Jim Neveau, Blackhawks Correspondent
1. Quit Being So Obsessed With Chris Pronger
It may fly contrary to the emotional state of Hawks fans nowadays, but Chicago needs to quit worrying so much about what Chris Pronger is doing, and what he is getting away with penalty-wise.
Arguing calls is a healthy thing to do during a hockey game, but letting Pronger consume your thoughts is exactly what the Philadelphia instigator wants. He is essentially Adam Burish with a better offensive skill set, aiming to get under the skin of his opponents, and he has taken up firm residence in the heads of the Blackhawks.
If Chicago wants to be successful against Philly, and the newly minted Public Enemy Number 1 for Hawks fans, then they have got to quit taking the bait that Pronger sets up for them on a shift-by-shift basis.
2. Stay Committed to Splitting Up Kane and Toews
Speaking of Pronger and letting him dictate the team’s emotional state, there is also another element to his game that warrants attention: his disruption of the Kane and Toews line. Along with Dustin Byfuglien, these three players have had an ineffective series from the opening puck drop in Game 1, and part of the reason for this is that Pronger has been assigned to cancel them out as much as possible.
Joel Quenneville finally responded in Game 4 by splitting up the young duo, and it made Peter LaViolette’s decisions more difficult as to when to put his star defenseman out on the ice.
Splitting up Kane and Toews has the potential to work like a charm, and all the evidence needed to see that this is a good move can be found by looking at the success of the Marian Hossa-Patrick Sharp combination. Pronger hasn’t been assigned to cover that line very often, and they have responded by having a good series on the offensive side of the puck.
If Pronger gets assigned to cover the Toews line, then look for Kane to be able to get some more room to skate on the ice, and look for more of what he displayed in Game 4 instead of what he showed in the first three games of the Cup Finals.
3. Better Defense in Front of Niemi is a Must
The defensive breakdowns on several of Philadelphia’s goals on Friday night cannot be repeated if Chicago hopes to have any success for the remainder of this series.
One area of inconsistency that needs to be changed immediately was the Hawks’ inability to clear the puck from in front of their goal. Several times during Game 4 Antti Niemi would come up with a save in front of the net, and the Hawks would blindly shoot the puck toward the blue line, only to have it picked off by a Flyer skater and another chance would result from that.
There was also the horrific defensive breakdown that led to Claude Giroux‘s goal in the first period, as Patrick Kane abandoned his spot along the blue line to chase Scott Hartnell, the puck carrier. Hartnell was already covered adequately by Brent Sopel, making Kane’s move unnecessary as well as foolish. Hartnell then found Kimmo Timonen open at the blue line, in the spot where Kane should have been, and Timonen found Giroux all alone alongside the cage for an easy goal.
Whether looking at the failure of Kane to maintain defensive position and respond to the oncoming offensive pressure at the blue line, or the complete and utter failure of the rest of the team to find Giroux alongside the net, it is those kind of plays that have the capability to kill a team during the postseason, and it certainly diminished the Hawks’ chances of coming back in that game.
To make matters worse, the goal came less than a minute after Patrick Sharp had scored to make it a one goal game, so not only did it give the Flyers a cheap goal, but it also killed all the positive momentum that the team had going their way late in the first period. Momentum shifts are crucial in important playoff games, and the swing of the positive tide away from the Hawks was a devastating blow to their hopes of coming back.
These kind of momentum killing defensive lapses have to be avoided by Chicago at all costs, because any slip-up on home ice will give the Flyers a huge opportunity to take this series on Wednesday night back in Philadelphia.
4. Net Pressure is a Must
Through the first two periods of Friday’s game, the Blackhawks were getting a ton of shots on Michael Leighton, but were unable to put home any rebounds because they were unable to get to the front of the net. In the third period, however, they began to find seams around the crease, and they managed to get into position to bat home a rebound for a goal (Dave Bolland’s PP tally) and allow Brian Campbell’s shot from the blue line to go into the net.
Chicago is in desperate need of a win at home, and to get that victory tonight, they will need to have a solid game in terms of getting traffic in front of Leighton. He has shown an inability to follow the puck when he has bodies in front of him (as most goalies do), but he also has allowed his fair share of rebounds in the series. Chicago needs to be in position to take advantage of their opportunities to put home rebounds and deflect shots from the line if they want to continue the offensive success that they had in the third period of Game 4.
5. Keep Up the Physical Play
“Why did the Blackhawks have so much more success getting pressure to the front of the net in the third period of Game 4”, you may ask yourself after reading that last blurb. “They also looked like they had so much more space on the ice in order to create offensive opportunities. Why was that the case”, you also might ask.
The reason that Chicago had so much more offensive success in the third period was simply that they finally fatigued the Philadelphia Flyers. After beating them up physically for most of the game, the Philadelphia players simply could no longer get to their spots fast enough to prevent the opportunities that the Hawks were getting, and the result was one of the best periods of hockey we have seen from Chicago this entire series.
To have success against a team like Philadelphia that gives big minutes to their primary defensive line and to their top forward lines, you have to make sure that you finish every check against them when you get the chance, and line changes have to be quick and clean in order to keep the speed of the game up at a high level. If the Hawks have success in doing these two things on Sunday night at the United Center, then the series has very good odds of being 3-2 in favor of Chicago.