Game Time: 7:00PM Central
TV/Radio: CSN, NBCSN, CBC, WIND 560-AM
Somebody To Shove: Hockey Wilderness
And so it begins. Since Patrick Kane announced the Hawks’ presence to the defending champ Kings on a Saturday afternoon on January 19th, this is the date that Hawks fans have waited patiently for. It’s time for this collection on the ice to prove it’s not the first-round-out it has been the last two seasons, nor is it a hollow collection of records accumulated during an asterisk of a regular season.
That quest for legitimacy begins tonight against the Minnesota Wild, who after breaking the bank (and contributing to the lockout) both in the offseason in acquiring Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, as well as in-season taking on the salary of Jason Pominville at the deadline, limped toward the finish line after challenging for the Northwest Division much of the year. In an after effect of that slide, Pominville remains out tonight, still suffering the effects of a Dustin Brown elbow to the chin last week.
Suter and Parise are most definitely in, on the other hand, and will be relied upon heavily. In their first years in Minnesota, all they did was lead the league in ice time and the team in points respectively. Suter has played himself into front-running for the Norris Trophy, leading all defensemen in the West scoring as well with 4G and 28A. He’s also played over thirty minutes a night in three of his last four games out of necessity. That doesn’t figure to change much at all tonight or in this series, having his work cut out for him against whichever top-6 unit Coach Mike Yeo sends him out against. And as has been seen here in Chicago with Duncan Keith, no matter how willing the combatant or how well conditioned he might be, those minutes take their toll. Suter has been paired with wunderkind Jonas Brodin who has more than held his own in his first season in the show. Behind those two however, the Wild are fairly innocuous. Tom Gilbert, Clayton Stoner, Lollipop Guild Legacy Jared Spurgeon, and either Marco Scandella or Justin Falk will have their work more than cut out for them once the secondary and tertiary waves of Hawk forwards start crashing upon them.
Parise has played primarliy with Captain Mikko Koivu for the majority of the season at even strength, and the two of them have shown some nice chemistry. But with Koivu as the Wild’s top two-way center, it forces Yeo into a bit of a quandry. Kyle Brodziak is deployed in a defensive role, but has yet to show he can erase the other team’s top threats, as his -18 can attest to. Having him and Cal Clutterbuck shadow Toews, Hossa, and Saad would seem to be asking for trouble, even if it means getting Koivu and Parise minutes against the possession-challenged Patricks. The second line of Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, and Jason Zucker, however, figures to slot in nicely against whomever they face, as Cullen can win draws with regularity, something Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger can’t do.
Veteran Nicklas Backstrom (the Finnish goalie one) will be entrusted with fending off the Hawks’ attack from the crease. And while he does have a Jennings trophy on his resume and is capable of stealing a game on his own, he’ll need to be much sharper than his recent outings, giving up a total of 16 goals in three outings since 4/18 to the Sharks, Flames, and Oilers, the last of which he gave up three goals on five shots at home in a game the Wild had to have.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, their quest begins tonight without Ray Emery and Dave Bolland. Despite the hew and cry from the public, Emery would have likely found himself starting off the series in a ballcap on the bench anyway, but instead that important job will be entrusted to Henrik Karlsson. Emery should be available by Game 3, but the hope is he won’t be necessary and Corey Crawford can erase some of the bad memories of soft goals from last spring against Phoenix.
As for Bolland, his absence might be felt more were he at all a factor (when he wasn’t a possession black hole) in the regular season, or if this were a series where matching up against the opposition would be necessary. Given the Hawks depth relative to the Wild, it would not be surprising in the least to see Quenneville roll his lines out in steady rotation and make playoff rookie Yeo match up with him. There aren’t a lot of permutations between the two teams where the individual line-to-line don’t favor the Hawks. About the one constant to look for would be to see the top pairing of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Duncan Keith out in support of whichever line is consistently seeing Koivu and Parise.
We’ve gone over it a bunch in the preview pieces, but it bears repeating here: the Wild simply do not have enough depth to win four of seven from the Hawks. Even if Backstrom channels J.S. Giguere and Matt Cullen goes nuts in as soft of a matchup underbelly as the Wild are going to find, the Hawks would have to implode 5 on 5 up and down the roster, or sustain another devestating injury (knock on wood).
That said, none of this is a foregone conclusion. By all accounts in the press, the Hawks appear to be salivating at the opportunity to bury the last couple years and bury them deep. That can only be done with 16 victories, as that’s the standard they’ve set for themselves. Starting tonight, they still have 16 to go. Hopefully that number will be one fewer by night’s end. Let’s go Hawks.