Hawk Talk: Blackhawks-Flyers head-to-head

Hawk Talk: Blackhawks-Flyers head-to-head

Monday, May 24, 2010
11:15 PM
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 bakingit will be smashing. The Blackhawks enter the Finals 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 Flyersand 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. What will happen, then, to the fair Flyers who are charged with slowing this locomotive down? The Blackhawks boast better depth on both ends of the rink than almost any other NHL team, and that advantage is in play vs. Philadelphia as well. Worse for the Flyers, Chicago has played one less postseason game and enters the Finals with one more day of rest, minor advantages to be sure, but likely guardians against the underdogs jumping up and popping the Blackhawks in the mouth for a Game 1, smash-and-dash upset.

The Buffer: Who among you brave Philadelphians bearing sweaters lorange dare face up to ascendant playoff star Dustin Byfuglien? The manchild has run wild playing deep for Chicago, 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. Byfuglien has foiled both Roberto Luongo and Evgeni Nabokovto 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-9.0, 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 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 shotsforcing Antti Niemi to stop a career-best 44 attempts in Game 1, then forcing him to duplicate the feat in Game 3yet mostly controlled the tone and tenor of all four games. 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 or going against its strengths. But the Flyers would be smart to not attempt to keep pace with the high-flying, deep Hawks, instead opting 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 might not boast the defensive depth of the Blackhawks, but the underdogs can determine the tone of the series with blueline leadership from Chris 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.

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 in the quarters opener 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 would 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.

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 duressand perhaps skating into the Finals as heavy favorites will aggravate this annoying tendency in Chicago once more. An immediate Philadelphia win in the series is probably not integral to an overall Stanley Cup win, but a split in Chicago is, as any 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 levelrallying from down 3-0 to win a series earns you an advantage there for the full postseason. Philadelphia absolutely must out-compete the Hawksand quickly.

Confident Blackhawks youth ready to take the next step

Confident Blackhawks youth ready to take the next step

Ryan Hartman likes how he feels approaching this season, his sophomore stint with the Blackhawks. Scoring 19 goals, earning the trust of the coaches and gaining a good deal of responsibility in your rookie season will do that for you.

“It’s feeling like I should be there,” he said on Friday. “Maybe sometimes when you first get called up, you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m here,’ and you’re still thinking about that. Now it’s just feeling like hockey for me and how it’s always supposed to be.”

More confidence is there for Hartman, as well as a few other young Blackhawks players who cut their teeth last year. That’s good, because those guys, having shown what they can do, will likely get more responsibility this season.

That includes Nick Schmaltz, who will either get first crack at the second-line left wing vacancy or help the Blackhawks at center, which he says is his preference “but I’m fine with wing, too.” Schmaltz struggled to start last season but following a few games in Rockford, he returned a more confident player. He played well with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik on the top line and filled in for Artem Anisimov later in the season.

“I was nervous coming in. I didn’t know if it was going to work and I gained confidence game by game and felt more comfortable,” he said. “I was making the plays I’m used to making.”

When Tanner Kero was recalled right before Christmas, it was because of Anisimov’s injury. But outside of a bye-week return to Rockford Kero turned that call-up into a full-time gig, giving the Blackhawks another bottom-six center option and earning himself a two-year contract. With Marcus Kruger and Dennis Rasmussen no longer here, Kero is expected to have that third- or fourth-line center role; thanks to experience gained last season, Kero’s more comfortable now.

“It was great,” he said. “Going in, you’re not sure. It’s day-to-day to start and you just want to prove yourself and get those opportunities, get trust and more ice time. As the season went on I got more confident, trusted my game more. Going into the season I’m going in with a lot more confidence.”

John Hayden felt fairly comfortable when he joined the Blackhawks last spring thanks to his senior season at Yale – “I needed that fourth year as a player and a person,” he said. Still, getting in some NHL games, getting a feel for the pro level and gaining familiarity with the Blackhawks will benefit him in September.

“It’s important considering it’s my first training camp and I’ll know a lot of the guys, which helps a ton. From an on-ice standpoint, I have that experience,” he said. “I’ve spent a ton of time addressing areas in need of improvement all in all I’m excited for training camp.”

But Hartman and others don’t see it as weight on their shoulders.

“I don’t think there’s pressure,” Hartman said. “When you look back you want to see improvements every year, you want to see yourself becoming a better hockey player. That’s something I want to do, I want to be able to look back and say I had a good career my first year but each year I got progressively better. That’s where my mindset is at.”

There’s more opportunity for the young players but Hayden says that’s true of everyone.

“I don’t really analyze opportunity. Regardless of the team, it’s going to be competitive,” he said. “Every summer you have to have a hard-working mindset and do what you can to show up in the fall in the best shape of your life.”

The Blackhawks’ young players have all set the bar at a certain level and will be expected to improve. It takes confidence to take that next step. Thanks to experience gained last season, they’re feeling good about taking it.

For the Blackhawks defense, change is the new normal

For the Blackhawks defense, change is the new normal

Ulf Samuelsson saw the changes the Blackhawks made this season, his hiring as assistant coach being one of them. Soon he’ll be working with the team’s defensemen, another area that’s had some upheaval.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity here, some uncertainties and some moving parts that I probably, typically haven’t seen going into a season. So that makes it even more interesting and challenging,” Samuelsson said. “So I’m looking forward to this opportunity to really develop and work with some of the younger players.”

From its immediate coach to its personnel, the Blackhawks’ defense is dealing with plenty of change that will continue when the season begins this fall. The Blackhawks have had some addition (Connor Murphy, Jan Rutta and Jordan Oesterle) but dealing with the subtraction (Niklas Hjalmarsson and Trevor van Riemsdyk) will nevertheless be tough. Coach Joel Quenneville said on Friday that pairings are a work in progress.

“We’re going to see when we’re putting the pairs together, whether we're going to reunite [Duncan Keith] and [Brent Seabrook] or look for some balance,” he said. “There are a lot of options. We’ll look forward to that and sorting it out.”

For Murphy, who was acquired in the deal that sent Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes, there are no set expectations as to where he fits yet.

“With any team you go into training camp proving where you’re going to be. Everyone has to come in and earn certain positions, especially me being a guy who they’re not as familiar with; I have to show what I can do,” Murphy said. “I definitely want to bring a more physical edge to defending at times and be able to skate well, have a good reach, make smart reads and try to help out with whatever’s needed with that.”

As for young players, the opportunity is there. Gustav Forsling admits he wasn’t happy that fellow Swede and role model Hjalmarsson was traded. But Forsling, who looked strong coming out of camp last September, knows he has to take advantage of the situation.

“Of course, I want to take the next step and play more,” he said. “I want to keep progressing my game and keep developing.”

The same goes for Jordan Oesterle, who the Blackhawks signed to a two-year deal on July 1.

“When I wanted to come here the opportunity was tremendous. Just the chance to come in and try to make the top six is there, it’s a battle with a number of us guys but that’s all you ask for in the situation I’m in,” he said. “Just the amount of opportunity that is in front of me just drives me even more. I want to be here and force their hand to keep me here.”

Again, the Blackhawks could re-address defense once they implement Marian Hossa’s long-term injured reserve after the season begins. General manager Stan Bowman said there’s “no exact plan” right now on how they use that space – “that’s probably going to be dictated by where we’re at when we get to October, how the team’s playing, what areas are strong, what areas we want to add to,” he said.

It remains to be seen on that front. Regardless, from coaching to personnel, much has changed with the Blackhawks defense.