I’m not too sure there’s been a series in this era of Blackhawks Era that when it was over the overwhelming feeling was relief. But that’s how it goes when you’re outplayed, and at times massively, for at least three and probably four games and yet you still come out of it. Life finds a way.
All of it leaves Hawks Nation in a strange position of being delighted to be back defending the Western conference championship but pretty urpy about what might come next. Probably a pretty good time to take a state of the union as the Hawks sit halfway to another parade.
-Last night, it all started to feel like the ’09 Wings. If you don’t recall, Detroit was the defending champ, and though they got an easy first-round KO against Columbus the following year where the Hawks this year most certainly didn’t, they were tied up in a dogfight of a second round with a team that had tipped over a top-seeded opponent in the first round. For them that year it was Anaheim and Jonas Hiller becoming Colossus in net. The Wings survived a Game 7 at home, outclassed a young Hawks team in the Conference Final before simply running out of gas at the end of the Final (combined with Lidstrom and Datsyuk getting hurt).
That’s what it feels like so far with the Hawks. they have enough talent and experience and class to feel their way through, while skating teams out of the building only rarely and only when they really have to. They just don’t have the legs to do it for three-to-five straight games.
But they have enough individuals who can come up with enough moments of brilliance to get by, be it Toews, Hossa, Keith, Kane, or Crawford (and yes, this spring Crow has fully earned being mentioned in that crowd).
-One name you don’t see there is Patrick Sharp, because he’s almost certainly carrying something. He just doesn’t have that burst that took him into space or opened up a shooting lane for him.
Which leads to what you do with him. A less mobile Sharp probably needs to be on a line with Hossa and Toews who can do some of his skating for him. Sharp just can’t seem to get in on the forecheck in time or duck in and out of traffic to be found. But that also loads up the top line and kind of leaves the rest bereft. But where else would he be effective? Possibly with Hossa and Regin or Smith?
-So what made the Wild such a headache? There are probably a few answers. Even if I wasn’t to say Quenneville got outcoached, Mike Yeo certainly coached a lot harder in this series. The constant changes in approach had the Hawks on their heels for certainly Games 3 and 4 (and portions of 1 and 2). Yeo was able to exploit some matchups at home as well. Getting Suter and Brodin out against Toews really makes a difference, and letting Handzus simply check his own line is another.
It’s kind of what Mike Babcock did last year in the second round. Babs concentrated all counter-fire on Toews while letting Handzus take Kane’s game away and have a third line full of kids and speed overrun the Hawks bottom six. That series didn’t swing until Sharp and Hossa flanked Handzus and Kane got to skate with Toews and Bickell.
The Hawks couldn’t keep Cooke-Haula-Fontaine down because they couldn’t throw a line at them that could keep the puck away from them, at least until Peter Regin joined the fray and even then it was tough. If that worried you than you then you’re not going to like the look of Cogliano, Silfverberg, Bonino, Palmieri or Perreault on the Ducks. The Kings don’t come with near the speed on their bottom six.
On the other side, the Ducks simply don’t have a d-man they can match up with Toews and feel like they can handle it, unless Cam Fowler and Ben Lovejoy really do something for you (and if they do, chances are your last name is either “Fowler” or “Lovejoy.”)Beauchemin looks really old, Bryan Allen looks really like Bryan Allen, and Lindholm has had a rough go of it the second half of the season.
The Kings do come with a genuine #1 in Drew Doughty, but Jake Muzzin is hardly Jonas Brodin and the rest of the Kings’ blue line isn’t even playing as well as Spurgeon or Scandella were. So there will be different problems, but not as glaring as the ones just survived.
-What to do? It’s obvious to everyone except the ones who matter that Handzus can’t be on the top six, and probably the top nine. Sadly, there aren’t any answers that are anything more than “barely acceptable.” Smith has been ok in limited looks as a center. Regin may get a chance as he took more and more shifts with Kane toward the end of the game last night. But he’s really just good feet and a good brain instead of someone with hands and vision or finish. He probably won’t let you down there though in a limited spurt.
Andrew Shaw returning for Nordstrom will be an upgrade, assuming Chicken Hawk was able to locate his brain during his hiatus, but I doubt that’s enough to make the bottom six dangerous again (and even less so when Bollig replaces Regin or Versteeg because we all know that’s going to happen).
The Hawks might just have to keep getting by on works of art from their masters.
-Another problem for the bottom six is that they’re getting no drive from their d-men, because Nick Leddy looks afraid of everything right now. It’s easy to say that his healthy scratch has made him tentative, but his response to it is on him. Leddy’s game has to red-lined to be effective, and he’s afraid to skate with the puck, attempt a pass that is over three feet and not completely obvious, or join the rush. He did some of the latter last night so I hope he can build on that. He’s not helped by having two immobile partners or forwards that haven’t consistently provided him an outlet. But when he’s as jumpy in his own zone as he was in this series, the bottom six isn’t going to have the puck much no matter who comprises it.