Kristi Loucks The Hockey Writers
The Blackhawks Playoff Producers
The Blackhawks and Blues playoff matchup is nothing new; they have met many times before. The Blackhawks know all too well what it’s like to constantly face off against an opponent in their path only to be sent home early. The Detroit Red Wings were that team for Chicago, and Chicago is now that team for St. Louis. For the Blackhawks, there are always a few key playoff producers that can turn the table for a team in the hunt. Some are obvious, but others simply have an equally important, if not more subtle role to play. At the end of the day, everyone is vital.
The Blackhawks will be going into the first round without home ice thanks to an ugly March run that saw them win only five of their 13 starts. So, the Blues will get four games on home ice to the Blackhawks three. Of course, in spite of the slow start on the road for the Blackhawks, they have gone on to become one of the top road teams in the NHL yet again which is a hallmark of Joel Quenneville’s teams. In addition, the Blackhawks have experienced just about every playoff scenario possible in recent years.
They’ve played with home ice, and without, battled back from 3-1 deficits, and swept opponents. They’ve even had to start their backup netminder, Scott Darling over Crawford for a series. Every worst case scenario has been a challenge they have faced and conquered, so going into a series without home ice is unlikely to cause even a shred of concern.
That being said, the Blues are a tough opponent who have been on the doorstep of success for a while and the Blackhawks are going to need every weapon in their arsenal to make sure they remain a roadblock for St. Louis.
One of the major concerns going into the final week had been the Blackhawks health as they were starting to look more like a MASH unit than a hockey club. Good news was delivered on Tuesday morning, as it seems that all the Blackhawks were on the ice for morning skate and look to be ready for Game 1. So, Duncan Keith will be the only one missing (suspension) on Wednesday.
Toews is undoubtedly one of the best leaders in the NHL. Toews had a slow start to his season, but with the addition of Andrew Ladd, he wrapped up the season playing the way the Blackhawks have come to expect him to play. His two-way defensive style has never been in question, but they Blackhawks need the offense from Toews as well.
Toews added three goals and four assists in his last five games.
He is one of the most effective two-way centermen, but he will have to remain active on the scoresheet in order to keep the Blues from simply choosing to focus on Patrick Kane’s line. He has been playing the right type of aggressive hockey of late, but he and his linemates Ladd and Marian Hossa will have to give the Blues a challenge on the offensive side as well as the defensive side.
Toews has always had a knack for finding the right shots at the most vital moments in games, whether for himself or his linemates. In order to make a deep run, he will certainly have to don his Captain Clutch cape as he did in the final three games against the Anaheim Ducks in last season’s Western Conference Finals. Toews is the type of player that may quietly go about getting the job done, but when the Blackhawks have needed him the most he almost always steps up and buries one of those clutch goals. The kind that can break the backs of opponents and ignite the crowds at the United Center, or deflate the home crowd on the road.
With a game on the line, Toews is more than capable of putting the whole team on his back and carrying them across the finish line as he did in Anaheim in Game 7 last year.
The Blackhawks don’t need that on a nightly basis, but there will be games that one of the Blackhawks big guns will have to shine.
Toews is always a good bet.
Patrick Kane is a big game player. He loves the spotlight and generally puts on a pretty good show. Like all scoring forwards, Kane does have a tendency towards hot and cold streaks, though until very recently he has been mostly red-hot all season long. So much so that he has been about as close to a wire-to-wire leader in the NHL’s scoring race. In fact, Kane was the only player that reached 100 points this season.
Kane closed out the season with the Art Ross Trophy and 106 points. It was the first time an American-born player has won the award.
Like many of his teammates, Kane had been battling a bit of a cold streak before finishing up the season on a tear grabbing seven goals and five assists in his last five games. In fact, Showtime nabbed his 100th point on the back of a four-point game and a hat trick.
For much of the season, Kane’s line had been the ultimate offensive weapon for the Blackhawks with Kane, Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov producing steadily. Their quick chemistry was in large part responsible for Kane’s 26 game point streak as his linemates fed Kane, who was nearly always ready to snipe a shot. When the puck wasn’t going in, Kane was serving up perfect passes to Panarin, who is a sharpshooter in his own right. Then there was Anisimov, who was almost always near the crease ready to lift a puck over the goalie’s shoulder or backhand a rebound.
The Blackhawks are going to need the best Kane has to offer in the playoffs and everything he has shown thus far this season would indicate that he is more than ready to work his magic. Kane is elusive and quick, and his slick stick work makes taking the puck off of him near impossible when he is keyed in. He is even more dangerous because of his playmaking ability.
If there is no shot for Kane, he seems to know inherently where his teammates are on the ice, and he rarely misses once he finds the open man. Whether it is Duncan Keith standing at the point ready to one-time a puck, or Panarin waiting at the front of the crease as Kane flies around the back of the net. Kane has a knack for locating the best scoring opportunities on the fly. When all else fails, he is slippery enough to circle back and find his own shot.
Keith is quite possibly the most important player for the Blackhawks. Perhaps even more important than Kane himself.
He doesn’t contribute a lot of goals, but he is one of the best defenders in the NHL. As far as skaters go, Keith is one of the best and most efficient skaters on the blue line. His effortless movements make him appear to float over the ice, even at top speed. In fact, Keith has learned to expend as little energy as possible skating as he does, and it has enabled him to log an incredible amount of hard minutes without gassing out.
Of course, Keith’s fitness level is another factor that allows him to play half a game when needed without even looking winded. Certainly fatigue is a real thing for Keith as anyone, but somehow, when the playoffs start Keith is just in his element. Perhaps the adrenaline helps, but without a doubt, there is some sort of switch that Keith throws to avoid becoming physically or mentally fatigued even through multiple triple overtime games like the Blackhawks had last season.
Keith is often the quarterback moving the puck from one end of the ice to the other taking the pressure off his forwards and creating space once he enters the offensive zone. His ability to join in on the offensive rush also forces opponents to focus on the entire line instead of just homing in on Kane, Toews, or Panarin.
The blue line’s ability to draw that attention can often create the time and space for the forwards or allows the defensemen to move into scoring position. And when Keith winds up from the point late in the game, they seem to find their way to the back of the net.
Unfortunately, Keith will be sitting out for Game 1 on the back of his road rage in Minnesota, which ultimately cost him six games (including one playoff game). The suspension was a gift for the Blackhawks and Keith, as many (myself included) anticipated a 10-15 game suspension. Regardless of whatever occurred before Keith swung his stick, a slash to the face is something that should carry a substantial penalty no matter who is on the other end of the stick.
Panarin has had some ups and downs in terms of his offensive production this season. However, he still maintained a considerable lead over all rookies in all the major scoring categories. He is also second in points only to Kane on the Blackhawks and finished the season ninth overall. The future is very bright for Panarin.
In his final five games of the season, Panarin had back-to-back four-point games and added five goals and eight assists to his already impressive stat sheet. He finished up with 30 goals, 47 assists, and 77 points. The last rookie to tally over 70 points in a season for the Blackhawks was Kane (21 G, 51 A, 72 P). No Blackhawks rookie has scored 30 goals in Chicago since the 1995-96 season (Eric Daze), not even Kane.
The league deems him a rookie, so his numbers should easily put him at the top of the class for the Calder after Connor McDavid’s injury caused him to miss half the season. However, the hardware likely means little to him as there is another goal he has his sights set on. A Stanley Cup.
The Blackhawks need to capture the lightning in a bottle and keep the second line rolling. Panarin and Kane are one of the most dazzling offensive duos the league has to offer this season, and they make it tough on opponents. They simply can not risk focusing on one too much, or the other will make them pay. It helps that Artem Anisimov is nearly always in a position to collect rebounds and loose change around the crease, as Panarin and Kane like to fire at will. The trio of Kane, Panarin and Anisimov have in fact accounted for 96 of the teams 234 goals.
If the Blackhawks hope to make another deep run in an attempt to capture back-to-back Stanley Cups, the Breadman will need to be on target and the second line will have to hold on to the symmetry that has made them so incredibly dominant all season long. If they can do it for much of an 82 game season, at least 16 more should be in the realm of possibility.
The arguments have gone both ways all season, Panarin has been so good because he is on the line with Kane and vice versa, but at the end of the day does it really matter? They’ve been very effective, and certainly they bring out the best in one another, but neither one is trying to put a shine a dime store gem. They are both diamonds in their own right.
Corey Crawford has missed the last several weeks of the season and 12 games down the stretch with a head injury, and what was often described as vertigo. The Blackhawks fan base breathed a sigh of relief when he made his way into the final game of the season. The first twenty minutes were stellar; the last half showed a bit of rust, but that was to be expected.
The hope is that Crawford is 100 percent, as netminders with suspected head injuries can often invite opponents buzzing the tower if you will.
For the Blackhawks to advance, they know Crawford will have to find the rhythm he had for most of the season. The netminder that helped the team put up a 12 game win streak and recorded a career and league-best seven shutouts on the season. A return to form for Crawford would certainly help the Blackhawks in achieving their ultimate goal.
They’ll need every weapon in their arsenal, as the road to the Cup is far from easy, no matter how dominant the teams have been over the course of the regular season. Teams have come from the Wild Card to win and fallen short after a President’s Cup winning season. Anyone who is invited to the show can end up as the headliner, and the Blackhawks intend to grab the spotlight.
At the end of the day, Crawford may never get the accolades or the recognition he deserves, but the bottom line is that the Blackhawks are a better team with Crow, than without. He has earned the faith of his teammates, his coaches, and the fans over the years and those are likely the only opinions that matter to the netminder. Though a pair of Stanley Cups certainly doesn’t hurt his confidence either. In fact, another one might make him forget all the Vezina conversations he’s been left out of.
Crawford is a two-time Stanley Cup winner, and the window of opportunity is still wide open for him to add to the collection. He may never be a part of the league’s elite conversation, but many of those netminders will never have a Stanley Cup, or perhaps even play in a Stanley Cup Final. When all is said and done, guess which ones will be wishing they could trade places in a few years.
Revenge is best served out of the Stanley Cup.
Trevor van Riemsdyk
Trevor van Riemsdyk has had some ups and downs throughout his second season with the Blackhawks (which by NHL standards is still his rookie campaign), but he has earned his place within the top four on the blue line. He has logged substantial minutes in Keith’s absence both during his injury and his suspension, and each time he has stood out for his solid play.
Sure, he’s had some cringe-worthy moments from time to time, and some of the pairings coach Quenneville and his staff have tried have worked better than others for the young defenseman.
Van Riemsdyk is at his best with the Blackhawks most underrated defenseman, Niklas Hjalmarsson and it would seem that is a pairing the Blackhawks will roll with going forward. What has stood out the most is his ability to adapt and play both sides, much like Hjalmarsson has done in years past. It may seem like a small alteration, but it is, in fact, a major adjustment for even the most veteran player. So, to see a young defenseman adapt as well as van Riemsdyk has is not something that should be discounted.
He is not the second coming of Keith, but there are some similarities to Hjalmarsson when he was a rookie defenseman. He garnered some of the same kinds of frustration among the fanbase early on, but Hammer turned into one of the best shutdown defensemen the league has to offer, not to mention a big part of the Blackhawks successes year after year.
TVR has a ways to go before the fans are at completely ease with a young defenseman logging close to 20 minutes a game, but every game played is a step in the right direction. Defensemen are rarely overnight sensations; the learning curve can often be steep and riddled with potholes, but van Riemsdyk has battled through all the ups and downs. From injuries to rotating pairings, the left side, or right side, he just keeps plugging away with that trademark smile on his face.
In spite of a brutal injury (a fractured patella) on a block that kept him out most of the last season, TVR leads the Blackhawks in blocks with 155. Brent Seabrook logged 141 last season while Hjalmarsson led with 157 in 2013-14. That is one of the most punishing stats a player can log and the one that poses the greatest risk for injury on a nightly basis. It is blue collar work that players very rarely get a lot of credit for, but it can often make a big difference when games are on the line. Every player is not cut out for staring down a blistering slapshot from the point, but TVR does it night in and night out.
TVR is paired with Hjalmarsson going into Wednesday’s Game 1 showdown in St. Louis, and he will undoubtedly see 20+ minutes in Keith’s absence. He will need to play the style of fearless hockey that Hjalmarsson has become known for as the Blues are going to be coming hard at the blue line looking to exploit the Keith sized hole in the lineup. However, van Riemsdyk has proven he is up for a challenge.
From Showtime to Placeholders
For the Blackhawks to do what no team has done in the salary cap era, they will need everyone to play their part. Showtime is always going to get his time in the spotlight, but even the players that are more like placeholders like Brandon Mashinter, and seventh defenseman Christian Ehrhoff have a job to do.
Whether it is crafting the perfect play, carrying the puck through the neutral zone, or simply collecting a couple of shifts to give another player a little breathing room there is a role to be played. One misstep can lead to a goal, and that goal can happen whether you get five minutes of ice time or 30. Everyone is responsible, win or lose.
On the other side of that same coin, it won’t always be the guy who logs the toughest minutes or scores the most goals that plays the hero. Tonight it might be Kane, but tomorrow it could be van Riemsdyk, or Richard Panik, or Teuvo Teravainen. At the end of it all, when the last team standing raises the Stanley Cup, they are all heroes no matter how big or small their part was.
Just ask Kimmo Timonen.
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