Now that the international nightmare known as the Sochi Olympics is finally over, the NHL can get back to business as usual. With 22 games left, the Hawks will start their final quarter of the season tonight in Manhattan at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers.
When last the Hawks visited MSG, they hadn’t won a game in nearly a month and on the ass-end of the nine game losing streak in 2012 that could have nearly cost Joel Quenneville his job and nearly flushed that season completely down the crapper before Mike Smith’s method acting had a chance to. Entering tonight, the Hawks haven’t won in three weeks, but due to a totally different set of circumstances, and they’ll be facing a Rangers team that was finally coming around to their underlying numbers prior to the break, and now find themselves embroiled in a multitude of trade controversies including but not limited to Tampa captain Martin St. Louis, and their own captain Ryan Callahan.
Coach Alain Vigneault, for all of his bullshit, is actually fairly progressive in his player usage, and has the Rangers 7th in the league with a 52.0% Corsi share. He’s also gotten 42 points in 57 games out of Brad Richards, good for second on the team, after he had been left for dead by John Tortorella last post season. However, that’s still damning with faint praise when Mats Zuccarello is sitting atop that leaderboard, albeit by a single point, and the Norwegian Hobbit will not be suiting up tonight after getting injured in Sochi on Norway’s quest to win nothing. Rumored wiener tucker and now two-time gold medalist Rick Nash leads the team in goals with a meager 18, which is sinful for the skillset he possesses. There are some nice parts to the Rangers up front, but Derek Stepan has taken a step back after getting paid late in training camp, and Chris Kreider has yet to put it all together despite having all of the tools to be dominant, and shows it in flashes. Carl Hagelin is lightning fast and is fun to watch, but he kind of goes in every direction at once, and draws attention to that fact by annoyingly wearing a high sweater number that makes no sense, white trimmed skates, and a visor that only protects his forehead, all of which are frowned upon.
On the Blueshirts’ blue line, since last the Hawks saw them, they’ve swapped Michael Del Zotto for old friend Kevin Klein (not the one married to Phoebe Cates). While Klein is a decent stay at home-type guy, that move really took away the Rangers’ lone threat to push the pace from the back end, unless anyone is counting Anton Stralman, which they’re not. Though Del Zotto was a nightmare in his own end, he certainly provided more punch than Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, who while large and stable, lack offensive flare. And for a team that’s struggling to score, they should have taken help anywhere they could find it. Locking down the #1 spot is Ryan McDonough, who was impossibly acquired for Scott Gomez’s albatross contract in a rare Glen Sather spasm of competence, who himself is returning from Sochi as well. McDonough does pretty much everything right even if it’s not flashy, and will likely be trusted with shadowing Jonathan Toews tonight if AV starts playing matchups.
Backstopping all of this of course is the King, Henrik Lundqvist, with an Olympic silver around his handsome neck. Prior to the game against the Hawks, Hank had not played to his career averages this season, a lack of goal support notwithstanding. But starting with that Hawks game, Lunqvist went 10-0-2 into the break, allowing 3 goals only once in a game the Rangers won anyway. So tonight will be a decent test against one of the league’s better offenses to see just how much the Olympic break affected him.
EDIT: Apparently it’s Cam Talbot getting the start tonight. Talbot has been pretty excellent in spelling Lundqvist with a .935 save percentage in 17 appearances. So there hasn’t been much drop off this year.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, the final kick starts tonight, with the Kings and Canucks doing the Hawks a solid by offing the Avs and Blues respectively last night, both in regulation. Both teams have games in hand on the Hawks, and though the divisional race is largely immaterial, winning it certainly falls into the “Can’t Hurt, Could Help” category.
With 9 of the Hawks’ 10 Olympians dressing tonight, ice time allotment for all involved will be something to take note of, particularly for Duncan Keith, who has shown in the past to eventually wear out under a sustained heavy workload. The lone scratch will be Michal Handzus, who apparently couldn’t even keep up at his first practice back on Monday. This will give the Hawks a look at journeyman Peter Regin centering Patrick Kane for the first time, as Kane was attending his grandfather’s services when Regin made an inauspicious debut for the Hawks in the desert. Regin has decent possession numbers over his career, but has never once played with a player of Kane’s caliber for any sustained period of time. It’s debatable whether that will still even occur tonight, as Joel Quenneville’s patience for #2 centers not named Michal Handzus is certainly nowhere near that which he has for 13th forwards and #8 defensemen. Also worthy of close observation is the play and ice time of Bryan Bickell, who in theory should be a key beneficiary of the extra time off to get his knee back to where it needs to be.
The defensive corps will be in its familiar alignment, with Michal Rozsival taking the platoon spot with Nick Leddy tonight. Corey Crawford will predictably get the call in the cage tonight, and the hope is that he spent the entire three weeks hydrating, because there are going to be only a few spot opportunities for Antti Raanta to sub in in these last 5 weeks before the real fun begins.
On paper, the Hawks outgun the Rangers by a fairly wide margin, but that certainly didn’t result in a win back on West Madison almost two months ago. With AV able to get the changes he wants on home ice and if Lunqvist truly has gotten back into form, this should be just as tight an affair. But with the other two Central opponents falling last night, it would behoove the Hawks on multiple fronts to get things started back up again on the right foot. Let’s go Hawks.