Chicago Blackhawks

Hawk Talk: Blackhawks-Flyers, head-to-head

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Hawk Talk: Blackhawks-Flyers, head-to-head

Friday, May 28, 20109:47 AM

By Brett Ballantini
CSNChicago.com

Just a shootout shot from tee times, the Philadelphia Flyers snuck into the postseason as a No. 7 seed and have proceeded to set the NHL on its ear (in addition to validating the faith of the esteemed pucks bible The Hockey News, who in preseason tabbed the Flyers as the 2010 Stanley Cup winner, somewhere along the way issued a full retraction in some form or fashion and doubtlessly now has popped a few Molsons to celebrate its foresight). Foremost in the ear-setting was Philadelphias extraordinary double-3-0 comeback on the Boston Bruins in the semis, rallying from both a 3-0 deficit in the series and a 3-0 score in the deciding Game 7.But the bad news for the Cinderella Flyers is that an awfully large pumpkin awaits them in the Stanley Cup Finals: the Chicago Blackhawks. And this pumpkin wont be for carving or baking -- it will be smashing. The Blackhawks enter the Final as overwhelming favorites, and there is little evidence anyone can unearth that wont involve pixie dust, fairy tales and moonbeams to support a Philadelphia upset. But with Game 1 still five days away and for the sake of evenhandedness at the outset, here are three key ways to beat the Flyers -- and the Blackhawks.

How to Beat the Flyers
Speed kills: The last two Blackhawks playoff opponents, the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks, have been fair matches for the blinding speed Chicago brings to the ice, and the Hometown Heroes blew right past them. What will happen, then, to the fair Flyers charged with slowing this locomotive down? The Blackhawks boast depth on both ends of the rink that is laced with blinding speed and few NHL teams, including the Flyers, can keep up with them. It could be a smokescreen, but after scoring the most goals in the first three rounds of the playoffs and beating the Blackhawks in the regular season, Philadelphia appears to believe it can skate with the Hawks -- and that is simply not the case. If Philadelphia studies the tape and sees that a slushy pucks strategy will slow and frustrate the Blackhawks (see: Predators, Nashville), the underdogs may jump up and pop the Blackhawks in the mouth for a Game 1, smash-and-dash upset, which could turn the series as a whole on its ear. But if the Flyers proudly opt to skate stride-for-stride with Chicago, theyll need not pack their bags for a return trip west.

The Buffer: Who among you brave Philadelphians bearing sweaters lorange dare face up to ascendant playoff star Dustin Byfuglien? Byfuglien vs. Chris Pronger is the storyline of the series, but the veteran defenseman has as much as admitted theres little he can do to move Buff when hes double-parked, so short of Vulcan mind-meld, all 6-foot-6 of the estimable Prongs will fall short, as his predecessors did. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks manchild has run wild playing deep, to the tune of a team-high eight playoff goals attained in just his past eight games and an NHL postseason-leading four game-winning goals, which includes three in the San Jose series alone. This story of a low depth-chart forward bumped back to defense due to late-season injuries whos now flourishing on Chicagos top line alongside minty fresh superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews is nothing short of extraordinary. And the bad news for Philadelphia is that its a story due to continue, as the Flyers are ill-equipped to corral Big Buffs combination of size and quickness -- yes, even the skilled and savvy Pronger will fall short. Byfuglien has foiled both Roberto Luongo and Evgeni Nabokov -- to what form of rubble will he reduce Michael Leighton?

Possess the puck: There is no greater key to Chicagos domination of the 2009-10 regular season than its ability on both ends of the ice to simply strong-arm and suffocate the game by never letting go of the puck. Chicagos shot differential of plus-9, the third-biggest of any team in the post-lockout era, is a distinct measure of playoff success. Against Nashville, Chicago stumbled, drawn into some sloggy play and were missing their ace in the hole for puck possession, Brian Campbell. Chicagos shot differential for the series was a mere plus-2.3, but with Campbell back on the ice, the discrepancy between the Hawks and Preds was marked. The Blackhawks boasted good enough balance on both ends to have gone Globetrotter on the Vancouver Canucks and puck possession was the single-most important aspect of their relatively easy semis win. And against San Jose, the Blackhawks let through an uncommonly high number of shots -- forcing Antti Niemi to stop a career-best 44 attempts in Game 1, then forcing him to duplicate the feat in Game 3 -- yet mostly controlled the tone and tenor of all four games. Philadelphia has proven a capable possession team, or at the very least one that can simply eliminate shots reaching goal with its defensive talent and depth, but when Chicago puts itself in position to play keepaway until daylight to the goaltender breaks, teams fold. Its a crucial aspect of not only the Blackhawks offense, but its defense. Puck possession on Chicagos level is nothing short of a neck-snapper, and will be a key determinant in how easy the Cup drops into the mitts of the Hometown Heroes.

How to Beat the Blackhawks

Visit Smashville: Philadelphia, and its confident coach Peter Laviolette, is notorious for not ceding strategy in favor of matchups, so all indications would be that clearer path to the Cup be damned, the Flyers will not soar against their strengths by slowing the game down and grinding out four wins. But the Flyers would be smart to not attempt to keep pace with the high-flying, deep Hawks, and instead opt for a strategy played to some success by the Predators, and, briefly, the Canucks. Philadelphia has the veteran presence to button-down the game, nullifying Chicagos puck-possession advantage. The Flyers dont boast a defensive edge on the Blackhawks, but the underdogs can determine the tone of the series with blue-line leadership from Pronger and smart, physical play from Phillys crop of feisty forwards, who are capable of taking the game right to tender Chicagos jawline. Based on how the Blackhawks wilted in the face of some of Nashvilles physical pressure, a bit of slog-it-out brawling could go a long way in the Finals for Philly.

Rowdy guests: While the Blackhawks won Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference finals at home, raising their postseason slate to 5-3 in the United Center, Chicago is clearly playing better on the road. The Flyers are 5-4 on the road in the playoffs and have acquitted themselves very well in road openers, shocking the New Jersey Devils, 2-1, to start the quarters and pushing the Bruins to overtime before falling, 5-4, in the first game of the semis. Philadelphia is flying into the belly of the beast with Saturdays United Center opener, but the game might have been considerably more imposing in January, when the Blackhawks were en route to an NHL third-best 29 home wins. As winter has been thawed by May, some cracks have formed in Chicagos home confidence, split just wide enough for the Flyers to sneak out a win.

Soar quickly: While this is not applicable to the San Jose series, as in all four games the Sharks packed the strongest initial punch and the Blackhawks still winnowed out wins, the possibility exists to quickly pounce on Chicago and seize the momentum of the series. One of the few openings the confident Hawks left the Predators and Canucks earlier in the playoffs was a mild and brief tendency to become discombobulated under duress -- and perhaps skating into the Finals as heavy favorites will aggravate this annoying tendency in Chicago once more. With their double 3-0 resume as well as a first-round toppling of the Easts second-seeded New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia has clearly proven it is capable of enough composure to unsettle the Chicagoans. An immediate Philadelphia win in the series is probably not integral to an overall Stanley Cup win, but a split in Chicago is, and any early mucking up of the Redshirts game plan could yield emotional riches down the road. As impossible as it is to imagine with the roll theyre on now, early in the playoffs the Blackhawks admitted being ill-prepared and perhaps undermotivated. If theres one area the Flyers can clearly outpace Chicago, theyve proven its with the so-called compete level. Philadelphia absolutely must out-compete the Hawks -- right from the outset.

The Prediction: Blackhawks in Five

Take a look around the table of pundits and it seems unanimous that this is a six-game series -- and the rare contrarians are tabbing the Flyers. Its no pro-Blackhawks bluster to point out that Philadelphia has already used up its nine lives and will skating on emotional fumes or that for all the chitter about parity and chatter on how evenly the Flyers match up with the Hawks, Chicago was a dramatically more dominant team over the course of the regular season playing in a significantly more challenging conference. Its a speed league, peeps, and Chicago can skate circles around the talented Flyers. Yes, the two clubs may play as if October to April dissolved completely off of the calendar, where under the small sampling of the playoffs the Flyers are suddenly not only the grittiest but the highest-scoring team in the NHL. But does anybody truly believe thats the case? Does anyone truly think that by grace of God or act of underdog or Broad Street Bully mojo or, good gracious, magic of 35, that Philadelphia will be propelled to a series upset?

Flip the script, folks: Chicago caught a huge break once the Montreal Canadiens did the dirty work of the East by beating the top-seeded Washington Capitals and defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, and for that, the Blackhawks should vote the Habs a playoff share. Chicago will dismantle Phillys momentum right off and remind them that for as heartening a story the Flyers can tell as they look back on the 2010 postseason, in the end it will be a mere yarn that falls short of the Chalice. While the Redshirts playoff journey might not end up unfolding in reverse order of difficulty (the Nashville Predators presenting the most difficult challenge in the quarters and the Flyers the easiest in the Final), Philadelphia will be fortunate to stretch the series to five games.

Brett Ballantini is CSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnik on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawks information.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 6-1 win over Red Wings in preseason home opener

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 6-1 win over Red Wings in preseason home opener

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 6-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings in Thursday's preseason home opener:

1. DeBrincat-Schmaltz-Kane unit was electric.

Yeah, this line could work. We realize the Red Wings sent over many of their fringe players, but Alex DeBrincat, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane are all on the same wavelength offensively and it was evident in their first preseason game together.

The trio combined for four points (one goal and three assists), and created several quality scoring chances at even strength throughout the game. Kane was Kane, Schmaltz was one of the best players on the ice and DeBrincat cashed in for his first career (preseason) goal in the NHL.

This is certainly something to keep an eye on as roster cuts get underway and final decisions on the Opening Day lineup approach. Will DeBrincat be a part of the big club? It was considered a long shot before training camp started, but it's hard to ignore the chemistry he's developing on that second line.

2. Brandon Saad picks up where he left off in Blackhawks uniform.

It's like he never left. In his first game back in a Chicago sweater, Saad netted a hat trick — albeit, it's preseason so it won't count in the books — and he could have had a fourth, and maybe even a fifth, if you want to look further into the chances he had. All three goals that he did score though he found himself parked in front of the net, which is a great sign for the Blackhawks because it's something they lacked last year.

"The puck seemed to be finding me," Saad said after the win. "Regardless of what kind of game it is, you want to get your confidence rolling. It’s good to be back out here. It's always nice to be wanted and welcomed, and these fans are the best fans in the league, so it’s good to be back."

Saad finished the game with a game-high eight shots on goal and a plus-3 rating, and he did it without Jonathan Toews, who did not play due to an illness.

3. Connor Murphy developing chemistry with Duncan Keith.

The Blackhawks' new top pairing featuring two-time Norris Trophy winner Keith and 24-year-old Murphy was solid in their first game together.

Murphy wasn't afraid to be aggressive and take chances by pinching in, joining the rush, and quarterbacking the power play with confidence. He also didn't make any glaring defensive mistakes, which is a plus in Quenneville's book.

"I thought everybody played well on our back end," Quenneville said. "Then we went down to five, I thought they looked very good."

(Luc Snuggerud suffered an upper-body injury in the second period, and did not return. Quenneville said they will know more about his status on Friday).

4. Jordan Oesterle catches Joel Quenneville's attention.

Of those six defensemen noted above, the one that really stood out to the Blackhawks coach was Oesterle. The 25-year-old blue liner signed a two-year contract with Chicago over the offseason, and is fighting for a spot on the bottom pairing.

He made a strong early case by registering two assists and leading the team with three blocked shots in 21:49 of ice time, playing on both the power play and penalty kill units.

"I liked him. A lot," Quenneville said. "I liked his thought process, jumping up in the play, positionally very strong, quick and headsy. He did a really good job. He's got some flexibility and the ability to play both sides is a great asset to have."

5. What to make of abundance of penalties...

We mentioned the NHL's desire to crack down on slashing penalties and faceoff violations in our five takeaways after Tuesday's preseason opener, and it remained the same Thursday. There were another 13 penalties called, three of which were slashing, and handful of centers getting tossed from the dot.

So what should we make of it all?

Well, it's hard to imagine the amount of penalties will stay the same once the actual regular season starts. It seems like a tactic to lay down the hammer extra hard in an effort to get players to adapt to the new enforced rules as quickly as possible. It will be interesting to follow how things may change over the course of the season, with referees having the tendency to swallow their whistles as the important games roll around, especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Blackhawks: Alex DeBrincat’s instincts serve him well vs. Red Wings

Blackhawks: Alex DeBrincat’s instincts serve him well vs. Red Wings

Alex DeBrincat had an idea of what he wanted to do in this first home preseason game: apply what he’s learned lately when he could but ultimately stick with what he knew. While he thought he could have been better overall, he nevertheless made a good first impression.

DeBrincat had a goal and looked comfortable in the Blackhawks’ 6-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings at the United Center. After excelling in the Ontario Hockey League the past three seasons the 19-year-old forward is going to get a good opportunity to show what he can do at this level. While the Red Wings weren’t stocking anywhere near a full roster – plenty of youth was featured in Detroit’s third preseason game in as many days – this was more about what DeBrincat could do with Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane.

“I felt pretty good out there,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I could improve on but overall I don’t think I played terrible. I’m still trying not to force plays and finding which one is the right play. Once I improve on that I should be pretty good.”

Pretty much everybody had a good night for the Blackhawks but coach Joel Quenneville wanted to get a good look at the second line overall and DeBrincat. The left wing held his own and scored his first preseason goal in the slot, a very familiar and productive area for him.

“Yeah, that’s kind of my sweet spot, so I felt pretty good about it,” DeBrincat said. “It’s 3-on-2 and [Richard Panik] made a great pass to me. I kind of had a muff on it, too. I got lucky it went in.”

While there are going to be things DeBrincat has to improve upon at this level, the skill is undeniable.

“I thought he had a great play on his goal, great instincts around the net, some nice plays,” Quenneville said. “Schmaltzy was dangerous on that line, Kaner, a lot of options and you can see that skill level, the thinking around the net. His plays around the offensive zone were good. We can say a lot of guys did good offensively and he was one of them.”

DeBrincat said several times that he felt he forced plays throughout the night but that’s not unheard of for a young player, be it one coming from the OHL or the AHL. Ryan Hartman said he did the same thing at the start of last season.

“First game, a little intimidated… young kids they’re respectful, and when you get a chance to play with a Kaner it’s like, wow. Whether you’re trying to get him the puck or thinking give and go, that chemistry evolves,” Quenneville said. “But I thought he was pretty comfortable in a lot of things.”

DeBrincat will get a few more looks before the Blackhawks decide what to do with him. Going from the OHL to the NHL is a big leap, and time in the AHL wouldn’t hurt him long term. Still, in his first week at camp DeBrincat’s instincts have been evident. His ability to adapt to a bigger, faster game has been, too.

“Honestly, for me it’s been pretty good. I’m competing pretty well. It’s just faster, and once I got adjusted to that, it’s not too hard,” he said. “I’m still trying to compete every day and just do the little things.”