Game Time: 7:30PM CST
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-AM 720
Sunrise Mustaches: Litter Box Cats
Ordinarily two teams meeting one another while both riding five game winning streaks, with each heading into their bye week after the matchup would be enough of a stage-setter for a pretty decent game, especially one between teams with some of the scoring prowess that each possess. But all of that takes a back seat tonight on West Madison.
Tonight, of course, marks the return of Joel Quenneville to the United Center for the first time since his firing 15 games into last season after helming the Hawks to a decade of dominance that produced three Stanley Cups. And while everyone on both sides seems to recognize the business aspects of the dismissal and that it was probably “just time”, there’s no denying Q’s impact on the individuals at the core of this roster, the franchise, and this city, and the building will certainly be raucously vibrating this evening.
On to the actual matters on the ice, where the Cats seem to be hitting their stride a bit, winning 5 straight, and 12 of their last 16 to put them in third in the Atlantic, though in the middle of the dogfight among the Metro should they slip into needing to compete for the wild card. They’ve done it primarily via offensive output, as they’re only barely above water in terms 5v5 possession, and Sergei Bobrovski has been a server disappointment, if not an unmitigated disaster. Bob currently sports an .897 overall and a .900 at evens, and $10 mildo a year until the Rapture should certainly buy more than THAT. Sam Montembleaut has been no better in the backup role, but the Panthers have caught a heater from Chris Driedger (yeah, exactly), who’s thrown a .932 overall and .939 at evens in 9 appearances. Given how Quenneville can treat his goalies, he certainly has no problem with giving the hook to a pricey #1 if everything is going in, but clearly the preference is for Bob to remove his head from his ass and get right. Bob went last night in Minny but with the break looming and with Driedger now out a few weeks, it’s in all likelihood his net tonight.
In front of him will be the dreaded 7 defenseman configuration, which everyone hates, especially Quenneville, but it’s been working during this streak and if there’s one thing he hates more than that, it’s changing a lineup on a winning streak. Q has his do-everything defenseman in Aaron Ekblad, and he’s been separated from his previous usual partner of Keith Yandle (whom Q surprisingly has not murdered yet) in favor of Mike Matheson. Matheson plays a far more limited game than Yandle, and allows Ekblad to do the freelancing in the pairing, rather than having to be the free safety. These two only start 40% of the time in the offensive zone while taking top competition, and are currently sporting a 54 share, so Quenneville has an honest to god top pairing at least for the moment. Yandle has been most consistently with Josh Brown on the second pairing, and even while getting the benefit of starting nearly 58% of the time in the offensive zone, they’re still in the red on the attempts ledger. Yandle has always been able to at least slightly outscore his defensive shortcomings, and currently has 34 assists from the blue line, though 18 of them are on the power play (yes, those goals still count). The third pairing features a three man weave of egghead favorite Mark Pysyk, the aging Anton Stralman, and rookie Riley Stillman, who has been decent in his initial 15 games in the show, and yes, Cory Stillman is his old man for anyone out there who wants to make themself feel ancient.
Up front, Quenneville also has his do-everything center in Sasha Barkov, who put up probably the most quiet 97 point and territorially dominant season anyone’s ever had last year. He’s on pace for 91 points again this year, and centers a line between Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgeni Dadanov that basically gets whatever it wants against whoever they want. Huberdeau had been on fire prior to being held scoreless last night, but currently leads the team with 64 points. Vinny Trochek is about as ideal of a #2 center as anyone could ask for, perfectly content to swim in Barkov’s wake, and he and Brett Connolly (who is thriving under Quennville, who could have possibly called that?) and Noel Acciari have an ungodly 60 share in about a 134 minutes of even strength time together. Mike Hoffman is currently on the third line here, but still has 18 goals, and has been skating with Goodfellas extras Frank Vatrano and Dominic Toninato of late. Anthropomorphic mattress Brian Boyle and Colton Sceviour are the extra forwards here, and as one winger or another will occasionally platoon in with them sparingly. Overall, it’s a formidable group, but the bottom six can be gotten at, at least much moreso than either Barkov or Trochek’s line.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, clearly the kids have a lot of pent up energy today with meeting Dad’s new family for the first time tonight, with Toews and Keith getting into a bit of a scrap at practice, and then Keith getting pissy and leaving the ice. Maybe this is what Coach Gemstone meant by intense but optional morning skates? Everyone was quick to brush it off as two guys being competitive blah blah blah, and honestly given how redassed both are in general, the bigger upset is that this didn’t happen for the first time a hell of a lot sooner.
After getting two starts in a row on the eastern Canadian swing, reports from practice are that it’s likely Corey Crawford will not get to face Quenneville tonight, and the cage will go to Robin Lehner, which is a little surprising and shitty, but it’s merely the latest in a career filled with indignities for Crow.
Given Quenneville’s pathological need to line match, and Jeremy Bevington’s inability to do so, it seems likely that Q will do everything he can to keep Barkov on Toews and have the two of them play to a stand still, while the Trochek line steamrolls either Carpenter or Dach on the middle six. He’s also likely to test Boqvist, instructing his guys to put everything into his corner and away from Keith. With the break looming for both teams, there will certainly be an impulse to lean hard on their top guys throughout this game, given how badly both sides want it for a variety of reasons. It won’t be surprising to see the top 6 forwards on either side all crack 20 minutes played, as we know both of these coaches won’t hesitate to reach for that club, even if it’s the only one that Vinny Del Colliton has. Either way, it’s going to be a blisteringly paced game given the context. Welcome back Joel, but six is better than five. Let’s go Hawks.