Monday, April 2, 2012

Hawks Clicking at Right Time as Playoffs Approach

Over the past few weeks, the Hawks have started to resemble that dangerous offensive team that we know so well from a couple years ago. Their loss last night notwithstanding, the Hawks have put forth consistent offensive efforts seemingly every game. Even the loss last night was a game riddled with offense. It's great to see the Hawks starting to click, but even more important that that is the timing of the matter. For a team that's starting to get hot on the eve of the playoffs, the timing couldn't be much better. The NHL hosts arguably the best playoffs in professional sports, one where the hottest team could end up being the champion, regardless of seeding. It is within this framework that the Hawks find themselves, and they've done it without their best player.

Kane has really stepped it up in Toews' absence
How exactly have the Hawks gone on such a run without Jonathan Toews? Well, it comes down to the focus on the teams stars, and some solid coaching by Joel Quenneville. Quenneville seems to have found some solid consistency with his lineups. He has kept Patrick Kane on the top line with Marian Hossa and a mixture of Michael Frolik/Andrew Burnette. Now, I don't think that Frolik is contributing anything, but neither does Burnette much, so I don't understand why Quenneville doesn't just roll with the physical play that someone like Jimmy Hayes bring you. Maybe he sees too many rookie mistakes and wants some consistency opposite Kane and Hossa, who can more than handle the workload on the top line. Or maybe he wants to leave the physical play for another line and maximize the offensive potential that the top line can have. Regardless, the top line has emphasized the resurgent play of both Kane and Hossa while Toews has been injured.

I wrote recently that I felt that with Toews being out, it was solely Kane's time to shine, and he's taking advantage of it. He has 10 goals in the last 20 games that Toews has been out, to go along with 6 assists. Averaging nearly a point a game during the captain's absence hasn't been the only thing, either. It's his leadership. He's clearly stepped up and tried to be more assertive on the ice, leading by example as the player who usually centers the top line always does. This works great with Hossa, who while he has a quiet personality is thought of so highly by his teammates that he was the assistant captain in place of Duncan Keith during Keith's recent 5 game suspension. More than that, though, is the chemistry between the two players. Both of them are great playmakers, and their ability to create chances on the top line goes a great deal to facilitate the Hawks' puck possession offense.

Stalberg has been outstanding of late
Helping matters immensely is the performance of Quenneville's thrown together second line, where he has Marcus Kruger centering Patrick Sharp and Viktor Stalberg. Right now, for me this is the most fun line to watch. We know all too well about Sharp's skill on the ice, as he turns in another excellent season with 33 goals and 34 assists thus far. As an assistant captain, he also brings some leadership to the second line, where Kruger and Stalberg have talent but may be lacking in experience. Kruger, known more as a defensive center, has been good on offense, actually getting some decent shots on net but more importantly, playing an active role in the forecheck that is quintessential to success in the Hawks' puck possession offense. For me, though, lately it's been all about Stalberg. He's already set a career high in goals with 21, but it's been his resurgence in the past couple weeks that has meant so much to the Hawks' offense. His speed through the zone creates opportunities out of nothing, and he's one of those players that is exciting to watch tear down the ice with the puck. Earlier in his career, and even earlier this season, I would get excited to watch him speed down the ice only to see him pull his best Happy Gilmore impression and screw up the shot attempt. But now? He's greatly improved on those issues and is starting to pull of goals like the one below.

After that, it's hard not to like what you see out of the third line, where Dave Bolland centers Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw in a physical checking line that surprises some in the offense they create. It's great to see Shaw filling in with so many gritty roles as a rookie, much in the same way that Bolland has been for few years now. And obviously, the fourth line that Quenneville trotted out last night is one that Hawks fans love, with Jamal Mayers centering Brandon Bollig and Jimmy Hayes. For now, that's a good line to have anytime Coach Q feels like the game is getting too overly physical in favor of the other team, but at the same time, that leaves a line that is almost completely ineffective offensively. Still, with the production the way it is on the top two lines, why not go with something like this? It could prove to be a real asset in the playoffs, when the games get tighter and more physical. If Coach Q can run out the third line as a checking, somewhat productive offensively line and the fourth as a pure physical checking line, it would do well to ease the physical pressure off of the vital top two lines. Definitely something to think about.

It's going to be hard to break up this line
All of this, however, begs the question: what does Quenneville do when Toews gets back? He has a couple options. He can break up the existing lines and attempt to plug and play some players where they will be effective. This might involve putting (obviously) Toews on the top line, centering Sharp and Hossa, then bump Kane down to the second line where he either centers Stalberg and another player or shifts back to wing and plays on a line with Stalberg that is centered by Kruger. Or, Quenneville can attempt to keep the scorching hot second line of Sharp/Kruger/Stalberg intact and shift Kane back to wing on the top line and have Toews center him and Hossa. It's an interesting dynamic, and will give us fans insight into how Quenneville views the strengths of the team. A lot of it focuses on Kane and the season-long center experiment - does Coach Q value the playmaking skills of Kane at center and try to make that work, or does he go with what has worked in the past? Only time will tell, but it's definitely exciting to see what is in store for this offense as Toews gets ready to return.

Oduya has exceeded all expectations
On defense and goaltending, we can't place too much stake in the past few games where the Hawks have allowed a ton of goals. For one, Duncan Keith, a player who is on the ice for nearly half of each game he plays, has been suspended, leaving a gaping hole on defense. The hole has resulted in Quenneville resorting to Sean O'Donnell in the starting 6 on defense, instantly bringing the quality of play down. In addition, you have Niklas Hjarmalsson still working his way back from his own concussion, and not at 100% game shape just yet. Other than that, however, we continue to see encouraging signs out of Johnny Oduya. I was skeptical at first of just what he could bring this team when he was acquired at the trade deadline, but he has been solidly consistent for the Hawks on the back end. His work on special teams has helped improve those units, and he's allowed the Hawks to sustain their defense while several of the guys have been hurt. I think he's definitely a guy the Hawks look into bringing back in the offseason. If you think about it, a starting defense with Keith, Brent Seabrook, Oduya, Nick Leddy, Hjarmalsson, and Dylan Olsen is pretty solid. They could still upgrade it somewhere, but they could definitely do worse and at the very least these players at least fit the puck possession model that the Hawks operate under.

As for goaltending, that continues to be a question mark, perhaps the biggest one heading into the playoffs. I'm not going to take the easy road and blame Corey Crawford or Ray Emery for all of the problems the Hawks have allowing goals, but that doesn't mean they're exempt either. Both of them have been given the opportunity to go out and solidify their status as the starter, but neither has consistently done so. You have to wonder about the seemingly fragile psyche of Crawford, or the natural talent limitations of a guy like Emery. Which one of them will step up, if any? I personally think that Crawford will be the guy going forward into the playoffs for Quenneville. He could catch fire and be solid for the Hawks like he was last year. But one thing is for sure - it's not something that the Hawks would like to have to deal with this late in the season.

The real question though, now that the Hawks have clinched the playoffs for the fourth straight season, is just how far can this team go? If you remember last year, the Hawks snuck into the playoffs, and most fans were happy just doing that. If we could have stolen the first round against Vancouver, and we almost did, it would have made the season tremendously successful, especially considering it was the year after the Stanley Cup victory. So what about this season?

Well, for one, the Hawks sit in an enviable position in the playoffs, even if it is 6th in the standings. This is because in the NHL, just like the NBA, the three division winners in each conference are seeded 1-3 in the playoffs regardless of the records of other non-division winning playoff teams. Because the Hawks are almost guaranteed to be the 6th seed, this means they will definitely be playing a division winning team. Yet, this benefits the Hawks if they end up playing the 3rd seed, which is the winner of the Pacific Division. As of right now, this is the Los Angeles Kings. But by the end of the season, this could easily end up being the Phoenix Coyotes. Out of the two, the Hawks would probably much rather play the Coyotes, who rely much on their physical, grind it out offense, unlike the Kings who at their best have a very skilled offense. Either way, either team record-wise is much lower in the standings and is an easier path for the Hawks to take in the playoffs.

Regardless, if the Hawks can get out of the first round, they'll find themselves playing the winner of the 4th and 5th seed matchup. This is where it gets tricky, because it almost certainly will be Detroit or Nashville, both of whom are teams from the Hawks' division. This is a matchup that will excite fans, but at the same time be extremely difficult for the Hawks to get through depending on who they end up playing if they advance that far. On one hand, the Hawks have done quite well this season against Detroit, while on the other hand have struggled mightily at times against Nashville. So really, the Hawks could actually find themselves, if they win the first round, hoping for a matchup against Detroit. Wouldn't that be exciting?

The bottom line right now is that the way the Hawks are playing, I doubt any team in the Western Conference wants to play them in a seven game playoff series. In the NHL playoffs, oftentimes the hottest team advances the farthest. If you take this hot Hawks team, add in their best player, and continue to play the way they have, the sky is the limit. We all know the talent is on the roster to make a run. If the defense and goaltending holds up, who knows? One thing is for sure, just judging by the way the Hawks' season has gone, it's going to be interesting and fun to watch.