Game Time: 7:30PM
TV/Radio: CSN, SportsNet Pacific, WGN-AM 720
Jim Nill’s Liberator: Defending Big D
While tonight would be a premiere matchup between the conference’s top two teams jostling for inside position for the division, and both playing a high-octane brand of hockey, none of that is receiving top billing. Even Johnny Oduya’s return to the building after being a key role player on two Stanley Cup teams is a footnote.
Because tonight is Patrick Sharp’s first regular season game in the United Center as a visitor in over ten years.
It’s not so much that a 34 year old stationary shooting winger with a hefty cap hit at $5.9 million would be an absolute necessity for a team trying to retool and reload in a cap era, when a rising championship tide lifts all boats as far as salary demands go. On paper there’s a reason that Patrick Sharp had to be traded, it was a prudent and cromulent hockey trade, same as the one that brought him here in December of 2005. But his return forces Hawks fans to take a look back at his development as a player and what it signified, making himself a key member of a group of seven players that won three Stanley Cups together. It’s a reminder of just how far removed those times are, when the anticipation of what this could be was almost beyond words. And given the tumult surrounding this organization since his departure, it makes all of that feel like a lifetime ago.
Sharp has found a home among Dallas’ top 6 forwards, where he’s mostly rode shotgun opposite Jamie Benn on Tyler Seguin’s right, putting Sharp on his proper side consistently for the first time in his NHL career. When with Seguin, the unit boasts a 57.1% share of attempts at evens, which is pretty good in general. At present Benn is second in the league with 61 points coming off last year’s Art Ross, and Seguin is fourth with 58 points. So that’s about as ideal a landing spot for a shooting winger as can be imaged, and Sharp himself has reaped the benefits with 16 goals and 24 assists, on pace for another 60+ point season.
The rest of the Stars’ forward corps is predicated on speed as well, even if Jason Spezza has never been overly fleet of foot, he certainly has always had the vision to find streaking wingers. Hulking winger Valeri Nichushkin’s development appears to have stalled out a little bit with only 6 goals following playing only 8 games last year. But the 6’4″, 210 lb Russian winger is still only 20, and there’s still time for him to find the power forward game that’s expected of him. Cody Eakin, The Ginger Ninja, provides solid scoring depth as a third center with 10 goals, and has the type of game in the mold of the Legend Of Dave Bolland, not Dave Bolland of the last six years. Antoine Roussel and Vern Fiddler are profound irritants that can actually play and skate, neither of whom ever shut the fuck up in English or French.
But it’s not just the forward corps that’s led the Stars to having the West’s top offense at 3.22 goals per game. Their underlying numbers are excellent as well, with a 53.6% share of 5v5 attempts, good for second in the league. And at least the top half of their defensive corps is excellent at moving the puck. John Klingberg is having a breakout offensive season, and though he has benefitted from playing mostly behind Seguin and Benn, he still leads a team with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin on it in assists with 35. Alex Goligoski provides Klingberg’s safety net, and is generally positionally sound and a solid passer if not overly fleet of foot. Johnny Oduya has played primarily with Jason Demers and both still manage to flip the ice despite getting the worst zone starts among Stars regulars. It’s after that where things get hinky for the Stars, as no one among Jyrki Jokkipakka, Patrik Nemeth, or Jamie Oleksiak has proven himself to be worthy for full time NHL action just year, and Benn The Elder, Jordie, is just a guy. And as a group, aside from Oduya, all of these players are pretty unidirectional. As is the case with most Lindy Ruff teams and how he likes them constructed, if a team can take the puck from them, they generally can make his defensemen run around a bit in their own zone.
And neither of the Finns in net have had anything bordering on an exemplary seasons. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi have nearly identical save percentages at .908 and .909 respectively, with Niemi getting more work with 36 appearances to Lehtonen’s 24. Yes the Stars have only played 54 games. That means there have been six occasions where one of the two of them have gotten the hook, including Nemo on Saturday in Dallas. Of course both are capable of acrobatic saves and slamming the door as Niemi did before Christmas, though that wasn’t much of an onslaught from the Hawks. But consistency has been an issue for both for years, compounded by Lehtonen’s health issues, and having below average goaltending behind this defensive corps does much to undermine a lot of the early season optimism surrounding Jim Nill’s sweaty, glistening men.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, Artemi Panarin apparently has something slightly more serious than the sniffles, and is out again tonight, with Richard Panik getting first look at Anisimov’s left side. And though Panarin does bring a dynamic, creative element to the line that will certainly be missed, the Hawks being shut out on Tuesday had much more to do with a superbly coached game by Peter DeBoer. Even without Panarin, the Hawks should get plenty of looks, as the Stars give up 54 attempts per 60 minutes on the road, and the Hawks take just shy of 59 at home.
Of bigger concern (and the emphasis is on BIGGER) is the Stars’ overall speed and the Hawks’ lack thereof on the blue line. Obviously Keith and Hjalmarsson will get a look at Seguin and Benn all night with last change, but with this team, there is no soft marshmallowy landing for Brent Seabrook. Despite his offensive production, Bartolo Seabrook has gotten his brains beaten in both at home and on the road, and regardless of partner this year. Though it’s a limited sample size, Erik Gustafsson has a staggering 60.1% share of attempts away from Seabrook, and only 49 with him. When Seabrook is off the ice, the Hawks are a 53% share team, and he’s getting the best zone starts of his career. Good thing he’ll be 31 in April and the Hawks will be paying him until he’s 39 because he will surely get quicker and thinner during the life of the contract.
Corey Crawford obviously will get the start tonight, and will in all likelihood get plenty of work in.
The building will surely be charged for a lot of reasons tonight on West Madison, and an early lead for either team likely doesn’t amount to much given the strengths of the respective rosters. The Stars have the firepower to get themselves back into any game in a hurry, and they have a goalie tandem that can just as easily allow an opposition back into a game they don’t deserve to be in.
And on the topic of being deserving, for all of the maudlin, weepy video tributes that will have been aired on the UC video boards over the years for bit players who have come and gone, the one that airs tonight will finally look understated in comparison to the departed player’s contributions.