Thursday, April 12, 2012

Blackhawks Playoff Preview: First Round a Clash of Styles

This isn't your typical 6th vs 3rd seed matchup. Because of the NHL's playoff formatting setup, where the division winners automatically receive the top three seeds, the Hawks actually enter their first round playoff series against the Phoenix Coyotes as favorites, even though they hold the 6th seed. But really, seeding doesn't matter once the playoffs start, especially in the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs, where lower seeded teams advance far into the playoffs every year. Regardless of seeding, however, it's going to be an intriguing matchup between the two teams, mostly due to the fact that they represent vastly different styles of play. Who will come out in the end? Well, that depends on several different factors.

Having the Captain back will be huge
First and foremost, the biggest key to the matchup is the supposed return of Jonathan Toews. Toews, who has missed a huge chunk of the end of the season due to a concussion, has said that he will be a gametime decision for tonight's game. Still, all signs point to him playing, which would be a huge plus for the Hawks because they are simply a different team when their captain is on the ice. When Toews is out there, the Hawks' playmaking ability becomes that much better that it usually is. Now, that sounds obvious given Toews' captain status and great stats across the board. But in his case, it's more than just his stats. When he's on the ice, he allows the rest of the players to fall back into their comfort zones because he can set everything up on the ice. His impact ripples down through a few different lines, but there's no denying that Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa all perform better when Toews is in the lineup. And that doesn't even account for his defense, which also allows players on his line to take a little more freedom to take chances, leading to even more scoring opportunities. He's such an amazing player, and the Hawks' chances to win this series go up immensely if he does in fact play and perform up to his usual level.

If Toews does play, expect Joel Quenneville to experiment with a top line of Kane-Toews-Hossa. This serves two purposes. First, it creates a potentially dominant playmaking scoring line. Second, it doesn't disrupt the Viktor Stalberg-Marcus Kruger-Patrick Sharp second line that has been so effective down the stretch of the season. Here's where it gets iffy, though. Coach Q has gone with that top line before, right when Hossa joined the Hawks a few years ago. And you could tell after the first couple games that it wasn't working out, for whatever reason. Thus, you have to hope that some chemistry is there, especially given that Kane has showed this year his ability to grow mentally and handle being on a line where his time with the puck might go down. In this way, I really think that his time at center has helped him understand what his role in the offense can be. If this line can perform well together, it could potentially dominate, considering that all three offensive players are expert puck handlers and playmakers. And really, you can't discount Toews' ability to impact special teams, an area that has been abysmal since he went down in the middle of the season.

Hopefully Stalberg can continue his breakout season
I hope that the second line can continue it's success from the end of the regular season, because they could be the X factor in the first round. Stalberg has really come on this year, giving the Hawks yet another offensive weapon that Phoenix just doesn't have. The second line, in addition to the first, is going to be crucial in overcoming the Coyotes' defense. The top two lines need to establish a high pace, make sure to keep possession of the puck and come at the physical Phoenix defense in waves of scoring chances. Wearing down their defense and getting traffic in front of the net is going to be key. Above all, the skilled forwards for the Hawks need to maintain a high pace. If they slow the game down and play their little fancy passing the puck game, it's going to be extremely difficult to overcome a stout physical Coyotes' defense. Simply put, the Hawks sometimes struggle mightily to score against teams who play this sort of grind it out, physical style. Thus, if the Hawks forecheck well, maintain possession of the puck, get traffic in front of the net, and utilize their superior skill on the top two lines, they should be able to produce consistent scoring chances and win games.

Smith is going to be tough to beat
That is, of course, assuming they can get the puck past Mike Smith, Phoenix's goalie. Smith won 38 games this season, with a sparkling 2.21 GAA and .930 save percentage. He recently had a game where he withstood something like 50 shots and recorded a shutout, one of 8 shutouts he had on the season. The entire Hawks team went without a shutout the entire season. The key with Smith is going to be wearing him down, putting pressure on his defense with the top two scoring lines, and coming at him with waves of scoring chances. If they Hawks can consistently get good looks on net, the pressure is going to be on Smith to come up with several great outings in a 7 game series, a fact that bodes well for the Hawks' chances in this series. Still, it seems like every year a dominant goalie carries a team far into the playoffs. Think of Tim Thomas and Boston last year, who were far from being considered Cup contenders at the start of the playoffs but rode the dominant play of Thomas all the way to the Stanley Cup title. Let's hope that the Hawks can wear down both Smith and his defense with consistent, aggressive, and high paced play from the top 2 lines.

Of course, this could be aided greatly if the Hawks get a performance out of Dave Bolland that we've grown to expect these past couple years in the playoffs. Bolland, who anchors the third line between Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw, has proved to be a pest to the Sedins in Vancouver and Joe Thornton in San Jose in the playoffs recently. There is also Shaw, who is cut from the same mold as Bolland, on the same line to do the same thing. Thus, the third line could be just as crucial to winning the series if they're successful in holding back the offense of Shane Doan, Ray Whitney, and Radim Vrbata, all of whom are experienced players who know what it takes to win. Yet, regardless of the experience of those guys, they're all older players. As a result, if the Hawks can limit them offensively, it forces them to be stuck in their own zone defending against the Hawks' puck possession game. That could be as key to winning the series as anything else.

In conjunction with this, you have the much maligned Hawks' defense. The pressure is going to be on Duncan Keith and co. to handle the physical play of the Coyotes. This is what worries many about playing the Coyotes here - the Hawks defense is comprised of puck possession defensemen, guys who are speedy and great at pushing the puck up the ice and helping create scoring chances. But are they going to be ready to handle a physical offensive attack? They're going to need to be disciplined, especially on clearing guys out of the zone and controlling traffic in front of the net. Against teams like this, if the Hawks offense isn't controlling the puck, the Hawks defense struggles clearing guys away from the net, meaning that the opposing team's offense can use their size and physicality to create outstanding rebound chances. This is why if you watch the Hawks when they struggle against teams like this, it's because they don't block shots from the point, those shots get through to the net, a rebound comes off and the team is ready and willing to put it right back in because they were never cleared out. It's going to take a combination effort on staying disciplined in that regard and helping keep offensive possession of the puck for the Hawks to win this series.

Crawford needs to step up
And really, the biggest question mark for the Hawks has to be at goalie. If you remember the last two seasons in the playoffs, the Hawks were able to go into games without worrying about that at all. In 2009-10, the Hawks were able to ride Antti Niemi all the way to the Cup, and last year Corey Crawford was on fire, forcing a first round 7 game series when the Hawks in all reasonableness should have been swept. This year, the play of both Crawford and Ray Emery has been so up and down, the Hawks have no idea what to expect. Sure, Crawford went through the typical sophomore slump that many young goalies have, but can he rise to the occasion in the playoffs? And what happens if he doesn't? If Coach Q has to start shifting struggling goaltenders, that's going to mean a likely quick playoff exit. That definitely has to be a major cause for concern. Let's hope that we get the Crawford from last year, or even something resembling his strong play down the stretch this year. The Hawks just have a much better chance of winning if he shows up.

All in all, I think we can cast aside any regular season struggles that Hawks had against the Coyotes. This is the playoffs now, and the Hawks are as experienced as it comes in knowing how to win those games. That doesn't mean that the Coyotes aren't a tough team; they know how to beat the Hawks, they're the exact model of a team that gives the Hawks real trouble, and they're a supremely confident bunch after finishing the season scorching hot to take the Pacific Division title. Still, if the Hawks play their game right, meaning that they take advantage of their superior skill, maintain a high pace, and exercise good possession of the puck to create scoring chances, they have the upper hand. It's going to be an interesting one to watch, but I think that the Hawks getting the captain back will give this team all the confidence it needs. Let's hope once the puck drops tonight the Hawks take care of business.


Anonymous said...

Go Hawks!