Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports
The new year is upon us and the first game in 2014 is an important one for the Chicago Blackhawks. Stanley Cup winning goalie Corey Crawford returns to the ice for the first time since December 8th when he suffered a lower body injury. Rookie netminder Antti Raanta did more than enough to soften the blow of losing Crawford, but now we get to see if Crawford is healthy for another postseason run. His test this evening is a feisty New York Islanders team that has won two in a row, including an impressive victory over the Boston Bruins.
Before jumping into what Crawford’s return means for the ‘Hawks, let’s take a closer look at their competition in tonight’s contest. The Islanders have been a disappointment this year. After a promising playoff appearance last season, they are at the bottom of their division and will need an impressive run to sniff the eight seed in the Eastern Conference. However, this doesn’t make them an automatic W for any team because the Islanders can score, and if you get into a shootout with them, you can find yourself in trouble.
We know how good John Tavares is. Anyone with a pulse that has stumbled across NHL.com knows how good he is and how good he can be. The line of Tavares, Thomas Vanek, and recent Olympic snub Kyle Okposo can match the firepower of most first lines in the league, including the Blackhawks. If the Isles can get two or three goals from this group tonight, then they can certainly walk away with a victory. I am pretty sure Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp will have something to say about that before the night is over. Beyond that first line, the Isles are going to struggle matching up with the depth that the ‘Hawks can throw at them.
Consistency has been one of the Islanders many issues this year. Will a team that has been playing better-than-average hockey as of late be able to keep it up? Or is this going to be the start of a three of four game slide? I don’t expect the Islanders to bring their A game, which is what will be needed to beat the Blackhawks tonight, unless Crawford’s return is nightmarish.
No Islander defenseman should be looking forward to tonight’s game. The only real chance the team from Long Island will have is if their goalie Evgeni Nabakov can outplay Crawford and put up at 35 save night. Nabakov has had a good season and has seen a lot of shots with one of the league’s worst defenses in front of him on a nightly basis. He will need to be on point this evening as I imagine the ‘Hawks will get many scoring opportunities from a variety of perspectives.
Now how will the Blackhawks get their plethora of scoring chances tonight? Well, we know what the Toews line will bring, but let’s take a look at the juicy match-ups that exist further along the depth chart. The Andrew Shaw, Marion Hossa, and Brandon Saad line should feast against both the second and third lines of the Islanders, but what will really help the Sharp lines and the Blackhawks other lines is the advantage that their offensive-minded defenseman bring to the table. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will put a lot of pressure on the less experienced and talented Islander blue line. I expect to see a lot of shots coming from Blackhawk defenseman, and I believe one goes into the back of the net clean. I also expect a good game from Kris Versteeg tonight, as his speed will give the Islanders weaker lines fits and he will either finish or create scoring opportunities for his line mates.
I am hoping for two things this evening: an all-around good performance from the Isle to make this game exciting and a positive return for Corey Crawford. I am a big fan of Antti Raanta, but my main concern is that the ‘Hawks leans on Crawford too much down the stretch. This team is built to win another title, but an injured and inconsistent goalie can derail even the best of teams. Let’s hope Crawford returns to form tonight and shows us why he should be between the pipes come playoff time.