Jim Neveau, Blackhawks Correspondent
The Chicago Blackhawks, playing in their first postseason since the 2002 season, will host the Calgary Flames on Thursday night at the United Center on a day that will resemble summer more than spring. With temps expected in the high 60′s, it would seem to be a day ideally suited for the first Cubs/Cardinals tilt at Wrigley Field, but instead the main focus of the city will descend upon West Madison.
Reaping the benefits of their home-ice advantage, the Hawks will be playing in front of a frenzied, raucous crowd that will likely number around 22,000 when all is said and done. The team will likely have Patrick Sharp back from his lacerated leg, and Kris Versteeg was welcomed back into the fold on Sunday against Detroit.
Formalities aside, the Blackhawks have to like the team that will be standing at the opposing blue line during the National Anthem. They have soundly beaten the Flames three times already this season, and also won an overtime game against the team in Decemer. They have outscored the Flames 19-7 this season, and have been particularly adept at taking the puck away from the Flames.
The Flames also enjoyed little power play success against the Hawks, only scoring once with the extra man in the squads’ four meetings. The bad omen for this statistic was certainly in the teams’ first game in November, when Calgary couldn’t take advantage of eight minutes of man advantage time in the first period and instead allowed Chicago to score twice.
Things are different now, however.
The Flames added two important pieces in the trade deadline derby, by acquiring Olli Jokinen from Phoenix and Jordan Leopold from the Avalanche. Adding a solid second line center in Jokinen and a playmaking defenseman in Leopold certainly seemed at the time to solidify the Flames’ chances for a division title and dark horse Cup contender status.
Lately, however, things haven’t been going so well for the denizens of the Red Mile. The Flames haven’t won more than two games in a row since all the way back in February, and in fact haven’t even won two in a row since March 3rd and 5th. They’ve lost games during that time to the likes of Toronto, Atlanta, Ottawa, and Edmonton. In addition, they have been shut out in three of their last ten games.
They also haven’t scored a power play goal since March 23rd at Detroit, a span of ten games.
As if all of that news weren’t bad enough, the Flames also managed a combined 77 shots in a three game stretch against Minnesota, Los Angeles, and Vancouver recently. They did this while allowing a combined total of 112 shots to pepper goalie Mikka Kiprusoff.
How do all of these factors benefit the Blackhawks? Well, before we get to that, let’s examine what we can learn from the first four games that the teams have played against each other this season.
In the first game, the Hawks came out firing and beat down the Flames 6-1. They overcame being shorthanded for nearly half of the first period and still managed to get out to an early two goal lead, and they never looked back. The Hawks dominated the face-off dot, winning 34 of 58 face-offs, and they also beat Calgary in takeaways 7-1.
Calgary was a combined 0-for-8 on the power play, and the Hawks scored twice in seven attempts.
Clearly, the tempo in this game was set by the Blackhawks. They played aggressively early on (as evidenced by the flood of penalties) and still managed to keep Calgary from getting too comfortable on their skates at the raucous United Center. Also, Calgary showed a propensity for not taking advantage when the other team was a man down, a trend that they have been exhibiting for the last ten games of the regular season as well.
In the second game, Calgary committed a faux pas that the Hawks have committed on several occasions this season. The Flames jumped out to an early lead, and instead of continuing to attack the Hawks, they kind of played back and let Chicago once again dictate the tempo. The Hawks also took advantage of a lack of intensity on the part of Calgary’s defense, as they only gave the puck away four times in a 3-2 overtime win. They also took the puck away from Calgary seven times.
This game was more of an even contest, but there were still several signs that pointed decisively in the Hawks’ favor. Re-watching the game, one can easily see that Kiprusoff was kept off balance for most of the game, and that the Hawks’ pace was something that the Flames were not comfortable matching. They also had another poor showing on the power play, not scoring on their four opportunities.
The third game was a letting out aggression game for the Hawks. After two straight defeats to the Red Wings, the Hawks came into the United Center and punished the Flames up and down the ice the entire game. Even without power play catalysts Patrick Kane and Cam Barker, the Hawks still beat the Flames 5-2, riding Patrick Sharp’s two point night to the victory. The Flames dominated the face-off circle but little else, as the Hawks once again showed no failure of resolve against Calgary.
What could be discerned from Calgary’s effort was that they saved their best effort for the third period, where they out-shot the Hawks 20-8. This, however, did little to detract from the domination the Hawks showed in the second, where they out-shot the Flames 17-5. Kiprusoff was pulled after the second period after giving up four goals on 28 shots. Nikolai Khabibulin survived the barrage of pucks, and only gave up two goals on 36 shots. Calgary did score a power play goal in the game, but it was fairly meaningless as the Hawks already had a good lead at that moment.
The fourth and final game in February was back in Calgary, but it was a similar result. The Blackhawks won 5-2 at the Pengrowth Saddledome, and they were prepared for the physicality that Calgary brought to the contest.
“We physically dominated them. We knew it was going to be a tough one coming in here because the last time we beat them”, Dave Bolland told the media after the game. Indeed, Bolland was right. The Hawks played one of their cleanest games of the season, but they also threw their weight around pretty well. The teams traded goals in the first period, but after that, the score-sheet read all in the Blackhawks’ favor.
Pretty much the only thing the Flames had going for them (again) was that they won the majority of the face-offs. The team’s effort overall didn’t seem to impress anyone, even in their own locker room.
According to Robyn Regehr, “we need to start winning 1-on-1s and puck battles, we need to be responsible with the puck, and we are allowing too many chances whether it’s off the rush or allowing guys in the middle of the ice.”
That was clear from watching the game. The Hawks dominated between the blue lines, and they never let Calgary get set up to do much of anything after the first period came and went. Also, Calgary’s power play didn’t score again, giving them one power play goal in the four meetings between the teams this season.
Now that we’ve examined what we’ve learned from the team’s first four games, it’s time to look at what the Hawks need to do to continue their run of success against Calgary.
The first key for the Blackhawks is to give the Flames as few chances as possible on the power play. Although the Hawks showed dominance over the Flames in the season series in that category, the playoffs are a different beast. Goals have a bigger significance in the long run of a playoff series, and if Calgary can get a couple power play successes together, then it will be a long summer for the Hawks.
If the Blackhawks keep their noses clean and out of the penalty box, then it will also give them opportunities to take advantage of the frustration level that may be creeping up on some of these Calgary players, who haven’t been playing with consistent success recently.
The second key for the Blackhawks is to show physicality early. Granted, we don’t want them committing too many penalties, but this team has shown that it can hit guys on the other team without doing so illegally, and they need to continue that trend against Calgary. This will open up the middle of the ice and allow the vaunted Chicago offense to run amok in the offensive zone.
The third key for the Blackhawks is obviously the play of Nikolai Khabibulin between the pipes. His last playoff appearance came, ironically, in the Cup-clinching game for the Lightning against these very Flames. He played stellar hockey during that postseason, and if the Blackhawks are going to enjoy any success in the springtime, then they will need him to step up.
The fourth key will be the play of two of the more injury prone Hawks players. Martin Havlat, who has been healthy for the first time in ages, needs to continue his scoring ways, including skating around with the puck to distinguish lanes, as well as his ability to rip a shot at any time.
Patrick Sharp also needs to show no ill effects from his thigh laceration. While the Hawks played pretty well without him the last few games of the season, his presence as a scoring threat is still important to the team.
The fifth and final key for the Blackhawks will be to not let the pressure of the big stage intimidate them. It can be insinuated that by looking at the team’s appearances on Versus this season, as well as their play in the second and third periods of the Winter Classic, that they aren’t used to the spotlight that the big stage affords. The key to keeping the pressure to a minimum is to stick to their game plan, and also to take things one game at a time. Granted, losing four out of seven will guarantee a playoff exit, but as long as the team looks at each game as a stepping stone instead of as a group, the pressure shouldn’t be too intense on them.
Thursday will certainly be a big day in the resurrection of this proud Original Six franchise. This year’s return to the playoffs marks yet another notch on the belt of the ownership and front office of the team, and if the team can make some noise in the postseason, it should bode well for their future. Playoff intensity is in the air, and the city is ready.