Last night the Blackhawks held off a hungry Coyotes team for a 2-1 victory in Arizona, garnering two important points in the hotly contested Western Conference run. After an abysmal effort in Dallas a few days earlier, Chicago bounced back with solid defensive effort, commanding their opponent’s zone frequently, and added another vital win under rookie goaltender Corey Crawford’s belt.
The worst moment of the game came during the first period with less than 2:00 left on the clock, when Phoenix defenseman Rostislav Klesla went to make a block, and instead ended up colliding with Chicago forward Patrick Sharp in a knee-on-knee position. No penalty was called on the ice, so the hit must have been considered accidential; Sharp left the ice immediately and did not return for the rest of the game.
Sharp has been a vital part of the Chicago team this year – scoring the team-high 34 goals, and only recently being passed up by captain Jonathan Toews for overall points (Toews now has 72; Sharp, 68). He has a 14.4% shooting percentage, 6 GWGs, 12 PPGs, and 2 SHGs. Those who watched the Blackhawks advance through the playoffs last year know how vital Sharp is to this team.
Can the Blackhawks make it to the playoffs without Sharp? Yes, but it would certainly up the ante, and put that much more pressure on top players like Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane, and adding incentive for other players like Troy Brouwer, Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg to up their production. Additionally, this team would not want to go through the playoffs without Sharp, but since the Blackhawks have not yet released any information about his status, the best that can happen now is the hope that the injury is less severe than it looked.
While fans and sports writers have continued to wonder when Corey Crawford might get a night off, “Crow” showed he was able to bounce back, providing big saves throughout the game, especially on some great chances late in the game when Phoenix went to the empty net to try to even the score. After spending the last few games playing agressively further out of the net, Crawford has returned to what works better for him – playing it a little safer in the crease and sticking to being technically sound and staying square to the puck. After a string of games where he allowed 3+ goals, Crawford’s GAA has softened to 2.33 (still good enough for 6th overall in NHL), and his sv% is now .916. He continues to lead rookie goalies with a 28-14-5 record, 3 shutouts, and best GAA among those rookies who have won 20 or more games.
While goalies rarely get the attention for the Calder discussion that forward or defensemen rookies do, Crawford continues to factor in to the equation – if it had not been for his solid play all season, the Blackhawks would likely would not even be in striking distance of the playoffs at this point.
In addition to Crawford, the late-season acquisitions of Ryan Johnson, Michael Frolik and Chris Campoli should not be overlooked nor undervalued.
Johnson is doing exactly what he was brought to Chicago to do: kill penalties and win faceoffs. Although he sat out part of the season when he was first acquired from free agency, he has now played 25 games for Chicago. Among those on the team who have taken faceoff numbers in the triple digits, Johnson is an impressive 63.4% (averaging 8.64 FO/game). (Jonathan Toews, who has taken 1400 faceoffs, is averaging 57.1%, 20 FO/game). He’s also contributed 1 G and 5 A, including one GWG, and averages 1 hit and 1 block per game, while only taking 4 PIM across 25 games. It’s also noteworthy that in 25 games, he’s only had a negative +/- in four games. Johnson was a bargain acquisition, but he was – and is – exactly what the Blackhawks need on the 3rd and 4th lines; here’s hoping he can sign to the team again next season.
Frolik was acquired from Florida in the Jack Skille trade, and while he has only put together 2 G and 3 A in 18 games, he has been a very good addition. He handles the puck well, and constantly goes to the net – putting an average 3.22 SOG per game, agressively battles in the corners, and is making plays happen.
Campoli came from Ottawa at the trade deadline, and has been an excellent addition to Chicago’s blue line. While occasionally caught out of position – he may like to jump up and join the rush a little too readily – he is generally strong in the Blackhawks zone, makes smart plays, and handles the puck well.
The Blackhawks’ D-men could stand to be a little more stay-at-home occasionally as a whole; Dallas figured that out and caught them with their pants down repeatedly on Thursday. However, Chicago figured out what they did wrong, and despite a moment or two last night were stronger defensively in Phoenix.
The report will be out on Patrick Sharp on Tuesday. Hopefully it is not major enough to be no more than yet-another-speedbump on the road to the playoffs; but if Sharp is going to spend any time joining Dave Bolland, Brian Campbell and Jordan Hendry on the injury list, then the rest of the team will have to find a way to step up their game in the final three weeks of the schedule.