You might say things look a little dark in Hawkdom these days. You might say they look darker than a black steer’s tookus on a moonless prairie night. Their most important skater is facing a suspension that has a chance of seeping into the playoffs. They don’t know when their goalie who is most responsible for their record this year is going to be able to return. Their other MVP isn’t scoring at near the rate he has before as teams have focused on that line and the top one hasn’t been able to bail him out. We’ve been over the defense.
But all is not lost, my friends. There are reasons that the Hawks could yet have a long spring. I’m totally serious. Let’s go through them. Caveat: None of these mean shit if either or both of Keith and Crawford miss significant playoff time. Then they’re totally boned. Sorry.
The rest of the competition is hardly perfect: This has been the big one for me all season. The likely path for the Hawks out of the Central Division is through St. Louis and then Dallas, in either order. There is a chance the Wild upset a first-place team for a third straight year of course, and while yes they’ve won every game this season there isn’t anyone who would favor the Wild over the Hawks in a playoff series. But that’s not why you called. So let’s focus on the Stars and Blues.
The Stars have simply bad goaltending. And while bad goaltending can pop for the odd regular season win (or four of them in the case of the Stars against the Hawks this year), over seven games you can’t hide that. That is going to cost you. Give the Hawks five, six, seven games against bad goaltending and they’re going to score, even with this wonky lineup. You might say if the Hawks score four the Stars could score five on this pretty immobile Hawks’ defense, but we’ve never seen that actually happen outside of the Kings in ’14. And the Stars are not the Kings of ’14. The huge advantage the Hawks would have in net in a prospective series is not to be dismissed.
To go with that, the Stars blue line isn’t very good defensively either. Jason Demers might not make the bell for the first round, leaving the Stars with only one defensively solid blue-liner in Johnny Oduya. You couldn’t trust this team in any game where they led in the 3rd period, no matter how many goals they’re up.
As for the Blues, we can do better than say “they’re the Blues.” Although until they prove they’re not “just the Blues,” that’s a perfectly acceptable response. There are things the Hawks struggle with especially, and it’s mostly teams that can get spicy on offense. Meaning that they have some East-West to their games, can make plays at the blue line, can beat the Hawks d-men to the outside and up the ice and stretch them. Basically, to beat the Hawks how the Wild and Stars have, you have to do the things that used to get you killed by the Hawks.
Ken Hitchcock does not send out the Blues to do this. He has tried it once or twice in the regular season, but he’ll choke on his third breakfast before he does it in the playoffs. The Blues will remain straight-lined as can be, and the Hawks certainly would have issues continually retrieving pucks behind the net under pressure with their lack of speed on defense. But you can counter that by having the center and a winger drop deeper into the zone and provide pressure outlets. This what happened two years ago when they played. And if you take that away from the Blues, they don’t have a Plan B to score. It’s there, they could play a more open game with Tarasenko and Schwartz and Steen, but the rest of their forwards aren’t really built for that. Their defense isn’t either, with only Shattenkirk a play-pusher and Parayko needing a map all over the ice.
So if you think the Hawks can do that, you’re talking about a bunch of 2-1 games that by definition can go either way. And what’s Brian Elliot’s playoff rep and what’s Corey Crawford’s?
So there, that’s how you get out of the Central and then everything’s a coin flip with the Pacific teams.
The forward depth is still there: Ok, it’s not what it was given Hossa’s slowing and Weise and Ladd not quite being what they were advertised. But we’ve seen this before, just last year in fact with Antoine Vermette. He had a very underwhelming finish to the season, actually took some time to get Q to stop fucking with him in the playoffs before becoming a third line weapon. We know no team can deal with the 4th line. There are lineup configurations that could boost the top two lines, which we’ve been over. The Hawks still roll out 12 forwards. They’ll at least push with any other team’s forward crop. In a series against St. Louis where things will really bog down, that should play more into Ladd’s game. As for a series against Dallas that will look more like the light-cycle race from Tron… well, ok that won’t suit Ladd’s game much. But I’m trying here.
Their Adaptability: We’ve seen the Hawks change their game in series before. While they’re not going to be able to outgun the Stars, they can actually slow the game down which the Stars wouldn’t be able to do to them if they needed. We might see the Hawks trap in a series for the first time, but every forward has the brain and game to stay that disciplined (well, not you Pantera and Shaw, but do try and play along). They can turn up the volume on the Blues still. No team in the West can change their spots the way the Hawks still can.
If Keith is not suspended: They have a player who can dominate a whole series. Or two. Or three. If you don’t believe it, ask the Predators and Lighting about it. Quite simply, they’ll have the most important player on either team in any series, or the one who can do most at both ends.