It’s unclear whether or not it’s ironic or appropriate or appropriately ironic that two teams from Washington and Chicago actually begin working on a day that began with a full government shutdown, the literature majors in the audience can determine that. What is clear, however, is that the Blackhawks will tonight raise a banner for the second time in the salary cap era, something no other team has done. And unlike the last time this happened, they’re in an actionable position to do so again.
For the visiting Capitals, they enter this season with a relatively short leash as a collective. General Manager George McPhee, who has somehow gotten the reputation as a silky smooth and calm operator despite the fact he once punched then-Hawks coach Lorne Molleken in the face after a pre-season game, is on the shortest leash of all. He’s had more than his fair share of opportunities to make and remake his roster around Alex Ovechkin, including coaches, and has yet to have even a conference finals appearance to show for it, when even the Sharks were able to manage that twice in a row. One would have to imagine that owner and former AOL magnate Ted Leonsis’ patience is growing thinner with the broody McPhee.
As for the team McPhee put on the ice, the biggest change is at the #2 center position, where they allowed rat-faced dillhole Mike Ribeiro to be overpaid by the Coyotes while bringing in Toronto’s prodigal son Mikhail Grabovski after waiting out his contract demands. Grabo should find Adam Oates to be far more accomodating to his game than redassed moron Randy Carlyle, and he sure as hell will have better linemates than Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, pretty much regardless of who Oates flanks him with. But the Caps’ attack begins and ends with Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom as it has for the last half a decade, and Ovechkin will need to continue his Hart-winning caliber of play if they hope to vie for the top spots in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan division. The days of the Capitals, and Ovechkin in particular, feasting upon the drecks of the Nascar division are over.
On the back end for the Caps, Mike Green appears to finally be fully healthy once again, which should power an up-tempo Caps offense, even if he couldn’t even describe the defensive zone to save his moped from being impounded. John Carlson provides a far more sound two-way game, and is now hovering around the 200 game mark it usually takes defensive prospects to fully blossom. Carlson has the size and the tools to be a truer #1 defenseman that Green, providing he puts it all together. Providing the thump on the blue line are cro-magnon John Erskine, and favorite of this blog Karl Alzner (and his dogs).
In the cage Braden Holtby will get his first crack at being a true #1 for a full season, and his numbers back up him earning the opportunity. While his goals-against are middle of the pack caliber at 2.34 for his career (57 games total), his .920 save percentage suggests an ability to possibly even steal wins for the Capitals, providing they can at least somewhat limit the opportunities against. Holtby is on the taller side at 6’2″, but he’s more of an upright goaltender than a butterfly, suggesting there’s more room 5-hole than at first blush.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, the quest begins anew once again. This time however, the attrition was kept to a minimum, with the defensive corps remaining fully in tact, and only the out-of-line-for-a-fourth-line salary of Michael Frolik and the dead weight of Dave Bolland were actively shipped away, with Viktor Stalberg and Ray M. Murray finding homes elsewhere in free-agency in search of larger roles.
Those gaps appear to be filled by some of the many many Piggies in waiting, which at least for tonight appears to be in the form Jimmy Hayes and Ben Smith, who earned their spots with noticeable improvements in play during the pre-season. The opening night surprise, however, is young Joakim Nordstrom, who caught the coaching staff’s eye with his two way play, despite limited time playing the North American game last season. And naturally, even though Ben Smith can play, he’ll be sitting tonight in favor of Brandon Bollig, who cannot.
Observers will notice that the top 6 is comprised exactly the same as it did the last time the Hawks took the ice for real in Boston. Ordinarily that’d be a positive on a defending Cup champion. However, there are serious questions about just how much Michal Handzus has left in the tank after the Hawks got more than they could have ever bargained for out of him last spring. The smart money says this can’t last and Brandon Pirri will be here soon enough, but damned if Joel Quenneville doesn’t love his big, Slovakian blankie.
For the defensive corps, the Hawks will once again boast one of the deepest units in the league, opting to carry Michael Kostka as a #8 behind Sheldon Brookbank to give the coaches more offensive capability when Michal Rozsival inevitably needs a rest. Much like Handzus, Rozy was a sneaky-fantastic signing by Stan Bowman, whose smart hands gave the Hawks the ability to break out cleanly with even the third pairing on the ice, thus allowing Keith and Seabrook to rest. That trust in the full lineup, particularly in an Olympic year with Keith sure to make the Canadian team and Seabrook with more than a shot, will be paramount if the Hawks have eyes on another run beyond May.
Behind all of this will be Corey Crawford, he of public profanity, sweet, sweet vindication, and expensive new paper. Crow and his glove hand blindly swatted away all of those who questioned his ability to just not screw up too much while the team in front of him took care of business, and even went so far as to go above and beyond that by booking one of the best post-season stat lines ever by any Hawks goaltender. But after receiving a very un-Bowman-like 6 year extension at $6 mildo per starting next year, the knives will be out from Meatball Nation the first time he gives up two unanswered, god forbid high glove, even tonight. They’ll call for the vodka-infused Nikolai Khabibulin, who put up an excellent .923 save percentage behind the non-existent Oilers defense, and Khabby will no doubt do nothing to dispel those notions in the press, as his his wont even at 40.
In no uncertain terms is this team built to once again achieve what it has two of the previous four season. But patience and long-term perspective from a coaching staff known for scrambling to win the next shift will be paramount. Injuries to key contributors, particularly old Czechs and Slovaks can derail things in a hurry, as can fatigue to the blue line. And this is to say nothing at all of a full 82 game campaign with huge targets on their backs and receiving every team’s top effort to knock the champs down a peg, starting tonight, and especially because everyone knows that banner nights like these tend to end up with large peanut-infused pieces in the punchbowl. But unlike any other team in the league, this lot can say that they know exactly what it takes to get back to the top of the mountain again, and the climb begins at 7:00. Let’s go Hawks.