Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Is This Hawk's Surge Real?

Just a week ago, panic had set into the entire Hawks fan base. The Hawks were playing their worst hockey of the season, essentially nosediving from a great start to ultimately fighting hard for a playoff spot. The defense and goaltending was a mess, and the Hawks offense was in such a deep funk that it couldn't bail them out. Then, suddenly, the Hawks exploded against the New York Rangers, dumping four goals on them in the first period, setting the stage for an easy win against a top team. From there, the Hawks notched an easy win over NHL doormat Columbus and a tough, gritty, defensive/goaltending won battle against hated rival St. Louis. The Hawks have looked like their old selves in the midst of their mini winning streak, but therein lies the question:  are these Hawks here to stay?

Crawford has played great of late
I think so. There have been several aspects that have stood out to me but the first is the level of goaltending they've received from Corey Crawford since the losing streak ended. I've mentioned a couple times how I feel that he is a confidence goalie, one who needs to get in a rhythm and feel good about his game to really amp up his production. He fed off this in the playoffs against Vancouver last year, and we saw the flip side to it when he completely fell apart during the nine game road trip/losing streak. He's looked like the Crawford we know from the playoffs last year, keeping himself in position, stopping all the saves he should and some of them that he shouldn't. He's rebounded strong; even Joel Quenneville called the win over the Blues on Sunday a "goalie win." The problem here is also something I've stated before - do we really want to rely on a confidence goalie to take us through the playoffs? What happens if Crawford has another 4-5 goal game, does that mean we go back to the goalie platoon of Ray Emery and Crawford? I hope that Crawford can take the past three games as motivation and ride the streak high until the end of the season. At that point, either the Hawks can make a serious decision about their goaltending future (like signing Corey Schneider to an offer sheet) or roll the dice again that Crawford's development will continue to advance. Either way, it's hard to argue with the way he's been playing lately.

I like what Quenneville has done lately as well, mostly by putting his best playmakers on the same line (Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane) and altering his penalty killing strategy by having more forwards blocking shots and intercepting open passing lanes. And while we're talking about the line changes, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the job that the line of Viktor Stalberg, Bryan Bickell, and Dave Bolland did against the Blues. When you have that line working, it adds so much depth to the team. They did such a great job of doing what is essentially the best way for the Hawks to address their defensive woes - ramping up the forechecking and keeping the Hawks possession in the opponent's zone. I hope that if the Hawks struggle for game or two that Quenneville doesn't mess around with the lines again, because I think that the way he has them set up now offers some great opportunities for chemistry and scoring - especially with the top line. That's the kind of line that can provide some instant offense. Now if only the Hawks could get the power play churning along.

Hope this isn't the last we see of Olsen
Notice also that the defense has turned it around remarkably. Duncan Keith has seemed to mesh well with call up Dylan Olsen, and the two play smart hockey in the Hawks zone and are able to provide some good blue line offense as well. No wonder that things have started to pick up at the same time that Niklas Hjarmalsson has been hurt. What a coincidence. Quenneville was smart to stick with Sami LePisto in the last pairing, rotating him with either Sean O'Donnell or John Scott (especially if he's giving out whuppings like this one). More than that, though, is that the entire defense has seemed to play some inspired hockey. Why did it take this long for LePisto to get minutes? And who will the odd man out be once Hjarmalsson or Steve Montador get back? I hope that Quenneville resists the urge to send Olsen back down. I love the way the kid has played, and you can clearly tell that he's not fazed by the lights of the big show. I think that you could just as easily slide Hjarmalsson back to the third pairing of the defense with LePisto, and the Hawks might have something there. But just based on Quenneville's track record, and the number of defensemen that would be on the active roster, you gotta think that Olsen will be sent back to Rockford.

On offense, we have the lines that I already mentioned. At least those are the lines I saw in the last couple games. Lord knows we could see something completely different at any time. I just hope that Coach Q finds something and sticks with it. I like that the Hawks called up Jimmy Hayes, as I couldn't understand why he got sent down in the first place. He's big, tough, and physical; something that the Hawks just don't have enough of. I'm not sure I like that they sent down Andrew Shaw to make it happen, but I guess it makes sense given the lack of offensive production from Shaw lately (even if we do love his playing style). But regardless of all the line changes, different matchups, call ups, whatever - this team will always center around Jonathan Toews. And although it took him a couple games to get back from his injury during the losing streak, there is no denying now that he's taken control of this team at the most opportune time. He always plays extremely hard both ways, and has been the strong and silent type leader for so long. But now the Captain seems to be taking an aggressive and more vocal approach as the leader of the Hawks. And it's paying off. As Toews goes, so go the Hawks.

Bottom line though - the Hawks have to keep it up. And they get no greater challenge than the hated Red Wings coming into town as hot as they've been all season. If they beat Detroit, we know they're on track. No claims about the Rangers not starting their number 1 goalie, beating up on Blue Jackets, or scraping out a win against the Blues. You beat the Red Wings, who have the best record in the NHL and are dominating right now, and we can safely say the Hawks are back. Not to mention the confidence and morale boost it would bring the team. Regardless, it's great to see the Hawks playing solid hockey again. Let's just hope we can say the same after a tough matchup tonight.