Sunday, April 22, 2012

Hawks Stay Alive with Epic Overtime Winner

For the first 40 minutes of last night's Game 5, the Hawks looked like a team that was ready for the offseason. They looked ready to trade in their sticks for golf clubs and move on to next year. The team, outside the first 5-10 minutes of the game, had no hop in their step, no pacing, no sense of urgency - nothing. It was alarming to watch the team in a game of this magnitude - IT WAS POTENTIALLY THE LAST OF THE SEASON - look so listless, apathetic, and slow. And then, the old Hawks were back. The Hawks hit the third period rejuvenated, pressuring the Coyote defense, keeping up the forecheck and pace, and making Coyotes' goaltender Mike Smith's life miserable. This culminated in the deflected slapper from Nick Leddy to equalize the game, and then the epic moment from Jonathan Toews in overtime:

All is forgiven. The Hawks, once again, came up big with their backs against the wall. Much like their epic playoff series with the Canucks last year, and what seems like each game in this series, the Hawks have found a way to score when it's needed most (except in the losses, of course). Let's hope that the goal serves as a catalyst for the rest of the series, both for the Hawks and the rest of theirs stars.

The Captain with the game winner.
That's why it's important that the game winner was sniped in by Toews. He, along with the other stars that comprise the vaunted Hawks "core," have been largely nonexistent the entire series. Nothing much from Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa (although obviously he is injured), Toews, and even Viktor Stalberg. I expected someone like Stalberg to have a big series, if only because he was scorching hot coming down the stretch. Instead, he's been miserable, and picked up 4 minor penalties in last night's game. But where has Kane been? Sharp? I hope that Toews masterful game winner wakes those guys up. If we can get them going, it will take a lot less pressure off the rest of the team to get the job done, and it could serve to dig up some chinks in Mike Smith's armor. Not to mention it might be the only way the Hawks can keep up the momentum going forward enough to come back and win the series.

Speaking of Smith, his play has been nothing short of spectacular. I wrote this before the series started, but he's the type of goalie that can single-handedly guide a team to the Stanley Cup. The Hawks pour shots on him every game, but he seems to prevent any soft goals from getting through and makes spectacular saves regularly. Even the goals that he allowed last night weren't soft, with the Leddy goal being deflected, and the Toews goal coming after a defensive zone faceoff loss by Phoenix. Watching Smith dominate makes me wonder how good the Hawks would be if they had that kind of goaltender. Corey Crawford was good last night in a nice rebound effort from the previous two games, but he's no world-beater.

Mike Smith has been nothing short of spectacular
Crawford has yet to win a game for the Hawks by himself. Smith has done that the entire season and series. A guy like him allows the defense to be more active in taking chances because they have confidence that if they slip up, it won't cost their team a goal. This has a ripple effect down to the offense as well, who can also take more chances. But more than everything, it allows your team to play a much more relaxed style. With Crawford and the Hawks, it seems like the defense and the rest of the team have to walk on eggshells, lest they give up a breakaway and hurt Crawford's confidence. It puts enormous pressure on the defense to hang back, taking them away from what they need to do to succeed in the Hawks system. This also hurts the offense, who have to exert that much more pressure on getting back on defense and forechecking, taking them away from focusing on taking chances to create breakaways, scoring chances, and at it's most basic level, shots on net.

I still think the Hawks can win with a goalie like Crawford. They just need to keep the momentum going, up the tempo and the pace, and remember what they do best to win. The Hawks seemed to forget that in the first two periods last night, when they seemed to tire of the physical play of the Coyotes. The Hawks cannot try to match up toe to toe with physical teams like Phoenix; they just do not have the personnel to do so. Instead, the Hawks have been designed from top to bottom to be a puck possession team, a facet I continue to harp on. You can see it perfectly well when the Hawks are doing well, like they were in the third period last night. The offense must be premised on the skill of the Hawks forwards, and the ability of the athletic defensemen to maintain possession of the puck. Forechecking, tempo, shots on net; those are infinitely more important to the Hawks than going for big checks. They need to get some traffic in front of the net, an area that will be automatically bolstered by the Game 6 return of Andrew Shaw.

It doesn't help that the Hawks forwards don't block shots; it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Crawford, to watch for rebounds or deflected shots coming from the point, and the defense, to make sure the zone is cleared and there is no traffic in front of the net. On defense, the defensemen need not level players to impart a sense of physical intimidation like other squads. Instead, they must merely clear traffic in front of the net, be smart with pucks in their zone, and quickly facilitate rushes that take advantage of the Hawks' skill advantage. This is what makes watching guys like Johnny Oduya lazily take the puck in the defensive zone, only to be checked by a Coyotes player and subsequently turn it over. That nonsense needs to stop, and the only way to do it on both ends is for the Hawks to realize that pacing and tempo is their friend. More than anything, it means 100% effort on every sequence.

Michael Frolik celebrates Leddy's goal
The Hawks did this in the third period and overtime last night, and look what happened. They dominated possession of the puck, put all sorts of pressure on Mike Smith, and even started to iron out their power play issues. The Hawks looked like the team of old, and if Nick Leddy had hit a wide open net late in the period for what would have been his second goal, the game wouldn't have even gone to overtime. And speaking of Leddy, could this be a breakout game for the 20 year old? The Hawks picked up the former first round pick in exchange for first round bust Cam Barker a year or so ago, and he immediately found a way to stick around. He has had an up and down season, his first full season in the NHL, and an up and down series. But last night, as he notched the game tying goal in the third period, it looked like everything had clicked and the kid was playing with confidence. He seemed to be all over the place after that, disrupting any rushes or chances that Phoenix had, and playing great on offense. Simply put, his play reminded me of a young Duncan Keith. Let's hope that he can keep it up, as it will help ease one area of concern the Hawks have had all year.

So here the Hawks stand, their backs still against the wall. The series comes back to Chicago tomorrow night, in yet another game the Hawks need to win to save their season. They will need to play with the urgency, pace, tempo, and furor that they brought for the last 30 or so minutes of the game last night. It shouldn't be hard to get up for the game, given the fact that Hawks fans will be whipped into a frenzy, much like they always are. The stars are going to need to step it up, and Toews is going to have to use his overtime goal as a catalyst going forward. We shall see where it takes us, but these Hawks have been in a tenuous position all season, and really since last year. This team is used to having their backs against the wall, and they're experienced enough to make the most of it. If the Hawks take Game 6 at home, then all the pressure is on Phoenix in a Game 7 going forward. Let's hope that the Hawks of old, those Hawks that always came through when it matters most, show up on Monday. I know I, for one, am not ready for Hawks season to be over. Hopefully the players feel the same.