They may still be comfortably in the top tiers of the NHL standings, but our beloved Chicago Blackhawks are in a bit of a funk as of late, there’s no denying it. All great teams fall into funks, it’s inevitable in all sports, but real champions are the ones that come out of them stronger than they were before.
For the Blackhawks, there isn’t a better opportunity to rekindle their champions’ fire and ire than the next three games they have this upcoming week. The Anaheim Ducks visit the Madhouse on Madison tonight, followed by the Boston Bruins Sunday morning, and then a visit to Detroit to play their age-old rival the Red Wings Wednesday evening. Playing each of these teams will be tough physically, statistically, and psychologically, and to play them all in a row will push the limits and determine what the Blackhawks are really made of this season.
First up: the infamous, league-leading Anaheim Ducks. I’ve harped about the importance of beating the Ducks in the regular season before, so I won’t repeat myself, because every Hawks fan should know by now Anaheim is more than likely going to be standing between the Blackhawks and their shot at a Stanley Cup repeat before the season is over.
The last time the Hawks took on the Ducks in Chicago, they Ducks won via shoot-out 3-2. This outcome wasn’t shocking. From my view in the 300’s, both teams hit the ice in a very reserved, chess-style fashion; both teams trying to feel each other out for weaknesses, neither wanting to over commit or get burned by being overly aggressive. Thus, the scoring predictably followed a tit for tat, see-saw pattern: one for one until Hawks goalie Antti Raanta’s novice experience in NHL shoot-outs became the deciding factor.
Needless to say, taking a conservative approach against a team like the Ducks is not the best game plan, but even more so now because since their last meeting, the Ducks have been surging. Their win in Chicago in early December proved to be the start of a torrid ten game win-streak, which was only interrupted by a slight hiccup loss to the San Jose Sharks. The Ducks would pay the Sharks back with a 6-3 drubbing the very next game and are currently blazing in an eight-game winning streak. The Ducks roll into Chi-town undefeated in 2014, coming off an outing where they clobbered the Vancouver Canucks 9-1.
The Ducks are leading the NHL right now for a reason. If you look at the Ducks past 19 games you’ll notice that the Ducks scored first in all but eight of those games, and in those eight games, they were never down by more than a goal in all except four of those contests. So what’s the message behind the numbers? The Ducks make other teams play the game they want to: they dictate the pace and they control the tempo.
How are the Ducks able to accomplish this? Look at the Ducks’ roster: it’s full of big forwards, and mid-sized defenseman, relatively speaking, all of which are hovering in their late twenties to earlier thirties. Hockey teams like this tend to rely on body-positioning and outmuscling their opponents in the crease and along the boards, because on open ice, their lack of speed can become a weakness. They don’t dump and chase but opt for possession and positioning to win games by tipping in goals and blocking-up passing lanes. This strategy is very hard to overcome, especially if the opponent is a similarly put together team, like Anaheim’s Pacific Division rivals the Sharks and Canucks, whom the Ducks have for the most part decisively handled so far this season.
So how do you beat the Ducks? Take them out of their game. The one blemish on the Ducks’ streak-filled record as of late is their 3-1 loss to San Jose on 12/29, as I mentioned earlier. The Sharks won this game by scoring two goals in the first period, and then another in the second. The Ducks simply just don’t have the speed to swarm their opponent and tally successive goals in a hurry to tip the momentum back in their favor in the face of such a deficit.
So how can the Hawks create the necessary lead against the Ducks to get the W? One word: speed. I mentioned this last time the Hawks played the Ducks. When you look at the Blackhawks, the one thing that stands out is the roster’s youth. With youth comes a spring in your step, trust me you’ll know when it’s gone. The Hawks need to use their edge in speed to create odd man rushes to outpace and outlast the Ducks. The Ducks’ dangerous offense won’t be able to put shots on goal if they’re chasing the puck all night. So possession, speed, and agility are going to be critical for the Blackhawks tonight and Hawks players like Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad, and Nick Leddy need to lead by example in these departments.
The saying goes in hockey a one goal lead is not a lead. Well against the Anaheim Ducks, a two goal lead is not a lead. The Hawks need to put the Ducks in at least a three goal hole and keep them there to emerge victorious tonight, and the writing is already on the wall. The few teams that have been able to definitively deal a loss to the Ducks thus far this season have been the Colorado Avalanche, who beat the Ducks 6-1 in their season opener, and the Tampa Bay Lighting, who crushed the Ducks 5-1 in mid-November. What do the Avs and Lighting have in common? You guessed it, youth and speed. These young run and gun teams put the Ducks between a rock and a hard place by simply skating circles around them. It’s a case of you can’t beat what you can’t catch.
The Hawks have already had success with such a strategy this season, relatively speaking. The last time the Hawks faced the St. Louis Blues, whose roster is practically a carbon copy of the Ducks in terms of types of personnel, they came out blitzing and put up three goals in the first period. The Hawks then scored two more goals on the Blues back-up goalie, and had Antti Raanta not gotten stage fright, they would have certainly walked away with a decisive win instead of an OT loss.
The Blackhawks’ lack-luster play as of late (by reigning Stanley Cup champion standards) needs to come to an end at some point, and I can’t think of a better way for the Hawks to get their groove back than by beating the best team in NHL right now. It goes without saying a win tonight against the Anaheim Ducks would pay big morale dividends for the Hawks, and the stage is set for them to cash in and sell high.
FOR THE DAGGER!