Game Time: 7:30PM Central
TV/Radio: CSN, WGN-AM 720
Guilty As Charged, But Dammit It Ain’t Right: Raw Charge
As far as matchups in the first half of November are concerned, they don’t get much more exciting than this on paper. Both the Hawks and the Lightning have legitimate hopes of emerging from their respective conferences in late May while playing an electrifying (GET IT) style of up tempo hockey. Tonight will be Tampa’s lone appearance in the United Center this season, which adds to the uniqueness of the matchup. Meanwhile a national TV audience gets the Sabres and Blues over on NBCSN, so nicely done by the NHL once again.
The Lightning enter tonight with a league best 23 points and 11 wins, including their last six, the most recent of which was in a shootout fashion at Joe Louis on Sunday. While the Lightning are second in the league scoring 3.8 goals per game and shooting an absurd 12.6% as a team, what’s shocking is that they’re not led by captain Steven Stamkos in scoring at present, but rather 2014 Calder finalist Tyler Johnson with 18 points to Stamkos’ 16. But where Stamkos predictably has been racking up numbers on the advantage (4G, 4A), 15 of Johnson’s 18 points have come at evens, and he Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat have formed a dynamic young second option behind Stamkos with all of them carrying at least 57% of the play at evens. What a novel concept, allowing three young, dynamic, and talented forwards the opportunity to play together for a prolonged period of time.
Stamkos himself is flanked by Valteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan, where Callahan provides space until he inevitably gets hurt again, and Filppula, while a true center, offers coach John Cooper some flexibility in who handles draws and how much defensive responsibility Stamkos is entrusted with. But if the puck is in the other end enough, that ends up not being as much of a concern. Rookie and last year’s #2 overall pick Jonathan Drouin has bounced up and down the lineup, but has remained very sheltered in his zone starts as can be expected, so his playing time might take a nose dive tonight on the road. The Bolts’ bottom six has the rehashed goofballs of Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow, but to this point both have been relatively effective, but Morrow staying in one piece feels like a long shot at best at this stage in his career.
On their blue line the Bolts continue to miss the behemoth Victor Hedman, who had 7 points in 5 games before breaking his hand. That slack has been mostly picked up by the likes of Anton Stralman, a statistical darling who’s been earning every bit of his paycheck so far by carrying over 60% of shot attempts at even strength and has posted 10 points from the blue line. He’s paired with Matt Carle, and both of whom, while certainly solid, don’t possess any single distinguishing skill that needs to be accounted for. However Jason Garrison does, and that’s in the form of a bazooka of a point shot, though it takes him about the length of a period to wind up for it. Garrison is also sizeable, just as are Andrej Sustr, and Eric Brewer, none of whom would be considered the most mobile.
Speaking of sizeable, 6’7″ Ben Bishop will get the start in the Tampa net tonight. Bishop isn’t quite posting the numbers that earned him Vezina finalist status last year with only a .913 save percentage at even strength, as opposed to the .932 he sported last year. Fortunately for him the team in front of him is scoring enough to make that difference largely immaterial, and in a watered down east, the Lightning may only need him to be slightly above average to get out of it.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, it appears Joel Quenneville has finally found his way to this outpost (outhouse?) of the internet and decided to demote Andrew Shaw to the “fourth” line along with Peter Regin and Jeremy Morin. In fairness to Shaw, if Regin were centering that line (which he might by their third shift), that trio could be a seriously effective bum slaying unit. However that change still doesn’t mean any of the other lines make a damn bit of sense coming off of Sunday. Versteeg is still on Toews’ left for reasons no one can quite pinpoint, and Marian Hossa is supposed to somehow find an offensive spark with the scoring juggernauts of Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith. Brad Richards now assumes Shaw’s spot between Saad and Bickell to form what is probably the most sensical unit of the four for the evening.
The pairings on the blue line look to the be the same as well, with TVR getting another look along side Duncan Keith, and as pairing they’ll probably see plenty of the aformentioned Tyler Johnson line, with Oduya and Hjalmarsson likely drawing Stamkos. David Runblad continues to be a work in progress, and given Brent Seabrook’s pinchyness so far this season, there’s the potential that the Ning could be going the other way in a hurry. Corey Crawford will start his sixth straight game after returning from injury.
These are two teams that love to trade chances, but with the Lightning D slightly less mobile than the Hawks, look for them to be taken wide, particularly by Brandon Saad who isn’t likely to see a lot of Stralman and Carle. With these two teams so evenly matched 5 on 5, winning the special teams battle is imperative, and it’s strength against strength on both sides tonight. The Lightning have scored 14 power play goals at a 26.4% conversion rate, and Stamkos at the top of the left circle is the primary threat. Garrisson’s point shot will also have to be accounted for. But they’ve had their struggles on the kill, allowing 11 goals in just 46 times shorthanded, including two in Detroit.
Just because an inter-conference game in November has little consequence doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining, and these two teams get up and down the ice with the best in the league. Let’s go Hawks.