The Chicago Blackhawks took their game to another level Saturday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, playing noticeably more physical
Monday will be a very busy day for Chicago sports fans. The Cubs are hosting the Washington Nationals at Wrigley Field for Game 3 of the the NLDS, and the Bears are hosting the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football featuring the highly anticipated debut of Mitchell Trubisky. On top of all that, the two hottest teams in the NHL will face off at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto when the Chicago Blackhawks take on the Maple Leafs.
In their first two games, both teams have scored a combined 15 goals and have been red hot. The Leafs beat Winnipeg 7-2, then went to New York and took down the Rangers 8-5. Their top-six forward group is one of the best in the NHL, featuring 20-year-old Auston Matthews and fellow former top picks William Nylander and Mitch Marner. The addition of veteran Patrick Marleau has made this Leafs offense lethal to start the season.
For the Blackhawks, they’re coming off two big wins that may be a little inflated. They beat the Penguins and Blue Jackets, who both played games the night before and started their backup goalie in Chicago.
Nonetheless, Patrick Kane has wasted no time. With two goals and four assists, Kane has been dazzling out of the gate and will look to make his mark Monday as the top winger in the league. Unfortunately, Kane and the Blackhawks will have to play without center Nick Schmaltz, who is dealing with an upper-body injury and will miss this two-game road trip.
Physicality noticeable early
Something that has been different in the first couple games for the Blackhawks, compared to last year, has been their physicality. General manager Stan Bowman said the ‘Hawks wanted to get younger, faster and harder to play against in the 2017 offseason. That initiative, along with the addition of a couple new assistant coaches, may have added some extra motivation for the Blackhawks to start pushing people around.
The one play that stood out to everybody happened Saturday night against the Blue Jackets. At 1:50 in the video below, Richard Panik is in on the forecheck and makes a big hit on defenseman Seth Jones, which forces a turnover. Brandon Saad makes a quick pass to Jonathan Toews, who buries a one-timer for a goal.
But this hasn’t been the only example of the ’Hawks starting to wear down their opponent. The Blackhawks’ fourth-liners, Tommy Wingels and Lance Bouma, have been very active in finishing their checks. Same goes for sophomore John Hayden. Even rookie Alex DeBrincat has gotten in on the party.
It’s evident that the ‘Hawks coaching staff acknowledges its depth issue on defense and has countered that weakness with the strength of the transition game. We don’t see the ‘Hawks playing much dump-and-chase because they are still a possession team, but they are playing a lot harder to get the puck back.
Even a player like Saad is being rewarded for getting to the dirty areas of the ice. He has four goals in two games because he’s been crashing the net hard and putting in dirty goals. With the loss of Marian Hossa, Saad has established himself as a prime successor to one of the great two-way Blackhawks to put on the Indian Head.
How will the Leafs counter?
Going into Toronto, the Blackhawks and Leafs will most likely have a similar game plan, and that will be to expose the opposing team’s defense.
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have been reunited on the first pairing, which has looked great so far, but the rest of the defensive group hasn’t been tested much. Jan Rutta has been a pleasant surprise, while Connor Murphy is slowly adjusting to the puck-moving style. And as Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling play more each night, their poise will establish itself.
The Leafs’ defense has some good players as well, but the ‘Hawks will do their best to play a good road game to protect Corey Crawford. Crow has been strong the first two games and will likely be tested early against the high-flying Leafs.
The ‘Hawks have proven they will make teams pay if they turn the puck over. Look for a heavy forecheck by the ’Hawks in an attempt to neutralize Toronto’s top-six forwards. It’s possible this game could turn into a track meet Monday, but if the ’Hawks are smart they will grind away at the Leafs along the boards and in the corners.