Game Time: 7:30PM Central
TV: CSN, WGN-AM 720
Jimmy Buffett Sucks: Litter Box Cats
In today’s episode of the family favorite series Not Tone Deaf, the following is presented free of comment:
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) October 22, 2015
Now that that’s out of the way, the Hawks’ tour of the Eastern Conference continues with tonight being the first of the rare home edition of the Florida Two-Step, welcoming in the young go-hard Panthers. Much like the state of Florida itself, the Panthers are comprised of equal parts young talent and geriatrics simply playing out the clock. However some of the young talent that Uncle Dale has been hoarding might be on the verge of putting things together.
Things start up front with as good a young 1-2 center combination as exists in the league in Nick Bjugstad and a healthy Aleksander Barkov, both of whom have size, skill, and smarts, and are both better contractual values than Brandon Saad. Bjugstad had an excellent year under the radar last season, putting up 43 points on a Panthers squad that had no other options as their top center at just 22 years old while taking on the opposition’s best and still driving play to the tune of just over half of the share of shot attempts at 50.4%. Barkov is still only 20 and off to a better start this year, with 6 points in as many games, and carrying an absurd 57% share with forgotten Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau and long-overdue Miami resident Jaromir Jagr. Uncle Dale also managed to acquire the versatile Reilly Smith for California King Mattress Jimmy Hayes straight up, adding yet another young gun to go along with aforementioned top 6 with Vince Trochek and the diminutive, sanctimonious, pious, sexist shithead Rocco Grimaldi still working on earning their permanent place in the lineup. The rest of the forward corps is smattered with what’s left of overpriced veterans like the once-coveted Jussi Jokinen and the legend of Dave Bolland (who only has 4 more years at $5.5 mildo left on his deal).
On the blue line, reigning Calder winner Aaron Ekblad has picked up right where he left off, driving possession with the help of the dearly departed Brian Campbell (skypoint), though the two are getting heavily sheltered starts, starting 23% more of their shifts in the offensive zone than the rest of the team. That leaves another pair to take the brunt of the defensive zone starts to an equal degree, and coach Gerald Gallant has elected that to be Erik Gudbrandson and Willie Mitchell, both of whom are getting appropriately shelled in possession at around 40%. The organization still has high hopes for the former first rounder in Gudbrandson, with Uncle Dale believing him to be in a similar mold of Brent Seabrook, but any offensive upside he might have is getting completely snowed under, and having a 38 year old, never-exactly-fleet-of-foot or offensively inclined Willie Mitchell isn’t helping matters. Perennial trade bait Dmitry Kulikov and 6-4 free safety Alex Petrovic fall into the middle pairing.
In net is old friend Roberto Luongo, the tortured soul who finally seems to be at peace back in Florida, away from the psychopaths in Vancouver. Luongo is still excellent even at 36, coming off a year sporting a steady .921 save percentage for a team learning how to play together, and has so far this year even improved upon that mark in five starts with a .963 save percentage at evens, and .941 overall. And for all his issues against the Hawks, he generally alternates between an implosion and an acrobatics display on United Center ice.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, a month or so without Duncan Keith begins tonight. And there’s no mincing words about the fact that outside of Seabrook and Hjalmarsson, the defense has the potential to look like monkeys on acid with Trevor & Trevor running around and Rundblad and Viktor Svedberg conversely not being able to move at all. But at the very least this will drive the point home to management that they’re going to need another NHL caliber defenseman sooner rather than later, and neither Michal Rozsival or Kyle Cumiskey are any kind of solution to that problem.
As a result the forwards as a whole will need to be asked to be more responsible in their back-pressuring assignments and not flee the zone looking to start a rush that simply isn’t going to happen. They’ll need to give this rag-tag bunch far more reasonable targets to hit with shorter passes. That forward group will not include Bryan Bickell tonight, who is a healthy scratch in favor of LOCAL BOY Vince Hinostroza.
Corey Crawford gets the cage tonight, and will begin a stretch where he’ll need to be as sharp as he’s ever been as a pro to keep this team from having to make up too much ground starting around Thanksgiving.
These aren’t the same pushover joke Panthers that have been toiling in sunrise since the Tallon administration began in 2011. This is a group that is learning together and playing an uptempo game, and their season played out in the opposite manner of the Flames last year. They were playing the right way and not getting the results. Now the returns are finally starting to show, and they’re liable to give the Hawks all they can handle tonight especially without a Hall of Fame #1 defenseman.
If you’re heading to tonight’s game, pick up a copy of our gameday program sold outside the United Center. If you’re not going, you can get the PDF version right here.