They’ve had up and down performances from Matt Murray. But there they sit, comfortably in a playoff spot in the Metro Division. It was ever thus.
As you might expect, Engine #87 is leading the way, as he and Jake Guentzel (who simply must give half his paycheck to Crosby) are leading the Pens in scoring and doing most of the work. They’ve been able to create more depth than they had last year with the additions of Domink Kahun (a tear rolls down our cheek) and Jaren McCann last year without having to give up anything of note. McCann has flourished since arriving, with 17 points last year in 32 games and nine this year in 12 outings. This is his third stop in the league, so perhaps he heard the footsteps of oblivion calling and kicked his ass into gear. Or he just found a team that plays a way he can adapt to.
In fact, the results might have betrayed the Pens a little. They’re the second-best team in the league in Corsi and xG%. They’re top-ten in both goals for and goals-against per game in the league. Only their goaltending has been a little suspect at even-strength, but hardly terrible at .920. They just halted the Islanders March To The Sea, so don’t be shocked if their record picks up in a hurry and aggressively. They’re doing just about everything right, and might just be victims of some weird sequencing.
If there’s one aspect they need to get going it’s their power play that’s worse than the Hawks’ at the moment. Geno’s return will certainly help, and they won’t shoot just 8% on it forever (for comparison’s sake, the Caps are shooting at 20% on the man-advantage at the moment).
There’s a clear delineation on how the Penguins deploy everyone, as Malkin and Crosby pretty much are restricted to starting in the offensive zone and the third and fourth lines in the other. Their fourth-line has been a true weapon so far this year, with the trio of Aston-Reese – Teddy Blueger (I almost forgot my beautiful babies!) – Brandon Tanev being used almost exclusively in the defensive zone and consistently turning over their opposition. Their success has lessened the pressure on Crosby to do everything every night, which he’s taking to as well. Must be nice.
To the Hawks, and there are more changes than you would have guessed coming off their most complete game of the year. The two kids, i.e. the only two reasons you’re watching, are both going to watch this one. It’s an odd call to scratch them both at the same time, but the occasional night off for two teenagers negotiating an NHL season for the first time isn’t a complete crime. Still, it makes the bottom six way less interesting, and pairs Gustafsson with Keith likely, and that’s been an utter disaster every time it’s been tried. Maybe de Haan slides up with Maatta rejoining Seabrook…except that hasn’t worked either. There are no complete answers.
It’ll be a return home for Olli Mattaa, and he’ll be greeted with the Pens gleefully trying to attack him at every turn. Pittsburgh kind of started the whole get-it-the-fuck-up style of hockey that got them to two Cups in a row, and it’s still a style the Hawks have yet to prove they can handle. Look for the Pens to do no messing about in their own zone, and trying to spring their forwards onto the Hawks defense as early as possible every chance.
The strange thing is as fast as the Penguins have played the past few years and how much more skilled they’ve been than the Hawks recently, they haven’t beaten the Hawks in six seasons. The Hawks have won 11 straight in this matchup, which goes all the way back that Eddie O suggested the Hawks replace Corey Crawford as starter on air and Fifth Feather had a brain bubble about it.
Wednesday was probably the Hawks most complete game of the year. The Canucks did their part, but everything pretty much worked. Whether it was a one-off or an actual turning point, we’ll find out this weekend.