Hockey

Look, it’s difficult enough to get in any way fired up for mid-February, post-All-Star games against non-marquee opponents when a team is good, but it’s been a good goddamn long time since the West Side Hockey Club could make that claim, which makes this stretch even more of a grind than usual. About the only thing left to be determined for this season with this team is who is going to get the privilege of being shipped elsewhere in the coming weeks, and even that can’t really happen until a new general manager is hired in THAT protracted process. Throw in the fact that these are makeup games to begin with and the weather is shitty, and it’s not exactly a recipe for scintillating hockey. The fact that the Hawks’ roommates are now on their all star break certainly helps ease some of the scheduling conflicts that the Covid postponements could have caused, but that’s still put a very quick 3 games in 4 nights on the table for the Hawks, starting this evening.

2/17 – vs Columbus

Game Time – 7:30PM CST
TV/Radio – NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-AM 720
Justin Fields. That’s It.  – The Cannon

At long last, Amy’s Oldest gets his “reunion” against his old Q-pilled brothers in arms in Columbus, having missed the first encounter at Nationwide as a last minute Covid scratch. Whether or not any of that matters between these two go nowhere teams is up for debate, but at least there might be slightly more juice to this one at least to start. Arvid Soderblom gets the start tonight out of necessity given the back-to-back, and it will be the first non-Fleury start since he returned from the Covid list after the Holiday Break/Pause. Soderblom predictably looked like a deer in headlights having to spell Colin Delia in his first ever NHL appearance, but settled down a bit the following night against Calgary, where he made 37 saves on 41 shots, getting done no favors by the team of front of them. Coincidentally, the Jackets are arriving in town having most recently caught a beat down in Calgary with their new acquisition Tyler Toffoli, but had won 5 of their last 6 games, the loss being the Panthers hanging 8 on them. This Jackets group isn’t any damn good and has really no finishers other than Patrik Laine when he’s interested, but there’s enough of a floor here to beat bum ass teams, and a getting a rookie goalie in his second ever start would seem to fit that bill.

2/18 – vs Dallas

Game Time – 7:30PM CST
TV/Radio – NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-AM 720
Southfork Ranch – Defending Big D

So with Ben Bishop finally calling it a career after something like 14 backiotomies, the Stars now only have to split time between the three somewhat useful goalies they have in net in Braden Holtby, Anton Khudobin, and Jake Oettinger, though Khudobin has been buried in the minors for some time. Between Holtby and Oettinger, both have nearly identical save percentages at 5v5 (.923 and .922 respectively), which is a nice rebound for Holtby after his disastrous turn in Vancouver. Neither of them are signed past this season, so that leaves Hall of Famer Jim Nill with some decisions to make. The obvious choice is to cash in on Holtby at the deadline for a team looking to solidify their crease situation into the spring and then plan on giving Oettinger the full workload next year. But the conundrum lies in the fact that the Stars are only a point out from the last wild card spot, and have games in hand on the Kings and Ducks ahead of them, as well as the Preds whom they’re 3 points behind. It’s difficult to see this Stars team as presently constituted as on track for anything but an ass waxing in the first round against the Avs, Knights, or possibly even the Flames, but this group is living proof that goofy shit happens in the playoffs. It’s just not necessarily wise to bank on it.

2/20 – vs Florida

Game Time – 2:00PM CST
TV/Radio – NBC Sports Chicago, SportsNet 1, WGN-AM 720
Cruisin’ Like A Fanboat On The Glade – Litter Box Cats

The Panthers are very good. They are second in the league in points behind only the Avalanche, and they just beat the Canes in their own building last night. And Sasha Barkov did this devilry. There may be a hope that the Cats get into the city on Saturday night and hit it hard prior to the matinee and the fact that the Hawks are pretty bad, and if the Hawks stay disciplined in limiting chances they might be able to keep it close. But those are very big ifs and a wholly incongruous matchup where the Panthers shouldn’t ever have to get out of 2nd gear.

Hockey

Box Scores Game 50 Game 51
Event Summaries Game 50 Game 51
Natural Stat Trick Game 50 Game 51

As if the previous week and a half wasn’t enough to seal it from an intellectual and emotional standpoint, the Hawks losing both games to the Panthers this weekend has them on the brink of mathematical elimination as well, and are only spared by having scraped their way into OT on Thursday with the net empty. But if nothing else, these two games were ideal outcomes – some kids put more on tape (for both good and bad), and the glaring flaws both behind the bench and with the roster are also put on a display in a competitive game against an obviously better team that they lose. Obviously wins are more fun, but when the process matches the results. This team cannot afford to risk learning the wrong lessons with the complete dope behind the bench they’ve got currently.

Hockey

at

Game Times: 6:00PM CST (1/17 & 1/19)
TV/Radio: NBCSN Chicago, WGN-AM 720 (1/17 & 1/19), NHLN, TVAS, SportsNet (1/17)
Polo’d Down To The Socks To The Nutsack: Litter Box Cats

After a predictable opening series in Tampa, the Hawks stay in Florida while it snows here at home to take on the Panthers in Sunrise tonight and on Tuesday. Because the Cats were slated to start the season against the infected and infested Dallas Stars, those games got moved (the first of likely many across the NHL slate this year), and tonight will be their opener, the last NHL team to do so.

Hockey

Well there are a couple of quite familiar faces, aren’t they? The departed namesake and an instant hall of fame coach will try to bring a level of sustained competitive hockey to south Florida that they haven’t seen since…well…ever. As batshit as it sounds, Uncle Dale and Joel Quenneville never even spent a full season together here in Chicago, but they’re going to try to make this thing work in Sunrise even if it kills them both. And it just might, but at least now they’ll leave behind nice bronzed and pickled corpses.

2018-2019

36-32-14 86 Pts, 5th in the Atlantic
3.22 GF/G (9th), 3.33 GA/G (28th), -13 GD
49.42% CF (16th), 48.45% xGF (20th)
PP 26.8% (2nd), PK 81.3% (10th)

Goaltending: In a full 180 from a trick they had been pulling for the couple seasons previous wherein the Cats got solid netminding from an aging Roberto Luongo and James Reimer filling in whenever something fell off of him, last season the Panthers got absolutely no goaltending to help out what was a pretty spiky offense. Luongo started 40 games last year and arguably posted the worst numbers of his era-spanning career with an .899 overall and only a .906 at evens. Reimer was only a hair better at .900 and .909 respectively. Luongo decided that was enough to call it a career, and did so officially which hilariously dicked over the Canucks in having to eat the recapture penalty for the contraband contract they signed him to. Reimer took whatever he’s got left in the tank up the coast to Carolina, leaving Uncle Dale to have to revamp his entire goaltending infrastructure. Fortunately for him, there was an aging veteran in Sergei Bobrovsky who couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of Columbus and take the bags and bags of money everyone knew Dale was going to throw at him. Bob got a max seven-year term from the Panthers at $10 million per, which should take him until he’s 37. Even with the goaltending career curve being far more protracted than other positions, there’s always a risk of Bobrovsky’s crotch detaching given the high wire style he plays, and Joel Quenneville isn’t exactly known for his judicious management of goaltending workloads.  Still, the Panthers were looking for an infusion of excitement both by landing a name and by potentially making some noise in the post-season. Bobrovsky certainly should get him there even if a) his overall save percentage numbers have been in decline for three years while staying healthy, and b) only last season did he have even a representative playoff run, having absolutely shat himself with the Jackets two trips previous. As of right now, 22-year-old Sam Montrembleaut will get first crack at the backup role, but it could be a rotating cast of thousands if Bob doesn’t play 70 games. Which he just might.

Defense: Once again Joel Quenneville will have an honsest-to-god #1 defenseman to work with, in this case it’s Aaron Eklbad, who somehow is still only 23-years-old. Q likes his top pairing guys to be able to do everything, and Ekblad is certainly capable. Over the past few seasons his overall possession rate isn’t necessarily one that’d be associated with a do-it-all blue liner, but when taking into consideration that he’s had the toughest starts out of necessity and has been paired with Keith Yandle for two years, the picture starts to get a little clearer. And the fact that Quenneville hasn’t personally drowned Yandle with his barehands in some secluded corner of the Everglades and then chopped up his body on a fanboat is truly an upset. Anton Stralman moved a little east from Tampa to Sunrise in the offseason, and while he’s always been a textbook 2nd pairing puck mover, last year he finally started to show some signs of wearing down. No one is quite sure what it is Mike Matheson does or who he is, but Dale is paying him a fairly hefty salary at $4.75 mildo to do it until the entire state is submerged. Mark Pysyk is a hold over from the Computer Boys era, so Quenneville will hate him and put him at forward. At the very least he’ll call him Mike Kostka if only out of spite.

Forwards: Sasha Barkov is probably the best kept secret in the league, and if Q and Bob have any kind of positive impact on this team, that probably won’t be the case for much longer. Barkov is probably the second best two-way player in the league behind Patrice Bergeron now that both Toews and Kopitar have aged out of that level of effectiveness. Barkov absolutely erupted for 96 points nobody saw last year when he finally had two competent full time linemates in a healthy Jonathan Huberdeau and the very shoosty Mike Hoffman, who had 92 and 70 points themselves respectively. Evgeni Dadonov was a nice surprise (albeit at 30) with 70 points of his own despite the fact that a hurt Vincent Trochek only played 55 games last year, and was hindered when he did play. If he bounces back to his formerly reliable 50+ point output, particularly with Brett Connolly here to now provide a bit more scoring depth, the Cats could have a little bit more bite (GET IT?) to an offense that was already top-10.

Outlook: Barring injuries, or Sasha Barkov turning to dust under the workload Quenneville is certain to give him, the Panthers have made enough improvements to interject themselves into the playoff picture in the east, more than likely as a wild card, as the top three spots in the Atlantic seem fairly secure in Tampa, Boston, and Toronto. There are enough “ifs” here to not make it a completely foregone conclusion, but if Bobrovsky is even slightly above league average as he declines, Quenneville’s system is one of the few in the league that produces actual, tangible results almost immediately, and the Panthers weren’t that far off the playoff pace last year. And January 21st at Club 1901 is sure to be a highly emotional reunion, count on that.

Previous Team Previews

Carolina

Columbus

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New York Islanders

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Philadelphia 

Pittsburgh

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Buffalo

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Todd Little is the sole proprietor of LitterBoxCats.com. You can follow him on Twitter @toddlittle827. 

Been a disappointment for the Panthers this season, who some thought could make a playoff push. Is it just down to goaltending or is it more than that?
It’s kind of been a chicken and egg thing between the goaltending and the defense being the main culprit in the Panthers maddeningly slow start. There are times the goalies, James Reimer, in particular, let in Charmin-soft goals, but with the way the defense turns the puck over and yields countless high-quality chances to the opposition, one wonders if any keeper could shine in Florida’s crease right now. In addition to that mess, the only thing the Panthers have been consistent at in 2018-19 is being inconsistent.  Depending on the game or period, they look like one of the better teams in the league, and at other times they look destined for a top-five pick in the draft. One wonders if the Cats made the right choice in hiring the inexperienced Bob Boughner. His system and game management have both been called into question and it doesn’t look like the effort is there all time, and on top of that, players are allowed to make the same mistakes over and over with little to no consequences.
On the bright side, Jonathan Huberdeau is on pace to shatter his career high in points and assists. What’s been the difference there?
Now 25, Huberdeau is more mature and has worked on getting stronger the last couple of offseasons. Huberdeau got off a decent enough start while on the second line. Once he was reunited with Aleksander Barkov on the first line, along with new acquisition Mike Hoffman, was when he really caught fire and has put up 23 points in the last 13 games. If Huberdeau can keep this torrid pace up, he might be looking at his, and the franchise’s, first 100-point season.
What’s the deal with this blue line? Dale Tallon fought hard to keep some of the younger players, which obviously, frustratingly cost the Cats Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. And yet it’s hard to see why. Fill us in. 
I wish someone could fill me in on this. The way that Tallon handled the expansion draft still has many of us scratching our heads. Sure, they wanted Vegas to take Reilly Smith’s contract, but exposing Marchessault was just plain dumb. There had to have been a better way. None of the defensemen they protected was worth doing so and that is becoming more and more obvious, painfully so, as time goes on. The Panthers defensemen don’t seem to have much interest in playing proper defense and are lacking in physicality. Not quite sure if the meat of the problem lies with the players, who are individually talented, or Bob Boughner’s system, but something is seriously amiss with this group.
How much has Vincent Trocheck’s injury been a culprit?
Before he was hurt, Trocheck was having a bit of a tough go of it. He was collecting points on the power play, but struggling in other areas. That said, Vincent is one of Florida’s better players, a true gamer, and it was just a matter of time before he turned things around. They miss him badly and will be a better team when he comes back.
So what does the rest of the season hold? And beyond?
The rest of the season likely holds more of the same. The Panthers have shown no sign of being able to win or even play well on a consistent basis. The five-game winning streak in early November looks like it might end up being the high point of the season. Throw that streak out and they have only won back to back games once… that’s right, once. Beyond that, hard to say. The Cats have serious issues on defense and in the net, not sure how that get fixed anytime soon.

 

Game #39 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

Obviously, we’ll always have a soft spot for Uncle Dale around these parts. Fuck, we named the goddamn site after him, or his malfunctioning fax machine. The way he was torpedoed here in Chicago is still a mark of shame that McDonough will never answer for. And he’s still the architect of one of, if not the, most talented teams in this era of the NHL.

One wonders now how that ever happened.

Tallon has spent the past two years borking the Florida Panthers, seemingly in a quest to disprove the “Computer Boys” that ran the team for a season and a half when he was kicked upstairs. Except that involved gifting Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to the Golden Knights for nothing, and they ended up forming two-thirds of one of the most devastating lines in hockey last year. He’s constantly bleated on and on about being tougher to play against, except the defense he’s constructed in incredibly easy to play against because they suck out loud. In true Tallon fashion, they’re all sizable. In true Tallon fashion, they can’t do much else but be big, aside from Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle, we guess.

In his time at the helm, Tallon has added Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Ekblad to the team. But they were all top-three picks, which is pretty much his legacy here in Chicago. He’s just competent enough to not fuck up a top-three pick, which really should be something just about anyone with the right amount of oxygen intake should manage. There hasn’t been much else. Vincent Trocheck is a good piece taken in later rounds, but the Panthers continue to languish. There’s been two playoff appearances in a decade, and nary a series win. Both seem to have been engineered on goaltending from either Luongo or Craig Anderson.

Remember, Tallon’s major accomplishment in Chicago was adding Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, also both top-three picks. And he got lucky that the Penguins and Blues opted for players that weren’t Toews. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Marcus Kruger were nice, late-round additions as well, but that’s just about the sum of Tallon’s drafting here. And trading for Martin Havlat and signing Marian Hossa. Let’s give him that as well.

Tallon isn’t the worst GM in the NHL. Probably not even close. But he’s also far from a genius, and give anyone a couple of top-three picks and they just might create a dynasty.

But hey, he took those players. That’s more than Stan or McDonough can claim.

 

Game #39 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

 at 

Game Time: 6:00PM CST
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-AM 720
Wade County: Litter Box Cats

As if Florida in and of itself isn’t fucking weird enough, this is the first year in nearly anyone’s memory that the Hawks are out east over the Thanksgiving weekend thanks to the long overdue demise of the animal rights violation spectacle that was the Ringling Brothers circus. So it’s a little odd that the Hawks are in Sunrise tonight to take on the Panthers (who are also weird) rather than catching the ass end of a back to back in LA after a Friday afternoon in Orange County, but again, Florida is inherently weird to begin with.