The mantra around these parts has been that for the most part the Hawks regular season is largely immaterial until the calendar shifts to April. And now that it has, the Hawks now find themselves still in a highly actionable position within the context of the Western Conference playoff picture all things considered. There are six key games left, five of which are against teams currently situated within the West’s top 8, starting tonight with a familiar acquaintance in Vancouver.
At the risk of putting some kind of pox on the proceedings tonight, there’s just no real objective reason to state why the Canucks are on pace for a 100 point season, albeit in the participation ribbon era of NHL standings. After the disaster that was the Torts Experience last year in Vancouver, the new regime in Trevor Linden, Jim Benning, and Willie Desjardins at least are trying to return to the up-tempo possession brand of hockey that won them two consecutive President’s Trophies (and mercifully not much else). But they might not necessarily have the same firepower to pull it off right now. The Sedins are still highly effective first line players, but no longer dual perennial MVP candidates. Radim Vrbata is at his floaty Radim Vrbata-est on their wing and it’s truly a wonder that he never found his way there sooner having seen the results now. Vrbata leads the team with 31 goals and Shooty leads in scoring with 68 points with Passy fittingly splitting the difference with 66 points. The twins are still north of 53% in possession, but it hasn’t translated to the team overall because their bottom six generally gets their heads caved in. They’re not particularly adept marksmen as a whole either, shooting a middling 7.6% at evens and have a middle of the pack power play at 18.9%, yet are somehow top 10 in scoring at 2.8 goals a game.
The back end of things does’t offer any clarity either. Chris Tanev (he of fresh paper) and the underreported flying elbows of Alex Edler now comprise Vancouver’s top pair, taking the toughest assigments and zone starts and generally do well with them, parlaying it into a 52% share. But past that, both Dan “Got This” Hamhuis and the relentlessly flapping gums of Kevin Bieksa have slowed down a bit over the past couple of years as they have been eroded by age and intermittent injury. Bieksa in particular has been sub standard even in shallower waters. Hawks cast offs Adam Clendening and Ryan Stanton haven’t done much to cause any regret on the part of the braintrust in limited action. And behind all of this has been the completely average duo of Ryan Miller and Eddie Lack who have split time largely due to Miller’s injuries. Lack has a completely fine .919 save percentage this year, and is coming off a March with a .923 rate which concluded with wins on back to back nights in St. Louis and Nashville, not exactly easy places to play. So yeah. 95 points. Go figure.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, the rollercoaster continues and hope is once again renewed after a convincing 40 shot, territorially tilted performance against the most feared 2-games-under-.500 team the sporting world has ever seen in the LA Kings. Given the sputtering going on in West East St. Louis, the Hawks now all of the sudden find themselves a point out of home ice advantage in the first round once again with two games to play against the Blues coming up in this final stretch. Naturally it has occurred with Quenneville using a career center and special teamer in the newly acquired Antoine Vermette exclusively at wing at even strength and Andrew Shaw at center, so there won’t be a lineup that makes sense until Patrick Kane returns, if the Hawks even get that far. And even then it will be a question mark.
There are actual positives to be taken from the recent proceedings however. First, Johnny Oduya is beginning to look as solid and mobile as he did two springs ago post injury. It’s difficult to say whether it’s a result of the rest he received or a realization that he is in fact going into this summer looking to get the last big contract of his career, but either way his return to form helps the Hawks in manifold ways (assuming the voodoo curse on the reanimated undead body of Michal Rozsival eventually wears off). The other is the continued growth of Teuvo Teravainen. While it would be easy to bemoan his misuse for a solid majority of the season and the resultant delay in his growth as a player, that he’s clearly improving game to game while getting the Michael Frolik treatment in the lineup shows just what a talent he is and can be. Eight shots on net against one of the league’s elite shot supression teams is a feat for anyone, let alone a rookie drastically outsized by the Kings.
Corey Crawford gets the cage once again tonight in an obvious choice given tomorrow’s opponent. Despite maintaining a sterling save percentage in all but the Flyers game, Crawford hasn’t allowed less than 3 goals since the acrobatics in Carolina, so getting some help from the squad in front of him would certainly be a welcome change.
In the rivalry era of these two teams, the late season UC game always resulted in a one sided affair with fireworks, whether it was the hair-pulling brawl of ’09 or Ladd v Kesler II in 2010, but neither of these teams can afford to manufacture any bad blood that simply barely exists anymore between them and risk the two points at stake. The Hawks will get their opportunities against the bottom six, and they’ll need to make them count while Toews and the Swedes try to keep a lid on the Twins. In spite of everything, the Hawks still control their own fate to a degree. Now that it’s April, it’s finally time to show everyone they’re capable of doing so once again. Let’s go Hawks.