Game Time: 7:00PM Central
TV/Radio: NBCSN, WGN-AM 720
Sam Rosen’s Podiatrist: Blueshirt Banter
They told everyone the entire back half of the summer that they were only about the business of hockey. That getting back on the ice was the most important thing, and once they were able to do that, not much else mattered. And as criminal justice proceedings have dragged on and been obfuscated, that’s exactly where the defending champion Blackhawks stand tonight, with their star forward who has still yet to be cleared of a sexual assault investigation in uniform with at very least the implicit support of the entire organization.
So during the the effusive and interminable ceremony wherein Rocky Wirtz, John McDonough, and whatever host take self congratulatory tone-deafedness to astonishing new heights, remember that every ass in a seat, every applauding set of hands, is exactly what they banked on happening during this catastrophic off-season. Winning at sports is always a better brand strategy than being under investigation for sexual assault. And their cynical bet will be proved 110% correct when Patrick Kane receives thunderous applause all night long.
Regarding matters on the ice, the visiting Rangers remain in the same place they have seemingly been for the past half a decade, which is being right on the cusp of a championship yet somehow never seriously threatening one. Obviously the biggest reason for this is goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who after missing the first significant time of his career last year (which ended up making Cam Talbot quite a bit of money), still backstopped a somewhat middling Rangers team to yet another game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final with a .928 save percentage. Lunqvist is reliably spectacular, both technically sound and acrobatic at once, making himself appear much larger than his 6’1″, 188 lb frame would indicate while still possessing commensurate quickness. He is this generation’s most consistently excellent netminder, capable of stealing any shot or any game, and at 33 likely still has a two or three high end years remaining, health permitting, in a hall of fame career. And he’s comically good looking, so there’s that as well.
In front of him there is plenty of speed and skill, but still simply not enough top end talent to create matchup problems for anyone in the East come spring time. At least as long as they’re relying on suspected wiener-tucker Rick Nash as a primary scoring option in the playoffs. Nash scored 42 goals last year, the highest total in his career, but only 5 in 19 playoff games, when teams can focus on matchups more tightly. While Nash has always disappeared during the playoffs, whether he’s centered by Derek Stepan or Derrick Brassard certainly doesn’t help. Both very good players, but neither is a true #1 center, which is kind of a necessity for teams with championship aspirations. Chris Kreider has developed into a truly unique brand of power forward, who utilizes his blinding speed to barrel into any and every crease and netminder he can get a clear path to. This is in sharp contrast to the newly acquired Viktor Stalberg, who uses his speed to….well….even at nearly 30 years old it’s still not exactly clear what his speed is used for. The Rangers also bolstered their center depth with Jarret Stoll this offseason, much to the delight of Manhattan club owners and narcotics officers alike. Just for the record now, the Rangers have Stoll, Staal, and Stalberg all on their roster, which will surely give Sam Rosen an embolism by the All Star break.
The Rangers’ blue line remains anchored by captain Ryan McDonagh, who plays in all situations for them. His regular partner Dan Girardi has long been a drag on his possession numbers, and Girardi has visibly lost a step. When these two are on the ice, it is Girardi’s side that is attacked by opposing forwards. Marc Staal continues to remain solid on the second pairing when he’s healthy, and Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle are relied upon to provide transition and offense, because neither has ever been confused with someone who gives a shit about his own zone.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, while the roster turnover was even more than most reasonably expected at the conculsion of last season, the forward grouping is arguably the deepest it’s ever been under Joel Quenneville despite the losses of Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Brad Richards, and rental Antoine Vermette. Former Ranger (and Blue Jacket) Artem Anisimov was a long time target of Hawks management that they were finally able to pry free from Columbus and basically re-signed instantaneously. Joining him Russian imports Artemi Panarin and Viktor Tikhonov who have produced regularly at the international level. Marko Dano is starting in the minors now, but has first round pedigree.
While tonight’s lineup might be a little odd with Teuvo on the left side of the top line and Andrew Shaw still anchoring a center spot between Bryan Bickell and obligatory training camp overachiever Kyle Baun, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, as has been hammered hundreds of times here, this is not what the lineup will look like when the games matter. This team has won cups with Dan Carcillo on the top line and something called Radek Smolenak in the lineup on opening nights. Secondly, and most importantly, is that examination of this roster shows absolutely no turds in danger of taking anyone’s minutes, allowing a lot of these younger more skilled forwards to develop. Even Baun who’s ceiling is low, at least can move his feet and is interested in playing hockey rather than finding someone to skull.
On the blue line things aren’t as deep and are a little more precarious, but the same principle applies, particularly with Michal Rozsival still trying to turn his foot the correct way to start the season. As long as Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson’s minutes are kept down, giving Rundblad, TVR, Pokka, Svedberg, and Trevor Daley an opportunity to play through any bumps in the road is fine. Daley in particular will be something to keep an eye on, specifically if his defensive zone wanderings can be coached out of him at age 33 by Joel Quenneville.
Corey Crawford once again gets the nod as this team’s #1 goalie, and there will likely be calls for him to be traded before the pregame pomp and circumstance is even over.
Last year more than ever for this team that the 82 game regular season is merely a platform for this team to find out what it needs for the real games to begin in April. This year will be no different, and watching them will continue to require even more of that level perspective.
And it’s that same level of self awareness that both those watching in person and at home tonight should really use to take inventory of what it is that the raucous crowd is really saying after everything that has happened over the summer. That even the most heinous accusations and an institutionalized acceptance of them along with a poor public response by the team is all erased by winning. And if the Hawks don’t want a more critical eye turned to them on these fronts, they’d be best served by continuing to win.