A couple days ago, I believe I wrote something to the effect of, “If the Blackhawks manage to beat Calgary in Marcus Kruger‘s return to the lineup, don’t make him out to be the ultimate missing piece.” Well, it actually turned out Kruger was the missing piece against the Flames on Saturday night … in a way.
The Chicago Blackhawks’ fourth line contributed to all of the Blackhawks’ meaningful offense, as Kruger and Andrew Shaw were on the ice for Andrew Ladd‘s first goal, while Shaw tipped home a Michal Rozsival shot for the eventual game-winner. Yes, Ladd and Teuvo Teravainen potted empty netters late, but come on … they’re empty netters. Those shouldn’t fuel any sort of confidence the Blackhawks’ big offensive guns are heating up.
We should of course be happy the Blackhawks got two points against the Flames, because they’ve done that just twice in their last eight games. Nashville is red-hot, Dallas and St. Louis are done losing, and even Minnesota has started to pick up the pace. The Blackhawks would obviously like to stay out of wild-card territory, and that means points however you can get them.
Still, the major players in Chicago’s offense continued to have trouble producing Saturday. The game’s best shifts were probably turned in by the Andrew Desjardins-Kruger-Shaw and Tomas Fleischmann-Teuvo Teravainen-Richard Panik lines. This would be fantastic if the top two lines were producing. Unfortunately, they’re barely noticeable right now.
The defense was also suspect once again, as Joel Quenneville made the bizarre decision to make his blue line as slow as humanly possibly by benching Christian Ehrhoff and Erik Gustafsson in favor of Viktor Svedberg and Rozsival. To be fair, I actually like having Rozsival in the lineup; I think it’s Trevor van Riemsdyk who needs to take a long walk off a short pier at this point. But that isn’t going to happen, so the Blackhawks were saddled with probably the most sluggish blue line we’ve seen since Q got to Chicago.
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None of Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, TVR, Rozsival or Svedberg have anything resembling speed, while Ehrhoff and Gustafsson can move better than all five of those guys. They got away with it against the Flames, and they probably will against tonight’s opponent, the Vancouver Canucks, if Q chooses to go that way. Against teams like Dallas, St. Louis and Los Angeles, though … yeah, good luck.
But Scott Darling was up to the task, stopping 31 of 32 Flames shots. The Flames do have some good pieces, like Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett, Sean Monahan and Dougie Hamilton, but how exactly do you get outshot by Calgary at this point in time? (The Blackhawks managed 27 shots). Thankfully, more time in the net is doing Darling well, as he has seemed a lot more comfortable in the blue paint recently than he did while Corey Crawford was making 95 percent of the starts. It makes a lot of sense on paper, but it was hard to know how Darling would actually respond to more playing time until he got in the net. So far, so good.
Basically, the takeaway from the Calgary win should be this: The Blackhawks got two points, but the effort to get them was not nearly good enough from a large portion of the roster. Unfortunately, we’re probably not going to see a much better showing tonight.
That’s because the Canucks are somehow doing worse than playing out the string. They’ve completely fallen apart down the stretch, going 2-7-1 in their last 10 games, and they’ve been shut out four times in their last five tries. In their last outing, St. Louis clinched a playoff spot with a 4-0 win against Vancouver. Fittingly, the Blackhawks need just one point tonight to earn their eighth consecutive playoff berth, so the Canucks could push an opponent into the postseason in back-to-back games.
It doesn’t help that a majority of Vancouver’s useful pieces are out with injury. Alexander Edler, Brandon Sutter, Luca Sbisa, Markus Granlund, Christopher Tanev and Radim Vrbata are all listed on the Canucks’ injury report. So that pretty much leaves Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin … as it has all season, more or less.
Daniel is tops on the team with 59 points, and Henrik is second with 51. Jannik Hansen and Bo Horvat, guys who can create trouble when let loose, have 32 points apiece. Things really fall apart after that from an offensive perspective, and there’s really no one on defense to support Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom in net. Nor does anyone on this team seem to care too much about providing that support right now.
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This game, despite the opponent, will prove to be very important for the Blackhawks. Sometimes, you just need that one outing to get confidence back. You’d have to think Darling and the third- and fourth-line guys are feeling decent to good right now, but the Blackhawks who really need that push — the first- and second-liners and blueliners — could get a boost tonight. All NHL teams are still NHL teams, so some offense from the big guns and especially from the powerplay would be welcome not only from a winning/clinching a playoff spot perspective, but also from a confidence gaining perspective.
(As a side note, the Blackhawks’ powerplay still hasn’t scored since I last went to a game, a couple of weeks ago in St. Louis. I am so sorry, everyone.)
The Blackhawks could float through this game and possibly leave it up to a Sedin goal or five as the deciding factor. Or, they could take control against a severely flawed team and put up a seven spot, which would be great for business. Let’s hope for the latter.