If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Copy ‘Em

Jim Neveau, Blackhawks Correspondent

What the Hawks Should Steal from the Red Wings

The last time the Blackhawks took to Joe Louis Arena ice, they were defeated 2-1 by the Red Wings, eliminating them from the playoffs and setting off a summer of high priced free agent signings, botched paperwork filing, and oh yeah, the little matter of Patrick Kane getting the equivalent of an erased delayed penalty for beating up a Buffalo cab driver.

The Banners at the Joe Louis
The Banners at the Joe: The Envy of Teams Everywhere (photo property of Jim B L on Flickr)

With all of these things in mind, there was “One Goal” (sorry to borrow the team’s marketing slogan for that) for the Hawks during the off-season: get good enough to not only be a Cup contender again, but also to beat those dastardly Red Wings, who for all intents and purposes are still the big dog on the block in the Western Conference.

Well, if Thursday night was any indication, the bad boys from the Motor City are still the big dogs, and the Blackhawks still have a lot to learn from their fellow denizens of the upper Midwest.

There are three things that the Blackhawks need to work on, improve upon, or even bring in, if they are going to even think about competing with the Red Wings, or anybody else in the conference for that matter, in their quest to bring a Stanley Cup to Chicago.

One: Defensive pressure from the forwards has to improve

This may be an oversimplification, but for the sake of comparison, let’s take the forward tandems of Henrik Zetterberg-Pavel Datsyuk and Patrick Kane-Jonathan Toews.

Now, I know that Patrick Kane isn’t exactly the biggest guy in the history of the planet. Standing at a generously-allotted 5 foot 9 inches, and weighing in at 160 pounds, Kane is more known for his ability to skate around opponents, and not known for his defensive ability.

Toews, on the other hand, is definitely bigger than his fellow Hawks draft pick, standing 6 foot 2, 210 pounds, and for the most part, is known mostly for his highlight reel goals and his ability to plant himself in front of goaltenders during power plays.

To finalize the height-weight stats, Zetterberg and Datsyuk are both 5 foot 11, and weigh 195 pounds.

Pavel Datsyuk hoisting the Cup
Pavel Datsyuk hoisting the Cup: Kane and Toews should emulate his game (photo from Wikipedia-Commons)

Now, with these sizes in mind, it becomes pretty clear that the two aforementioned Hawks players need to take after their counterparts on the Wings. Zetterberg and Datsyuk are both elite-level defensive forwards, with Datsyuk winning the Selke Trophy the previous two seasons, the award given to the league’s best defensive forward. They poke-check aggressively, are great at back-checking, and they also have a deft scoring touch that makes them elite on the offensive side of the puck as well.

With Toews and Kane, you don’t really view either of them as particularly gifted defensive players. Kane especially seems like he is mostly waiting for an outlet pass so he can take off and skate, rather than disrupting plays in the defensive zone.

If the Hawks are going to go anywhere in this NHL, they are going to need to have young guys like Toews and Kane step up on the defensive side of the puck, while maintaining their scoring touch on the offensive side.

Two: Aggressive penalty kill or collapse around the net? Hawks need to decide

I watched quite a few of the games that were played in the NHL this evening, and I have to say that a couple of things stood out to me as I flipped through the games on GameCenter.

Mainly, what I noticed was something in the Coyotes-Sabres game. The Coyotes gave up a few double-minor penalties, and they successfully killed both of them off. How did they do it you may ask? Well, what they did was, instead of letting the Sabres have free reign to move the puck with impunity to guys like Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy, they disrupted passes all over the place, and prevented a lot of plays from even having a chance to develop.

On the victorious side of these lines: where the Hawks want to be (photo property of Pam Rodriguez)
On the victorious side of these lines: where the Hawks want to be (photo property of Pam Rodriguez)

Granted, this strategy can backfire if the team doing it over-pursues the puck, and they get burned by leaving a man wide open in front, but the Coyotes executed it flawlessly.

Now, going back to the Wings-Hawks game, the Red Wings did exactly what they did against the Hawks in last year’s playoffs: instead of pursuing the puck and disrupting passes, they pretty much let the passes go with impunity, but they collapse toward the net every time a shot is ready to be fired. This creates a ton of traffic, which can occasionally lead to goals, but in Detroit’s case, it keeps shots from even getting to the net.

Guys like Nick Kromwall were constantly blocking shots on Chicago’s power plays tonight, especially when the Hawks had a 1:53 two-man advantage during the game, and they couldn’t penetrate the wall of red jerseys surrounding the net. It almost resembled a soccer team forming a “wall” on a free kick.

What did the Blackhawks do? Well, it was some vague mash-up of the above strategies, and they were burned twice with power play goals. The Hawks need to commit to a strategy on the penalty kill, instead of skating around aimlessly and trying whatever pops into their heads at the time.

Three: If you can’t beat them……….beat them?

Admittedly, this topic is mis-named slightly. The Red Wings don’t beat you down with a barrage of punches and dirty hits, but what they do, and it has been eluded to on numerous occasions by commentators and pundits alike, is they bend the rules when it comes to interference, but they do not break them.

They also are masters at drawing penalties. Datsyuk during the game tonight looked like he was totally diving when contacted by Duncan Keith chasing a loose puck, but he got away with it because he was so stealthy about it. Keith tapped him on the back with a closed glove, and Datsyuk went down like an Italian soccer player who had the ball taken away from him.

This is not to say that the way the Red Wings play is cheap. On the contrary, it is actually an extremely smart tactic to use. Drawing penalties is a key to giving your team opportunities to score, and when you have a power play that has been as historically good as the Wings, the more chances you get the better.

The Blackhawks have a good power play in their own right, and if they can buy into the concept of drawing penalties, and also of practicing the “bending the rules” way of playing, then they could have better odds of success against the Wings.

To wrap up, am I saying that the Blackhawks need to make a complete overhaul to their squad? Am I saying that they are forever doomed to be the ugly stepsister to the Wings’ Cinderella? The point that I am trying to get across is that, even though Hawks fans (and hopefully the team themselves) can’t stand the Red Wings, there is a lot we can learn from them, and if we put it into practice, the names of Toews, Kane, Keith, and their teammates could be the next ones engraved onto the Stanley Cup.