By Chris Block
If there ever was a game that could exemplify the current era Chicago Blackhawks, Monday’s 5-2 victory over the visiting New Jersey Devils is just it.
The Hawks patented style of suffocating much of the opposition’s attempts at advancing the puck through the neutral zone was in full force. And even when the Blackhawks let up temporarily and give an opponent a glimmer of hope, the Hawks are much too talented, and their opponent knows the fatal gut-punch is always potentially just around the next corner.
With the three-day Christmas break looming, the Chicago Blackhawks took to the United Center ice on Monday night to face off with a New Jersey Devils team that entered the contest with a .500 record (15-15-7).
Antti Raanta made his seventh consecutive start in the Hawks net since Corey Crawford suffered his injury during the first period of the December 8th game against the Florida Panthers. Raanta made 10 saves against a grand total of 12 New Jersey shots on Monday in improving his overall NHL record to 8-1-2 (2.20 GAA, 91.6 sv%) and 5-1-1 as Chicago’s interim number one goalie.
The Hawks hounding fore check didn’t give New Jersey much ice to work with or Antti Raanta much action for most of this contest. The Devils were held to 2 shots in the first period and just 10 the rest of the way. Raanta was fine for what he had to be, while his counterpart on the opposite end was overmatched by the vaunted Blackhawks’ offense.
Entertainment wise, Monday’s game took a while to get going. Ten minutes in, the Hawks thought they may have scored the game’s first goal off a Patrick Sharp stuff attempt, but referee Tim Peel had lost sight of the puck and whistled the play dead before the puck could sneak by New Jersey netminder Corey Schneider and the Devils’ goal line.
At a little past the 12 minute mark, a weird bounce in the Blackhawks end off the wall behind Antti Raanta wound up on a Devils stick and was quickly centered out front of Chicago’s net. Fortunately for the Hawks, Dainius Zubrus couldn’t handle the centering pass as it bounced over his stick and the puck would clear the Hawks zone.
40 seconds later, an innocent looking Patrick Sharp snap shot off the left side half boards in New Jersey’s end somehow eluded Corey Schneider. Devils’ defenseman Mark Fayne was between Sharp and the New Jersey goal. Fayne stuck his glove out just enough to get a piece of Sharp’s shot, but not enough to knock it down, and the redirection was just enough to fool Schneider and sneak just inside the near post.
The first period would end with the Hawks holding the 1-0 lead. New Jersey managed just 2 shots in the period, to the Blackhawks 12.
New Jersey evened the score at 5:37 of the sandwich stanza when Stephen Gionta racked his 2nd goal of the season. Nick Leddy had tried to move the puck up the wall from deep in his own zone, but the puck was intercepted by New Jersey before it got to Bryan Bickell, Leddy’s intended target. Jacob Josefson fed the puck over to defenseman Jon Merrill and his shot from the top of the point was tipped on the way in by Gionta. This was the Devils fourth shot on goal of the night and the game was tied 1-1.
Three minutes later, the Hawks regained the lead on a couple of individual efforts on fifty-fifty puck battles. First, Kris Versteeg beat veteran Devils blueliner Marek Zidlicky to a dump in, in the corner to Schneider’s right. Versteeg moved the puck back to Leddy at the point. Schneider left a rebound off of Leddy’s shot, but Patrick Kane beat Zidlicky to the rebound with good body positioning in front of the net and swatted the puck by Schneider to give the Hawks a 2-1 lead. The goal was Kane’s 22nd of the season. Leddy and Versteeg picked up the helpers, each being their 13th assists on the campaign.
Less than five minutes later, Brandon Saad was first into New Jersey’s zone on another Hawks’ dump in. Saad gained the puck and immediately fed Bryan Bickell as he was trailing, into the right face off circle. In one motion, Bickell settled the puck and ripped a snap shot that raised over Schneider’s left shoulder and inside the near post. Andrew Shaw was arriving at that side of the goal to provide some distraction, just as Bickell’s shot did, but Shaw’s presence was really no factor as Bickell’s shot was perfectly placed inside the right post and crossbar. The goal was Bickell’s 6th. Duncan Keith picked up his 30th assist of the season on the play as well, along with Saad’s 15th helper.
The 3-1 score stood heading into the second intermission. The Hawks had a couple of near misses in the final minutes of the second. Kane ripped a shot from out high by Schneider’s stick side but off the post on a Blackhawks power play. Brandon Saad hit far-side post after he stole a puck at the Devils blue line to kill the last rush on New Jersey’s lone power play of the game after Mike Kostka backhanded clearing attempt sailed over the glass. In the final seconds of the period, Marian Hossa used a power move to drive at the Devils’ goal, but his scoring attempt was thwarted when Mark Fayne put a hard slash on Hossa’s stick that prevented an easy backhand goal. Hossa pleaded with the official, but no penalty was called on the play. By the end of forty minutes, Schneider had faced 25 Blackhawks shots in all, to Raanta’s 8 across the ice.
The Hawks got caught watching the puck a little more than they typically do in the opening moments of the third, and New Jersey’s Michael Ryder made them pay for that at the 59 second mark of the third.
Ryder’s original shot after zone entry just missed Raanta wide right. The puck then came back out to the slot to Ryder, who put the puck to his backhand and beat Raanta into the vacated side of the goal. And just like that, after dominating the Devils over 40 minutes, the Hawks found themselves in a 3-2 game.
At the 5:54 mark, Canadian Olympic team hopeful, Patrick Sharp notched his second goal of the game, and 18th of the season. Sharp was sprung on a pass through the neutral from Marian Hossa. Sharp’s speed was then too much for Jon Merrill as the Devils’ defender tried to cut Sharp off near the Devils blue line and it turned into a breakaway for the Chicago sniper. One on one with Corey Schneider, Sharp wristed his chance just under the left catching glove to give the Hawks a two-goal bulge.
Nick Leddy finished the scoring with 7:01 to play in the third when he blasted his 5th goal of the season by Schneider on a Hawks power play after Jaromir Jagr was sent to the box for hooking Versteeg. On the scoring play, Versteeg won the only draw he took all night, using his skate to kick the puck away from Travis Zajac. Saad swooped in for support, taking possession and getting the puck back to Brent Seabrook at the right point. He fed Leddy across the top of the point and Leddy wound up and let a hard shot loose from just inside the left faceoff circle and by Schneider’s left pad and inside the far post.
The Hawks power play went 1 for 4 on the evening. Their power play ranks 3rd in the NHL at 23.9%. Currently the Hawks are the only Western Conference team among the top five in power play efficiency. Three of the five worst penalty kills belong to the East (Tor, Fla, NYI), but the Hawks PK is a part of that group as well. The Hawks PK ranks 28th in the league, running at 75.6% efficiency.
Blackhawks are now idle for the league/NHLPA mandatory three-day Christmas break. That’s pure marketing genius when you think about it. Have 28 teams play on a Monday night when most Christmas celebrators are out completing their shopping, then completely silence the league for the next three days when people nationwide are sitting at home doing basically nothing, searching for a distraction. That’s the NHL in a nutshell. The tradition of NFL football on Thanksgiving Day helped build that empire. NBA fans have Christmas Day afternoon and night games to look forward to. NHL fans can sit around during the Christmas holiday and talk about how “their” sport “gets it,” which is the message preached each year by people in and around the NHL who are actually paid to be a part of it. Hockey is a sport. The NHL is an entertainment business. As an entity, when you don’t conduct yourself like an entertainment business, yet still shell out dollars to your athletes like the other leagues do, that’s how you get owners who can’t keep up and fans who take it in the can each year when owners are “forced” to raise ticket prices because other revenue streams are generally insufficient. The NHL actually came up with a great concept for New Years Day, which it’s now going to water down and lessen the impact of with its Stadium Series, satisfying big market owners by raking in a short-term revenue spike at the expense of the bigger picture.
When the break concludes, the Blackhawks resume action on Friday night, when the Colorado Avalanche travel to the United Center. Then, on Saturday, the Hawks will be in St. Louis to battle the rival Blues. The post-break 3-in-4 wraps next Monday night (12/30) when the LA Kings come to Chicago.
–Blackhawks lines, pairs & scratches Monday vs New Jersey
10-Patrick Sharp / 19-Jonathan Toews / 81-Marian Hossa
23-Kris Versteeg / 26-Michal Handzus / 88-Patrick Kane
29-Bryan Bickell / 65-Andrew Shaw / 20-Brandon Saad
52-Brandon Bollig / 16-Marcus Kruger / 28-Ben Smith
2-Duncan Keith / 7-Brent Seabrook
27-Johnny Oduya / 4-Niklas Hjalmarsson
8-Nick Leddy / 6-Michael Kostka
31-Antti Raanta (starter)
30-Jason LaBarbera (backup)
Scratches: D-17-Sheldon Brookbank… D-32-Michal Rozsival… G-50-Corey Crawford….
Power play I: Shaw-Toews-Kane w/ Sharp & Keith
Power play II: Saad-Versteeg-Hossa w/Leddy & Seabrook
PK forwards: Kruger-Handzus, Toews-Hossa, Saad-Smith
PK defense: Keith-Hjalmarsson, Oduya-Seabrook
Odds and Saads
–In spite of the win, and their 26-7-6 record at nearly the halfway point of the 2013-14 season, the Blackhawks enter the Xmas break trailing Anaheim by one point for the Western Conference top spot.
The Ducks (27-7-5) have 59 points, to the Hawks 58. Anaheim won their 9th consecutive game in Washington on Monday night. The game was also Ducks’ coach Bruce Boudreau’s return to Washington D.C., where he had coached just prior to getting the job in Anaheim.
Anaheim’s current 9-game winning streak began at the United Center on December 6th, a 3-2 shootout victory.
The Ducks have 12-game point streak ongoing as they lost the two games prior beating the Hawks on 12/6 in shootout decision fashion. They’re outscoring the opposition (shootout deciders included) 44-27 during that stretch. Six of the twelve contests have been decided by one goal.
One aspect of the Ducks’ current run is that in their past 12 games, Anaheim has scored just 5 power play goals. And they’re 0 for their last 19 on the PP. Anaheim’s power play ranks 25th overall in the league at 15%. The Ducks’ PK isn’t all that great either. They rank 21st in the NHL in overall penalty killing, at 80.8%. That’s still better than the Hawks’ 75.6% (28th).
So, basically, the Ducks are playing some pretty tough hockey right now and getting it done on the PK and at even strength. The Ducks PK is 31-36 (86.2%) in this 12-game point streak (10-0-0-2). And the Anaheim power play is running at 14.3% over those twelve games.
Anaheim and the Hawks next meet on Friday January 17th at the UC. That’s a big weekend for the Hawks with two games on home ice. That Sunday they’ll face the Boston Bruins in the Finals rematch for NBC.
–It appears Jonathan Toews is over the finger injury that had kept him from taking the normal faceoff load he is accustomed to. Toews was 17-22 (77.3%) against the Devils. Overall, the Hawks were 67.9% on the night. In the last week, Toews took 16 draws versus Nashville (going 38%), 18 versus Vancouver (56%) and 22 against New Jersey (77.3%). Two weekends back, Toews was limited to 8 faceoffs taken at Toronto and 13 the next night at home against the Kings.
–Definitely disappointing as a fan that Martin Brodeur sat out what it almost certain to be his last visit to Chicago as a player. Brodeur-Schneider is more a tandem now than a case of the number one goalie getting the night off against the Hawks at the UC, as was the case with Roberto Luongo getting a planned night off in the previous game, 12/20, when the Canucks played Luongo in Dallas on 12/19 and Eddie Lack against Raanta in Chicago the next night.
–Brandon Saad skated two minutes of power play time (and just briefly, :12 on the PK) yet still had only 12:45 of ice time versus the Devils – a little odd given how lopsided the action in this game was. What is not odd is how well Saad fits on the third line with Bickell and Shaw. Saad provides the finesse while the other two are there to handle the dirty work.
–On the Hawks broadcast Monday, it was mentioned by Pat Foley that long-time Daily Herald writer and Blackhawks beat reporter Tim Sassone did not attend the game and Foley and Ed Olczyk stated well wishes to Sassone. Sassone had some health issues a couple of years back that kept him off the job for the bulk of that season. I knew that of late Sassone had been attending, but has not been going up to the press box at the UC during games. Rather, staying downstairs in the media room and watching on the monitors. Hopefully, Sassone gets well very soon and returns to his beat. Our best wishes go out to Tim and his family, especially over this holiday, for a swift recovery.