FACEOFF: 7pm Central (more like 7:20)
TV/RADIO: NBC, WGN Radio
The Hawks and Penguins will venture out to the Lakefront to combat temps in the teens and an approaching snowstorm (it may or may not get here in time for the game, but the way this winter’s gone, it’ll get here). Oh, and each other I suppose.
Both teams did not come out of the break in a fashion they would have wanted. The Hawks looked a little leggy in a 2-1 loss to the Rangers, and the Pens coughed up five goals to the Canadiens at home and eventually lost in a shootout. Both teams would like to kickstart their run-in tonight.
Where these teams separate is what they have left to play for. Whereas the Hawks still have the division, conference, and even just home ice in the first round (the Avs have not gone away yet) still on the table, the Penguins have the division completely wrapped up, sit pretty comfortably ahead of the Bruins for the East’s #1 spot, and still have a decent chance at the Presidents’ Trophy if that’s something they care about. But they can kind of coast on in from here.
Which is a good thing, because seemingly like every season the Pens are beat up. Pascal Dupuis is out for the year, they’re hoping they can get both Kris Letang and Paul Martin back before the playoffs, and Beau Bennett and Chris Conner are also out. All the injuries have left the Pens pretty top heavy, though considering the top that they have it would be a lot like complaining about (insert joke here about your favorite pair of tits).
Sidney Crosby leads the league in scoring by some margin. Evgeni Malkin is just as dynamic when he hasn’t completely lost his marbles. James Neal is one of the best finishers in the game. Jussi Jokinen is skating with Malkin and Neal and has over 40 points. Chris Kunitz is on his way to 35+ goals. It’s formidable up there.
But beyond that, aside from Brandon Sutter it’s a collection of who’s-its and what’s-its. They do a job, but they’re hardly flashy and they don’t score a lot. If you keep the top six from torching you, the bottom six generally can’t save them. But that first part is a little tricky.
The injuries to Martin and Letang have left the Pens with a wonderful top pairing of future star Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen (who’s quietly having a dominating season). But again, beyond that you have the corpses of Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi (who didn’t much like the look of the Hawks last spring) and angry dunderhead Deryk Engelland and prospect Simon Despres (who is the main bait in whatever trade the Pens are considering). You’d like to think the Hawks depth at forward could test the bottom two pairs here. But about that depth…
…it really hasn’t looked that way, has it? Now that the power play has gone back to being Kitchen-esque and when the top line doesn’t score, the Hawks really have gotten nothing from lines two and three. It’s mismatched (Saad should really be with Kane, Regin doesn’t fit), it’s suffering from market correction (Shaw), and the rest are just wasted and can’t find their way home (Versteeg and Bickell). One of these units is going to have to find a way tonight you’d have to think.
Then again, with the conditions as rough as they could be, any planning or prediction could go out the window. If the snow piles up and/or the ice deteriorates, it’s basically going to be about dry humping the puck deep and then towards the net. If conditions were clear (or y’know, indoors) these two teams could put on quite the show. Whether they get to or not is up to what has been a very pissed off and very vindictive Mother Nature (she’s most certainly taking over).
All things being equal, we know Kruger’s line will draw one of the gargantuan assignments and that Toews will probably take the other (likely Crosby, just a guess). That should leave the Hawks’ remedial class to face the Pens’ and you’d like to think that’s advantage Hawks. What will be paramount is staying out of the box. The Pens boast a lethal power play and are also top 3 in penalty kill, so keeping things at even-strength isn’t the worst idea. Crosby and Malkin don’t need too many looks with the extra man to make it a very long night.
Whether you’re headed out there or watching in HD, a meeting between two of the league’s aristocracy is an event to remember. Having it outdoors does give it something of an extra spice, so it should be tons of fun no matter how it goes. Let’s all enjoy it.
Whether you’re heading to Soldier Field or not tonight’s Indian is digital only. We couldn’t sell outside the stadium, or at least couldn’t verify that we could. So you can only get it right here. So do so, because they’re gonna take my thumbs!