Monday, Apr. 5, 2010
By Chris Boden
So you've been waiting to exhale, and finally allowed yourself to after Sunday's third straight win, where the Blackhawks again looked like...well...the Blackhawks. You probably view a first division title in 17 years a lot like the guys in the locker room did -- nice, but you'd really like to throw bigger parties later. Whatever kind of wakeup call Joel Quenneville and his coaching staff delivered, consider it received within the locker room, and the desired results have followed in the nick of time. Not that the guys didn't realize it, but putting it in play probably took a few more games than they wanted. Now let's see how long it lasts.
Let me know if you agree with the things I've liked the most:
First, they took the ice Sunday knowing the division was clinched by virtue of Detroit's loss in Philadelphia moments earlier. They could've celebrated, taken the foot off the accelerator, and not build upon what they did their previous two games, but they didn't against a Calgary team coming in on a three-game win streak, and desperate for points to make the playoffs. Sure, they own the Flames by sweeping the regular season series for the second straight year. But one stat I love looking at for a sense of how defensively invested and passionate a team is is blocked shots. They had 18 in the win over Phoenix a couple weeks ago, 19 last week in Minnesota, and 16 Sunday (six by Duncan Keith). Yes, there are some bad breaks (physically, and directionally) that can come out of all that diving and sprawling, but I'll take my chances when necessary. Of course, I'm not the one throwing my body in front of 100-mile-per-hour vulcanized rubber. By the way, how's this? Since the opening twelve minutes between the two teams this season, the Hawks outscored Calgary 20-3.
That leads us into the defensive tweaking the coaching staff has done with the blueline personnel. You probably weren't too happy with the trends over about 30 games that started with the first trip to Minnesota. For whatever reason - be it fatigue, boredom, predictability sniffed out by the opposition, the bag needed to be shaken up a bit. Keith and Seabrook together have been great, but like any pairing, inevitably hit their share of bumps. There was the huge vacancy in minutes left by the injuries to Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson. They're still dealing with that, but the status quo wasn't providing much hope for a turnaround. So, with the addition of Dustin Byfuglien, Coach Q's shown he's as willing to try some different things on the back end, just as he will up front. That, combined with some greater defensive awareness and better coverage all over the ice, has this team going into the long-awaited final week allowing just two goals over its previous three games. You have to go to a five-game stretch in early December - when the team allowed just four goals, and went 4-&-1 - to find similar results.
Oh, and then there's the goaltending. It's your crease, Antti. You've earned it. You've won it. And the guys are playing as well as they have for some time in front of you. Whether you're the chicken or the egg doesn't matter now. Just try to keep doing what you're doing without thinking too much about the size of the stage and the brightness of the spotlight. You have exactly as much NHL playoff experience as four of your Western Conference starting goalie brethren if the season ended a week earlier (Anderson, Howard, Rinne, and Quick). Nabokov, Bryzgalov and Luongo combined have led a team to a conference final - and no further - once. Even before their shaky post-Olympic play, sorry..I've just never been a believer of the guys in San Jose and Vancouver. The former's a game above .500 in the post-season, the latter exactly .500. Bryzgalov is 9-5, with a 1.68 goals-against and a .937 save percentage between the posts in The Post. Phoenix will need more of that in what looks like a tough first-round matchup, likely against Nashville or Detroit.
The things I've liked most in this "bounce" all have to do with defense and goaltending. We must be close to playoff time. And thankfully, all the projecting, and all the guessing, will start to bring real answers on the ice.