Game Time: 7:30PM Central
TV/Radio: CSN, WGN-AM 720
The Adventures of Young Billy Joel: Lighthouse Hockey
Ahh St. Patrick’s Day. That wonderful holiday where everyone’s a little bit Irish except for the Jig Asshole and the Dropkick Murphys (both of whom are guaranteed to make an appearance tonight at the UC), and white people are allowed to drunkenly piss and vomit and fight with impunity all over major metropolitan across the country. So bust out the Chinese knockoff green Hawks jersey and order an Irish Car Bomb the way a native born Irishman would, and get on down to West Madison for the Hawks and the (not emerald) Isle.
The Islanders make their lone visit to Chicago tonight in their first protracted funk of the season. After GM Garth Snow made several solid moves in the offseason (signing Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, trading for Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk) and leading the Metropolitan division for much of the year, injuries have befallen Cap’n Jack’s crew, and they have now lost 3 straight games in regulation, only scoring one goal in each. That’s certainly not the fault of captain and league-leading scorer John Tavares, though that he’s been held scoreless in that stretch is mere coincidence. Tavares has 33 goals and 39 assists, and is 28 points ahead of the Islanders’ next leading scorer in linemate Kyle Okposo. Okoposo is just returning from an eye injury that caused him to miss 22 games, so that likely skews those team numbers slightly, but the fact remains that the Isle’s success begins and ends with Tavares.
That doesn’t mean they’re helpless below him, however. Anders Lee is having a breakout year with 23 goals, and plays a power game similar to Okposo’s. Ryan Strome has 43 points in his first full year in the league at age 21, and is showing every bit of his first round pedigree on a team that has playoff aspirations. They’re doing it the right way, too, with a 53.0 share of attempts at evens, and they are the only team to attempt more shots than the Hawks per 60 minutes of 5 on 5 hockey (61.4 to 60.7). And on top of it, they’re shooting a not-entirely askew 8.1% at evens, which is something the Hawks would kill for. All of these factors combine for the league’s third overall offense at 3.0 goals per game, even in incorporating the recent skid. Make no mistake, this team will gladly get into a track meet with anyone.
But things have ground to a halt recently with both Nick Leddy (sky point) and Lubomir Visnovski being out with injuries, which has stifled any and all drive the Islanders were getting from the back end. Not that Travis Hamonic, Johnny Boychuk, and Calvin deHaan aren’t all solid defensemen, but they don’t do nearly as much with their feet as Leddy and Lubo do.
Another of Garth’s acquisitions this past summer, Jaroslav Halak, has been slightly underwhelming on the island. His .912 overall this year is a bit of a step down from his .917 on three teams last year, and has remained relatively healthy (something new for him) up until this point. He’ll sit tonight with a lower body injury in favor of the recently acquired Michael Neuvirth, who has also yet to impress with an .889 in three appearances since being traded after sporting a .917 himself for Buffalo. The thought process was that all the Islanders were going to need was average goaltending to make the playoffs over what the corpse of Evgeni Nabokov gave them last year, and that’s basically what they’ve gotten. But now that the scoring has dried up a bit, the goaltending hasn’t been able to bail them out. Of course, having now said that, expect a 45 save shutout from Neuvirth tonight while the offense puts up an eight-burger.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, Joel Quenneville apparently got part of his coaching techniques from the Rahway Correctional Facility and watching after school specials in the 70s, because it appears Kris Versteeg has been scared straight. At practice yesterday, Versteeg found himself skating outside of any of the regular four lines (likely with sad musical accompaniment), with Patrick Sharp usurping his top line left wing post, and Dan Carcillo hilariously used as a pawn for punishing someone else on Brad Richards’ wing. This led to a pouty and profane Versteeg in the press afterwards, but it seems like he got the message quickly, and he’ll be in the lineup tonight on Richards’ right on his proper wing across from Bryan Bickell. Because everyone and their brother knows that Bryan Bickell can’t play his off wing.
The configuration on the blue line remains the same as Trevor Van Riemsdyk is at least now playing in games for Rockford, as he did over the weekend. But with him still possibly a little bit away, and even then a gamble as games ramp up, the Michal Rozsival experience will continue. And given the Islanders’ speed, the angina is not going to get a break tonight. Good thing most watching will have some manner of libation handy.
Corey Crawford gets the start tonight, on the front half of the few remaining back to backs the Hawks have left. Conventional wisdom usually states that when a coach has an option, he’ll opt for the backup at home, so it will be interesting to see if Crawford gets the cage at MSG tomorrow night against the Rangers and no game until Saturday after.
For both teams tonight the two points at stake are necessary to stay relevant regarding their respective divisions. For the Hawks in particular, a win tonight keeps the games in hand they have on both the Preds and Blues meaningful, especially with them each playing games against actual teams in Minnesota and Calgary respectively. The Islanders only have one way to play and that’s to go, go go. Cap’n Jack doesn’t have the trap in his toolbox of concepts, nor the personnel to execute it on the road. And with last change, Joel Quenneville will likely go with power against power in a battle of JTs, with Hjalmarsson and Oduya as rearguards whenever possible. Should be a fun one. Let’s go Hawks.
If you’re heading down to the UC tonight, be sure to pick up a copy of our gameday program outside. Our vendors are outside Gates 2 and 3, on Wood and on Damen. You can still pay whatever you want down there. If you’re not going to the game, you can get the digital version right here.