Hockey

This sucks.

There’s not a lot more I can say really. This is what the beginning of a rebuild really looks like, and we’re going to be stuck here for years to come. And personally, I’m not sure how many more free Lankinen rebounds my frail heart can watch. Rebounds for everyone, everywhere, as many as you can scoop up. And the Hawks defense are not scooping very many of those rebounds up at all. Still waiting for those Beaudin and Mitchell call-ups, by the way. Literally any day now.

In all seriousness, a sincere congrats is in order for Pat Foley in his upcoming retirement. The man has been the voice of the Hawks for as long as most of us can remember, and he will be the hardest voice in hockey to replace. I couldn’t tell you a damned thing about Chris Vosters, the new play-by-play announcer, as the merry-go-round of TV auditions from this year has made all the new people a blur. Next Sunday, Foley and the man himself, Dale Tallon, will be broadcasting their final game together in what will likely be an automatic loss to Dallas. Buckle up for that one, folks.

The good news is that baseball starts this week, so everyone in Chicago can turn their attention towards their respective baseball teams and grumble about everything that’s wrong with those two franchises. Add onto the misery, why don’t we?

Monday 3/28
Hawks 5, Sabres 6
Box Score
Natural Stat Trick

The Hawks have spent years of our collective lives getting bailed out by their goaltenders, most recently in Marc-Andre Fleury. Now that era is over, and we get to watch garbage teams like the Sabres score four unanswered goals on the Hawks to tie it and two more within seconds of each other win the game. Granted, the Hawks defensemen weren’t doing Kevin Lankinen any favors throughout—Erik Gustafsson continues to take years off my life standing in front of the net and doing absolutely nothing to defend multiple Sabres goals, in one case kicking it into his own net. Without elite-level goaltending between the pipes, this team is an utter tire fire.

The Cat was responsible for a powerplay goal over halfway through the 3rd that put the Hawks back on top, but the momentum was all Buffalo’s starting really in the 2nd period, and two more Sabres goals late in the 3rd sealed the fate of the Hawks. Kane had a few solid chances near the end of the 3rd, but he wasn’t able to convert on any of them. The Sabres’ tying goal was a result of the Hawks defensemen being on one side of the ice and Alex Tuch on the other, receiving a pass to shoot at a pretty wide-open net—Tyler Johnson didn’t stand a chance defending that one. Jeff Skinner nearly scored seconds later but a Dylan Strome trip disallowed the goal and put Strome in the penalty box. The Sabres’ winning goal was entirely the fault of Lankinen, and something that an NHL-level goaltender shouldn’t allow. It cost the Hawks a point and the game, but luckily this team has nothing to play for down the stretch.

Thursday 3/31
Hawks 0, Panthers 4
Box Score
Natural Stat Trick

I mean, I’m not sure who actually expected a Hawks win out of this game, but it was still tough to watch our (like it or not) captain Jonathan Toews look like he was having a genuinely horrible time during his 1,000th NHL game. Every eye and metric test imaginable against these two teams show the Panthers as the vastly superior team. This game became another look at how far the Hawks will have to climb to be relevant again. It will be a game and a season that Toews will likely want to forget as his legacy is called into question, fairly or not, after his reaction to the Beach allegations, the trade deadline moves, and other whathaveyous. But I’m sure I’m not the only one who wished for a happier outcome for the Captain tonight.

In other news, this game was dreck to watch. Sergei Bobrovsky completely shut the Hawks down, stopping all 37 shots he faced. On the other end of the ice, Collin Delia, who is not an NHL-caliber goalie, got scored on five times, although a mercy kick-in ruling of Barkov’s goal 40 seconds into the game made it only four goals against. Rebounds, five-holes, and a porous defense (Riley Stillman still sucks) meant the Hawks got lit up all night long.

Friday 4/1
Hawks 2, Lightning 5
Box Score
Natural Stat Trick

Nothing like a shellacking on one night to prepare you for another shellacking the next night. The Lightning may not be playing like the impenetrable force they had been over the last month, but once again the gap between the Hawks and actual Stanley Cup-contending teams was well on display tonight. Not to mention it became a Brandon Hagel revenge game when he scored an empty netter in the dying seconds of the game, which I’m sure made Toews incredibly angry.

The Hawks at least scored in this one, the first goal coming from an unexpected source as Calvin de Haan blasted one home from the point in a play reminiscent of Duncan Keith. The other goal was scored by the Cat (who else?) to tie the game, though it certainly didn’t last long as the Lightning made quick work of the game over the 2nd and 3rd periods. And Tampa Bay’s penalty kill (9th in the league) thwarted the Hawks’ multiple powerplay opportunities almost every time and occasionally leading to an odd-man rush the other way. I truly felt bad for Lankinen—how can you possibly ask him, another fringe NHL goalie, to save some of the plays the Lightning produced?

Sunday 4/3
Hawks 2, Coyotes 3 (Coyotes win despite not having their shit together)
Box Score
Natural Stat Trick

At least this was an overtime loss, but it was still a loss to the Coyotes, the league’s true albatross. The skill level of the opponent compared to the previous two matchups were considerably lower, and the game got to be a bit chippy throughout. Defensive structures for both teams fluctuated from “none at all” to “let’s go six minutes straight without a shot on goal as we fool around in the neutral zone,” which leads to wacky hockey.

Dylan Strome was able to score just a minute into the game to give the Hawks their first lead in who knows how long. And the Hawks didn’t look so bad for the 1st period either, although I must again reiterate that the Coyotes are the league’s albatross. Arizona took over in the 2nd period, however, scoring two goals thanks to an Amy’s Youngest clearing attempt gone terribly wrong, and Calvin de Haan and Jake McCabe both getting pantsed by some guy named Travis Boyd. Not a good look.

Despite Kane tying the game up in the 3rd, the Hawks were unable to put it away in overtime. Instead, it was Shane Ghost Bear who was credited with a goal that actually went in thanks to the skate of Amy’s Eldest, a fitting end to the clown show this week of games has been. Speaking of Ghost Bear, I’m amazed he hasn’t been sent to the land of wind and ghosts considering he took a puck to the throat and a stick to the face this game. That’s hockey, I guess.

Hockey

The Hawks continue to suck out loud and for some reason we all continue to watch this team limp slowly toward the finish line that is the end of this season. Despite a faux reprieve from offensive terribleness on Friday with a double hat trick win against the disastrous Devils, it was bookended with two horrible losses against actually contending teams, the Panthers and Blues, successfully washing away any optimism that could possibly surround this team.

The real news around these parts is that they ripped off Kyle Davidson’s “interim” tag like a Band-Aid to name him the permanent GM over Mathieu Darche and some shmuck from the Cubs (hey, how about you fix my baseball team’s on-field product before you try to switch sports?). People are justifiably skeptical about the whole situation, which is understandable, but personally I’m still thanking God that Peter Chiarelli is not the Blackhawks GM—what a scare. Davidson has been able to take a deeper look internally at what this team is missing over the past four months, something the other two GM candidates haven’t been able to do, and theoretically this means he won’t fuck things up come the trade deadline.

In case you were trying to block it from your mind, the Hawks have needs in a lot of areas: drafting, prospects, goaltending, any amount of offense at all, way less infinitely replaceable clones that can only play bottom-six positions, a permanent head coach, and maybe a better player development department as Kirby Dach becomes a giant red flag to more and more people. It all begins at this year’s trade deadline at the end of the month, where any amount of wheeling and dealing could be done by Davidson that could make us see the departures of Kubalik, de Haan, Fleury, Strome—honestly fuck it, who isn’t available at this point besides Kane, Toews and the Cat?

Anyway, we have some games this weekend to preview, and it’ll probably end ugly.

3/2 vs. Edmonton

Game Time – 7:30PM CT

TV/Radio – NBCSCH / WGN 720

It Is Better to Live One Day as a Lion Than 1,000 Days as a Lamb – Copper N Blue

The Edmonton Oilers have briefly taken a stop off of the Hot Mess Express ever since Dave Tippett got canned for letting his team get beaten by…well, the Hawks. Since his firing, the Oilers have gone 7-3 in their last 10, clinging to dear life to the final Wild Card spot they currently hold for the West. Oilers fans shield their eyes and pretend not to notice they were able to harvest wins from crappy teams such as the Islanders, Sharks, Kings and struggling Ducks, whereas nearly all of their matchups against contending teams in this stretch have led to losses. It’s mostly because Oilers GM Ken Holland has quite possibly ruined everything by not signing a competent goaltender. Once again I must assume that this team might try to make something work out to bring Fleury to Alberta, though why Fleury would want to go there is beyond me.

In other news, two of the greatest Hawks defensemen of all time, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Duncan Keith, return to the United Center tonight in what will likely be an emotional affair. Had things worked out differently and if the front office hadn’t completely soiled the legacy of the 2010 team forever, the place would be packed and there would be positive vibes abound. Understandably, some fans may not want to see or hear tribute videos to anyone associated with that era, but I am personally pushing some of that aside for now as there hasn’t been a negative story about Niklas Hjalmarsson since I’ve been following the team. The man was a shot-blocking legend, a minutes-eater, and probably one of the best defensive defensemen of his era. His recognition is well-deserved and he seems like a good guy.

Keith will be honored in a smaller own way tomorrow, though he’ll be on the opposing team with the Oilers. Keith is my favorite Hawk of all time—he literally sacrificed seven teeth in the name of the sport, of winning the Stanley Cup, and whether or not you think that’s something worth sacrificing, you have to respect his dedication to the craft. That dedication has made it so he is still playing in the NHL at 38 years old, and he’s not doing so terrible, no matter what you may hear from Oilers fans. He’s having better numbers in Edmonton both offensively and defensively than he had with the Hawks last year; take a look at Natural Stat Trick.

Of course the great Boomer Gordon’s theory about ceremony games meaning automatic losses to the home team will probably come true, so expect a Blackhawks loss.

3/5 at Philadelphia

Game Time – 2:00 PM CT

TV/Radio – ESPN+, ABC / WGN 720

It’s Like When I’m Doing Good In The Game, I’m Doing Good In Life. – Broad Street Hockey

The Flyers are doing much, much worse than even the Hawks are at this point of the season, at find themselves in the basement of the Metro and continuing a similar aimless march toward the trade deadline. In this city, it is longtime captain and center dot staple Claude Giroux on the chopping block. Giroux, as old as Patrick Kane, is still a team leader in goals, points, even-strength goals, OPS and faceoff percentage. Trading him away would be…well, how much worse could it get? They’re also trying to deal Keith Yandle, who is at a team-worst -32 for the year and his other defensive metrics are just as terrifying, so good luck with that.

Flyers fans are probably excited that Carter Hart has had a bounce-back goaltending year from last season, although that just means he’s been putting up a middling .912 save percentage and a 2.87 GAA. For the Flyers, however, it’s better than the alternative, as Martin Jones has lost his last eight starts to teams like Buffalo, San Jose, LA and the Islanders. He also hasn’t started since February 22, but considering their schedule he might be in the crease against the Hawks just to give Hart some rest between games against more talented teams like Minnesota and Vegas.

3/6 vs. Tampa Bay

Game Time – 6:00 PM CT

TV/Radio – NHLN, NBCSCH / WGN 720

Are You Really Sure You Want To Watch This Slaughtering? – Raw Charge

Tampa Bay is once again really goddamn good, currently atop the Atlantic Division with 76 points, good for 3rd in the league. The Lightning are also currently on a 5-game win streak and considering they only have to play the Penguins and Red Wings before facing the Hawks, it’s very likely that streak will be extended to 7 when they arrive at the United Center on Sunday.

Despite the Lightning not being offensive analytic darlings like their cross-state rivals the Panthers or the even teams like the Avalanche out west, they allow the second-least shots in the league because of their solid defense and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have one of the league’s most reliable goaltenders in Andrei Vasilevskiy between the pipes every night.

The Lightning are also finally healthy, as it seems only Zach Bogosian is on injury report list, and he won’t be missed too much. Steven Stamkos at 32 is also top on the team in goals, points, powerplay goals, the whole nine yards—as usual. Nikita Kucherov is 9th on the team in points so far this season after he spent nearly all of last season on IR, but that’s fine with Lightning fans since he usually pops off in the playoffs when the games matter most. The Hawks are outmatched and outclassed up and down the lineup against this team, and I do not have high hopes for this game by any means.

Hockey

Box Scores: Game 30 Game 31
Event Logs: Game 30 Game 31
Natural Stat Trick: Game 30 Game 31

 

It wasn’t so long ago where the Hawks were on the flip side of the story with what transpired in Tampa over the weekend; where they’d be able to keep a team at arm’s length and hold them by their own forehead as they impotently flailed and swung away, never landing a single punch. The Bolts did exactly that to the Hawks over the weekend, leaning on them when it was necessary and never having to exert even the slightest bit more effort than was necessary, and walking away with two regulation wins in the process. March was always going to be a reality check for the West Side Hockey Club, and with their season series against Tampa nearly complete with a 1-5-1 record (compared to Tampa’s 6-0-1, leaving only a single shootout point on the table), the results are now lining up with the process.

Hockey

 VS

 

Records: Hawks 14-11-5 (33) Lightning 20-6-2 (42)

Puck Drops: Thursday 6:00 / Saturday 3:00

TV/Radio: NBCSN and WGN 720

Tom Brady’s Minions: Raw Charge

 

Hoo boy, here we go again.

The last time these teams met up over a week ago, things went fairly positively for the Hawks with them going 1-1-1 in the 3 game series. The last game on the 7th, however, saw the Hawks cough up a 3 goal lead en route to losing 6-3. Since the middle of February, coughing up leads has become a shitty new trend for them as they once again jumped out to a 3-1 lead against the Panthers last game and proceeded to implode defensively again en route to yet another 6-3 loss. As Summer pointed out in her recap, the Hawks since the beginning of February have been unable to hold multi-goal leads in 7 of 9 games where they’ve had them. That, as the kids like to say, is “not good.”

The clown show that March has been is unlikely to get any better over the next week, as not a whole lot has changed with the Lightning since the Hawks last faced them. They dropped a game each against the dregs of the division in the Red Wings and Predators. The common thread in both those losses is that Andrei Vasilevskiy was not in the cage for either of them. In fact, Vasilevskiy hasn’t lost a game in almost a month, as his last L came on February 20th against the Canes. His backup, however, has not fared nearly as well. Curtis McElhinney has managed to go 2-3 in the same time frame, averaging more than 1.5 more goals against than Vasilevskiy does, with a considerably worse save percentage.

Despite the difference in netminder quality, Tampa head coach and professional hedonist John Cooper continues to split playing time between the two at about a 60-40% rate. Mostly because Cooper is smart enough to know that the talent level on his squad is more than enough to make up for any deficiencies in net, and it’s far more important to keep Vasilevskiy rested and healthy as they inevitably roll towards the playoffs.

Offensively, the Lightning don’t have many weak spots up and down their lineup, either from the forwards or their defensive corps. As McClure mentioned in his preview recently, the Bolts are tops in the league in goal differential which when paired with a nails penalty kill and a top 3rd power play usually results in some easy wins. Some of those stats have dipped a bit in recent weeks, but there’s no reason to think that it’s anything more than a blip on the radar as they haven’t lost anyone to injury, and Vasilevskiy is still the bees knees.

As for our Men of the Four Feathers, March has gone pretty much the way we assumed it would points-wise. I just didn’t think it would come with such spectacular meltdowns. A huge issue with the Hawks being unable to hold leads has been the fact that the special teams well has completely dried up. If you take away the 2 power play goals scored in the win at Dallas, the Hawks have gone 0 for 13 on the man advantage and managed to give up two shorthanded goals. On the other side of that coin is the penalty kill has been completely exposed in March. Much of that is the fact that they’re playing teams that have competent power plays, but the stupid penalties like the one Duncan Keith took in the last game against Florida are particularly back breaking.

Another major concern for the Hawks is Kevin Lankinen has come crashing back to earth in net. Over his last 5 starts he’s given up an average of almost 4 goals per game (19 total), and his save percentage over those games is below .900. Rebound control has become an issue, especially since the Hawks D is unwilling or unable to clear bodies away in front of him. Malcom Subban hasn’t fared any better, and with these next stretch of games becoming uber critical points-wise I wouldn’t expect to see him until the Preds series.

Offensively, the Hawks continue to get waxed night in and night out with possession metrics. They haven’t won the CORSI battle since their overtime win against the Lightning, and continue to average around a 42% share each game. When Lankinen and the power play were humming along in February and early March, the Hawks were able to paper over their inability to score at even strength. Now, however, with all of their flaws laid bare it’s becoming apparent that they’re just a tier below the Canes, Bolts and Panthers.

The majority of the Hawks even strength scoring has come on odd man rushes and not as the result of extensive offensive zone time. More often than not, their forays into the opposing team’s zone ends up being a one and done affair. Until the Hawks are able to set up shop in the opponent’s end for extended periods of time, they’re not going to be able to rack up any offense unless they start shooting at a 50% clip.

While this all seems very grim for the Hawks (and it pretty much is), they’ve shown that they can hang with teams like Tampa before. The 1st period in their last game against them where they jumped out to a 3-1 lead is proof that when things are clicking for the power play, the Hawks can play with anyone. We’ve seen flashes of what some of these kids can do, now it just needs to become more consistent. You have to figure Cooper will probably give McElhinney a start, so the Hawks pretty much have to at least get to OT in that one. Points have been hard to come by this month, and with the Preds being the only shitty team they’ll face the rest of March they absolutely have to secure every one possible. Get it done.

 

Let’s Go Hawks

Hockey

Game 1 Box Score / Game 2  / Game 3 

Game 1 Natural Stat Trick / Game 2 / Game 3

 

In a series that featured a little bit of everything, the Hawks showed in a nutshell what is going to be positive about their future and simultaneously what needs to be fixed before they can take that big next step into true contention. Game 1 and 3 saw the Hawks bust out solid leads with good play in the offensive zone and what continues to be a Death Star of a powerplay, but the D ended up letting them down and the Bolts came back to win both games. Game 2 saw the Hawks weather Tampa’s furious attack through 3 straight periods, only to counter punch and bury their chances whenever the Bolts slipped up.

We also saw what happens when a younger, more inexperienced team loses focus and begins to take sloppy penalties against a defending Stanley Cup champion. Much like the end of AEW Revolution last night, you saw how much positive feeling and goodwill about a product can disappear like a fart in the wind (or a botched explosion) when things just don’t go according to the plan. Ultimately, however, there was more to like than dislike about this series against a team that (on paper) should’ve kicked the Hawks collective asses to the curb.

TO THE BULLETS!

 

NUMBERS DON’T LIE

 

-First, let us begin with the positives. The Hawks power play continues to be a doomsday device when they can set up shop in the opponent’s zone. Alex DeBrincat is rapidly ascending to Ovechkin and Stamkos levels of deadly in the circles with his shot. The season has gone on long enough for other teams to have this scouted by now, and it hasn’t mattered one bit. Even strength has been no different for Top Cat, as he’s now second on the team only to Kane in points.

-Speaking of, Patrick Kane is having a Hart Trophy kinda year, and if he can keep up this pace and the Hawks make the playoffs I think you’d have a hard time not giving it to him. It’s obviously the old “best player on the best team vs. the player most responsible for his team’s success” argument (which will never end), but Kane seems to have taken the mantle of “veteran offensive leader” pretty seriously in the wake of Toews not being around and should be number 1 on everyone’s ballot.

-Malcom Subban, despite giving up 3 goals (none of which he had much of a prayer on) rebounded nicely from the egg he laid against Detroit. Not only did he make some fabulous saves against the Bolts in OT during the furious up and down 90 seconds where everyone pretty much pretended defense was optional, but he shut the door on Stamkos in the Home Run Derby to secure the shootout win. Good for Malcom, as I’ve been a fan of his for awhile. He’s never going to be a starter, but he’s a more than serviceable backup if his minutes are monitored.

-Speaking of goaltending, Kevin Lankinen didn’t get much help from his defense in game 3, and if he wasn’t able to put forth the performance he did the Bolts could’ve easily put up double digits on the Hawks. His performance in game 1 was excellent as well, and if this is who he really is the Hawks Euro Scouting Department deserves some kudos from Stan and Danny (henceforth known collectively as Stanny).

-I fully expected the Hawks to get slaughtered in the possession metrics this series, the Lightning being what they are. However I was happily surprised that they actually won the CORSI battle in game 1, 58.7% to 41.3%. Game 2 was a different story, which should not be a surprise considering the furious attack of the Bolts in the first two periods (Tampa won the CORSI battle in period 2 78.3-21.7%. YIKES), but the Hawks were well on their way to winning the possession battle in game 3 when the conga line to the box began in the 2nd. There’s been some improvement here, and Brandon Hagel has something to do with that, as his constant pressure on the forecheck forces teams to try errant passes that more often than not are picked off in the neutral zone. If only the Hawks had some more speed to compliment him, they could be on their way to tilting the table.

-Mattias Janmark has been a solid signing by Stan Bowman this season, and him chipping in on Sunday with a (very nice) goal and an assist was an added bonus. In reality, he’s probably a 3rd line center on a team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations, and he should be treated as such when the trade deadline appears. The Hawks can find better uses for that money in the off-season, and any picks they can get for him will be of use either as currency in the future or as a chance to fill some holes on the back end.

-Now, the negatives. Connor Murphy almost certainly will find himself in the pressbox for a game after taking a run at Erik Cernak with about 10 to go in the 2nd period. (UPDATE: Murphy will actually not face any disciplinary action at all. Color me shocked) He was assessed the Hawks first 5 minute match penalty since Duncan Keith went full Brock Lesnar and pile drove Dillon Dube into the boards against the Flames in 2018. Murphy doesn’t have a history of Tom Wilson-esque behavior, so he’s got no priors. The shot caught Cernak up high and he ended up leaving the game, so expect discipline from above. The Hawks managed to kill off the penalty, thanks to a lazy tripping call on Victor Hedman (who had been playing full tilt the entire series for some reason) but were completely unable to capitalize on that momentum because…

-They took a million fucking stick penalties in game 3, and the Lightning absolutely made them pay. The Bolts went 4 for 5 on the man advantage, completely obliterating the 3 goal lead the Hawks had built up for themselves with what might have been their best period all year in the 1st. This is what you’re gonna get with a young team that also contains Nikita Zadorov, but Duncan Keith and Soderberg should know better.

-Ian Mitchell might need to take a sick day after getting absolutely roasted by pretty much everyone in a white sweater on Sunday. He only ended up with 10 minutes of ice time in a game that featured the Hawks losing a D-man halfway through to a major penalty. His CORSI for on the day was a cool 22.22%, and his only contribution other than being out of position all day was being on ice for both Tampa even strength goals and taking a boneheaded hooking penalty against Stamkos that lead directly to Victor Hedman’s game tying PP goal. Mitchell has a ton of talent and he’s got a bright future, but the last few games he’s been under water and probably needs a breather before he gets in too deep.

-Nikita Zadorov: still bad, still getting 20 fucking minutes a night.

-Next up the Hawks travel down to the COVID Wild West in Dallas for 2 very important games against the Stars. Considering the Preds are dying a death, Columbus couldn’t give any less shits, and Detroit is still a Ferris Wheel filled with rotting corpses the Stars are pretty much the only team that could conceivably steal the #4 seed from the Hawks. Bare minimum this needs to be a split, so let’s see how the team responds to the skulling the Bolts gave them yesterday.

Let’s Go Hawks

 

Hockey

vs

Game Times: 7:00 (3/4, 3/5), 1:30 (3/7)
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago (3/4, 3/5), NBC (3/7), TVA-S (3/7), SportsNet (3/7), WGN-AM 720
Bottomless Seas: Raw Charge

After spending the majority of February floating above the detritus of the makeshift Central Division by virtue of MVP and Calder/Vezina caliber performances, the Hawks now begin March on the West Side finally facing again a Tampa Bay Lightning team that has not slowed down since dongwhipping the Hawks in the opening series, or even their playoff run in the bubble last year. “In Like A Lion”, indeed.

Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Hawks 27-28-8   Lightning 40-18-5

PUCK DROP: 6pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago

POINT AT THE SIGN: Raw Charge

I keep thinking it can’t get worse for the Hawks, or really us, and yet somehow it does. It’s certainly bad enough to go have to play the team you used to laugh at that’s now a league standard right after the trade deadline where your management made it clear they’re not much beyond cats pawing at a laser pointer. But then to have to follow that up with the team who’s been the clearest illustration of what you’ve become from what you were…well, how much more can you take? Oh right, after this they’ll have to face their former coach with the highest scoring team in the league.

We chose this.

The last three times the Hawks have faced the Lightning it’s been something of a definitive statement on their status. And if I cant throw in a Tin Cup quote (god I’m truly lost), “And the definition was shit.” Remember it was five years ago they were contesting the Final. Last year, the Lightning simply embarrassed the Hawks twice, including that 30-shot period at the UC. This year, while the score was closer, you never got the impression that the Bolts were even sweating as they calmly skated away in the 3rd period. That’s where they went after ’15, and this is where the Hawks are. And that’s back early in the season when the Lightning were fighting it.

They’re not fighting it anymore. Put it this way, since that late November dance around the maypole at the United Center, Tampa has gone 30-11-3. 63 points of the 88 on offer, which is a 117-point pace over a full season. It’s landed them second in the NHL overall, with the misfortune of the best team in the NHL being in their own division. But wouldn’t you know it, the Bs and Bolts play twice next week in something of a division decider (the Lightning probably have to take both in regulation though).

How did the Lightning turn around after an iffy opening two months? Same thing they always do. Get scoring from everywhere (six guys with 15+ goals and Johnson with 13) while NIkita Kucherov leads the way. Get great goaltending (Vasilevskiy ran a .948 in January and has been .920 since Dec. 1st). And dominate possession (fourth in both Corsi and xG% over the whole season, and second in both since Dec. 1st).

While the Lightning have a tremendous amount of firepower, it’s their defensive game that’s really the backbone of this as they’re third in both the amount of attempts they give up and their expected goals against. Their speed up and down the lineup allows them to choke space whenever they don’t have the puck, which isn’t all that much.

Of course, nothing really matters about the Lightning until April, when they’ll have a couple gremlins to work out of their heads. Last year’s first round disaster probably isn’t much more than an anomaly considering this is a team that has made three trips to the conference final at least in the past five years. It’s Vasilevskiy who will have to answer the biggest questions, as he spit up big time against Columbus and wasn’t terribly good against the Capitals the year before in the East Final. But again, this roster and this system they seem poised to do big things in the spring. You get the feeling if they can negotiate the first round boogeyman, which could end up tricky given the arsenal of Toronto or Florida or even Carolina, there might not be any stopping them.

As for the Hawks, you wonder if this isn’t about damage control. They saw their front office (rightly) declare their season over on Monday, and then while showing more gumption than you might have thought, got kicked in the nuts by the worst possible people anyway. You wouldn’t blame them if they just didn’t have it in them to chase the Bolts all over the ice tonight. Still, there’s professional pride at stake and bigger roles in the future to claim. Corey Crawford gets the start.

It’s hard to believe a team led by this group will just quit on the season, but they’re up against it tonight for sure. This is our lot in life now.

Hockey

Once again, this tine of year has turned into a philosophical study of how the Hawks got here, where they’re going, and whether or not any of it is correct or possible. It’s not what you’d ideally be discussing at this time of year, but when your front office’s only ploy to fix things is turning the team off and then on again, this is where you end up.

The Hawks claim that they’ve been forced into this position for a third straight year not because they made any mistakes, because no one makes mistakes over there don’t you know, but because this is just the price you pay for the success they had. We’re sure the Penguins or Bruins would like a word, but we have the Lightning to deal with at the moment. And keep in mind, the Lightning have done with with two different GMs but a constant vision and direction. How nice that must be.

The Bolts don’t have the long track record that the Hawks do in the past, but they were at the same point in 2015 and separated by barely the width of a sheet of paper. Now a direct comparison isn’t totally fair, as the core of that Lightning team was younger than that of the Hawks. Still, with how Toews and Kane have played the past couple years, and Keith this one, they aren’t seprated by light years either.

The Lightning have the top of the draft picks just like the Hawks do, in Hedman and Stamkos. They also had Jonathan Drouin, #3 overall. But from there, the Lightning have just done so much more with later round picks than the Hawks, or indeed most teams. Brayden Point was found in the third round. So was Anthony Cirelli. Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde weren’t even drafted. And that was eight and six years ago now, but the Hawks added literally no one who’s contributing to this team now between 2008 and 2016. You can’t have that gap. You have to have a middle generation to go with your standards and your young kids. The Hawks missed that, which is why they’re paying the price. There’s nothing between the Keith and Toews generation and the DeBrincat one, aside from maybe Brandon Saad and that came at the cost of Artemi Panarin.

And since the Lightning took Drouin 3rd overall, they’ve never picked above 19th. In that time they’ve added Point, Cirelli, and Mathieu Joseph. They also added Brett Howden, who they spun into Ryan McDonagh (your value of that may vary) and J.T. Miller, which was then spun into another first round pick that got them Blake Coleman this past deadline. No matter where it turns, it’s something they can use.

The Lightning have been better at trades as well. They weren’t going to re-sign Ben Bishop, so they got Erik Cernak out of it. Compare that with the Gustafsson or Lehner return. When Drouin wasn’t working, they turned that into Sergachev. They realized that Kevin Shattenkirk would work in a limited role. We can go on here.

Compare that with the Hawks who only have Dominik Kubalik in the past three years as a definite win as a trade, and maybe Dylan Strome but it’s hard to say that for sure right now. Their free agents or guys they took a flier on…well, we don’t need to go on about that because you’re probably going to want to eat in the next few days. There are guys out there that could have filled a role that the Lightning identify and the Hawks pass on. That’s how you end up with Nick Seeler.

The Hawks have used the excuse of their late draft positions or cap problems to try and hide their failings. But the Lightning, or the Bruins, or the Penguins, have faced all these obstacles the last five seasons and keep ending up at the top of the standings. It’s not about the obstacles. It’s about how you get around them. And if you’re blaming the obstacles, that tells you everything you need to know about your skills.

It’s quite simply, not good enough.

Hockey

A Bogosian-Coburn Pairing – We laud the Lightning for their ability to produce players and their forward-thinking ways in how to deploy them, but man do they love a lumbering, dumbass d-man. Especially if they’re old. Why a team this fast up front and with speed in the back as well would want to roadblock themselves by installing a couple of walking potholes on their second pairing is beyond us, and you could see where it might be a major problem against any of Boston, Toronto, Carolina, Washington or Pittsburgh down the road.

Cedric Pacquette – Still snorting the headlines from after Game 3 in 2015 about how he’s the ultimate pest and shutdown guy, even if he spent the next three games getting his ass kicked from pillar to post.

Pat Maroon – This guy very well could end up with two Cups in a row and forever wear a label of THE glue guy, and we’re fairly sure he couldn’t avoid a dying sloth.

Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Lightning 9-7-2   Hawks 9-8-4

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: NBCSN Chicago

THE GUYS WHO DON’T LOOK LIKE XQUISITE: Raw Charge

It may sound strange to say the Hawks have more points than the Lightning, but that’s the case as the two ’15 Finalists get together again on West Madison. But of course, as we know here, that doesn’t mean the Hawks are better off than the Bolts. The Hawks collected their 22 points in the Cirque de Stupid that is the Central Division and Western Conference as a whole, whereas the Lightning are trying to fight through the gauntlet of the Atlantic. And one of these teams did put up 128 points last year, while the other missed the lowest bar for the playoffs in years by a good distance. And not that much has changed.

That’s not to say everything is rosy in Tampa. They’re sitting just three points above the Eastern cellar, though only two points out of the last playoff spot. While watching the Lightning, or trying to measure them by various metrics, it’s kind of clear that there’s still a malaise from last spring hanging over and in this team. Nothing they do in the regular season is going to matter to anyone, but sadly with the division they’re in they can’t play the whole regular season like it doesn’t matter. Which is kind of what they’ve been doing. Other than their power play, which has reached that “self aware” level, everything else is just meh. Right in the middle of the league.

The Lightning still score, as their overall goals-per-game and even-strength goals per game are in the top five. With the king of marksmen like Kucherov and Stamkos and Point and others, they don’t need to dominate possession to get the scoring they need. Which is good, because they aren’t. Their possession and expected goals numbers re firmly middle of the pack. Again, they can get away with that given the talent for long stretches, but it’s not ideal long-term.

Especially as they may not get the PDO balance at the other end right now. When picking through the rubble of last season’s meltdown in the first round, it was hard not to start with Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s .856 SV%. Anyone can have a bad four games of course, but any big save from Vas in at least Games 1 or 2 could have pivoted that series. The Bolts never got one. That hangover seems to have carried over to this season, where he’s carrying a .906. The Hawks will get the backup tonight, as Curtis McElhinney will take the start.

And that’s probably the biggest factor for the Bolts to get back on track, because they don’t give up a ton of great chances. They’re not among the league’s best, but comfortably in the top half. If Vas can get back to .915 or better, everything should be fine in Tampa.

It also might not hurt the Lightning that they’ve only played seven home games so far, and after this one tonight 14 of their next 17 will be in Tampa. You wouldn’t be shocked by a charge up the standings before New Year’s.

To the Hawks, who could or could not be with Andrew Shaw tonight. He didn’t practice yesterday so they’re going to see how he shows up tonight. If he doesn’t go, the Hawks will dress all seven d-men as they don’t have an extra forward at the moment with Drake Caggiula in a dark room somewhere (my whole life is a dark room…). Every time in the past the Hawks have tried the 7-D look it has gone horribly, and everyone bitches to high heaven about it after. I still think it should be something they try more often and with Boqvist involved, if only to shelter him and Seabrook better. It also provides extra shifts here and there for Kane, Toews, Saad, Dach, DeBrincat, which is a good thing. But what do I know? I’m just a drunk in the rain. Corey Crawford will be your starter.

The Hawks got embarrassed twice by the Lightning last year, though no scoreline truly reflects it. This was the opponent that put up 30 shots in a period on them at the United Center last time around. Quite simply, the Hawks aren’t built to deal with this kind of skill and speed. And really, neither of those things have changed.

The difference, albeit small, between what the Hawks saw on Tuesday and what they’ll get tonight is the Lightning defense isn’t as consistently mobile as Carolina’s. Sure, Hedman and Kirk ShattenKevin are, and Sergachev and Cernak are too. But Sergachev can get wayward when under pressure, and whether it’s Schenn or Rutta joining him that can be exploited. So can Ryan McDonagh on the second pairing. Whereas the Hawks couldn’t get behind Carolina’s last line, they can on this one.

Which means some other d-men besides Connor Murphy have to get the puck out of the zone as quickly as possible to get the defense to back up, which in turn will give everyone more room to breathe. As we saw last year, when the Hawks try their 17-pass breakout, the Lightning’s plus-plus speed at forward and on the forecheck swallows them whole and spits them back out inside out. There just isn’t time for that, at least not until you back them up by proving you can and will stretch the ice.

It’s a rough part of the schedule, as the Hawks again get one of the better teams in the league, whatever the standings say, before two with the hottest team in the league and then two with maybe the best team in the division. But if you want to go somewhere, you can’t always take the path of least resistance.