Game Time: 7:00PM
TV/Radio: CSN, NBCSN, TSN2, WGN-AM 720
Somebody To Shove: Hockey Wilderness
After an excruciating and seemingly interminable three days off filled with speculation and meatballery, the Blackhawks at long last get back to actually playing games that matter in the standings, rather than those more concerned with second guessing and dick measuring. They’ll do so against the visiting Wild, who have for the most part owned the Hawks this year, and are looking to get closer to clinching their second straight playoff berth.
The Wild and Mike Yeo have taken some heat for underachieving, particularly since last July with two of the final and most ridiculous contracts in the circumvention era of the league in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, most of it deserved. They’re currently holding down the de facto 7th spot in the West after finish 8th last year, but are doing it now in arguably the most difficult division in hockey. But some of their youth at forward hasn’t exactly burst onto the scene as hoped. Charlie Coyle still has all of the tools to become a productive power forward in the league, but hasn’t put up the numbers so far this year with a mere 10 goals and 26 points in 64 games. Mikael Grandlund has 41 points and 33 assists, but his season has been uneven and streaky. It’s been the veterans that Yeo has leaned on in Mikko Koivu, Jason Pomminville, Zach Parise, and now the newly acquired Matt Moulson for scoring, with Pomminville leading the way with 27 goals and 26 assists. The Wild only score about 2.4 goals a game, and are underwater in Corsi opportunities to the tune of carrying only 48.4% of the play. This isn’t surprising when looking at the bottom six, which is comprised of more than its share of stone-handed plugs in Kyle Brodziak, Mike Rupp, Cody McCormick, and reformed turd burglar Matt Cooke.
Fortunately the Wild blue line and rotating cavalcade of goaltenders has been for the most part up for it, allowing a matching 2.4 goals per game, and boasting a team save percentage of .912, though most of that is buoyed by Josh Harding’s impeccable .933. Even reclamation project Ilya “Humongous Big” Bryzgalov has been decent for Minny since coming over, boasting a 4-0-2 record and a .909 save percentage, and he figures to start tonight. The obvious reason for this is yet another fantastic campaign from Ryan Suter and partner Jonas Brodin, who has suffered no sophomore slump to speak of. Suter once again leads the league in ice time, playing a full two and a half minutes more than the next-closest defenseman in Erik Karlsson at 29:43 to Karlsson’s 27:11. Yeo leans on his world-class blueliner heavily, and for the most part he always answers the bell. Below them however, is a grab bag of diminutive speed and plodding size, and Yeo will do his best to shelter players like the elven Jared Spurgeon and the angry Nate Prosser.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, tonight begins what will be an exercise in perspective for everyone involved. With both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane shut down until the playoffs begin, the Hawks’ attack is blunted in more than a few regards, and there will be some different looks tonight within the lineup at least to start, with (cringe) Andrew Shaw centering the “top” line between Sharp and Hossa. Joakim Nordstrom has been called up in Toews’ absence to provide another true center in the lineup, and Peter Regin will actually move back into the middle as well, with Michal Handzus sitting out in the form of a benching, carrying over from the back half of the Pittsburgh game. That Quenneville would choose to toss away his blankie now at all times is curious, but the Hawks can ill afford any more loss of speed in what attack they have left.
Fortunately for the Hawks, arguably the deepest blue line in the league remains in tact, and they’ll have to up their game if home ice in the first round is even a thought. They’ll have more work on the wrong end of the puck for sure without Toews’ faceoff proficiency helping in starting each play with possession. Specifically, it would be nice to see Nick Leddy jumping into the play more to aide the forwards in pushing the play, as well as to back off the opposing forecheck for himself and other defensemen.
The Hawks have decided to take a longer view approach for once, even if it’s only for a couple of weeks, and those observing the team should calibrate themselves accordingly. With the Blues basically having the division locked up, that chase is futile. There is a chance that the Hawks can catch the Avalanche for home ice to start the post-season given their schedule, but they have a three point lead and a game in hand, so that’s a fairly steep climb as the games get tighter as well. It’s not an outright concession, but it’s clear they’d rather have a full deck starting on the road than missing be missing an ace or two at home. The important things to take note of will be the defensive structure and having the Hawks maintain speed through the neutral zone rather than continually attempt home run passes, particularly when the top-end talent won’t be on the receiving end of them even if they do connect. A win of any kind tonight at least locks up no worse than the three seed, and even if they don’t, it would take the Wild running the table and the Hawks gaining 0 points from here on out, which isn’t likely. It’s not impossible, but it certainly isn’t likely. So start with that and build from it. Let’s go Hawks.