Merry Christmas, Chicago. Santa brought us some healthy wingers.
Though sniper Patrick Kane is still a few days away from returning from an ankle injury, wingers Viktor Stalberg and Marian Hossa have been cleared by the doctors and will be in the lineup tonight. Stalberg has been out since December 15th, when Ryan O’Byrne lived up to his pugilistic Irish stereotype and laid a hit on Stalberg worthy of a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Hossa, believe it or not, is returning from an undisclosed injury resulting from his collision with Nick Boynton during a practice session in late-November. The initial prognosis of a 2 – 3 week recovery period was obviously off by a factor of at least 50%. We’ll have to talk to the team doctors about that shit.
So Columbus has an uphill climb ahead of them against a Blackhawks team enjoying a three-game winning streak and expecting the return of some of its more potent scoring weapons. They did catch a break, however: more about that later.
The month of December has not been good to the Columbus Blue Jackets. In the 14 games since Thanksgiving, the inappropriate acronyms have won a total of three, all at home. They arrive at the United Center this evening having taken a whipping at home in their last outing, falling behind 6 – 0 to Vancouver before deciding to start playing, but of course the damage had been done. 7 – 3 was the final.
Special teams seems to be a big key to the disappointing stats. Columbus is in the top 10 in the number of power play opportunities, but they barely convert 11% overall, and less than 8% against teams in the Western Conference. They are one of the top 10 most penalized teams, but bottom 10 for PK percentage. Defense is also an issue, as only two of the team’s blueliners are in positive territory on their plus-minus, and the entire corps has contributed a total of seven goals.
A stroll up and down the roster shows, additionally, a reliance on a short list of scoring assets. Rick Nash is far and away the leader in that category, with RJ Umburger and Antoine Vermette a distant second and third, and a phalanx of others stretching out the long tail of this three-headed monster. But controlling those three is the key to keeping the Blue Jackets’ offense under wraps — and their record shows that nearly every team in the Western Conference has figured that out.
Goaltenders Mathieu Garon and Steve Mason have split the starts nearly down the middle, with Garon’s performance noticeably superior in all categories. Garon has been taking the majority of starts of late, and has been brought in to relieve Steve Mason twice in the last ten games. Clearly Mason’s miracle rookie year was just that, and he is struggling to hold on to a .500 record — and that may be all Columbus’ fans may ever be able to expect from him. So much the worse that Mason’s salary is set to triple at the end of this season.
So Chicago fans are hoping that the boys didn’t stuff themselves on turkey and green bean casserole yesterday, as we would like to keep this winning streak alive. Despite getting two of our strong offensive assets back in the lineup, defense has been the key to the winning streak. We’re allowing 30 or fewer shots per game, we’re staying out of the penalty box, and the Blackhawks’ forwards are putting a priority on back-checking. Putting the icing on the cake, defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have combined for 8 points in the last 5 games.
I mentioned that Columbus had caught a break for tonight’s game, and here it is: there is some unpleasant news on the back end. Goaltender Corey Crawford has been putting up extraordinary numbers in the last three games: 1.33 GAA, .952 save percentage. Unfortunately something about Christmas dinner did not agree with Crawford, and he has taken ill. The Blackhawks have recalled Hannu Toivonen from the Rockford IceHogs, and Marty Turco will start the game in net.
Puck drops at 6:00pm this evening at the United Center. In what I view as a supreme irony, the Chicago Bulls are being covered by the all-cable sports network, and the Blackhawks get the prime broadcast real estate on WGN TV. Broadcast radio is WGN AM-720, and XM subscribers should scan over to channel 238.