With a stretch of 10 of 12 games on the road to start the abbreviated season, including the last six, the Blackhawks finally return to Club 1901, this time in slightly more permanent fashion. With the next seven tilts on United Center ice, this has been the targeted time for the Hawks to make their hay since the schedule was released, assuming they survived the first quarter of the season. And at the risk of overstatement, it’s pretty fair to say they survived it just fine.
The festivities begin tonight in welcoming in the surprising Anaheim Ducks, who are the Hawks’ closest pursuers in the Western Conference standings, as the Orange County Waterfowl enter into tonight with 17 points coming off a 6-5 shootout win in St. Louis. That it’s curious for the Ducks to be in this position given the talent they have at forward speaks to just how actively GM and perpetual red ass Bob Murray has tried to dry hump the roster into mediocrity. That his asking price for the very sensitive Bobby Ryan ended up being too high for even the Flyers may end up being a blessing for the Ducks, as Ryan is posting a point-per in 11 games so far, and is a +6.
However, it is the aging Finns on the second line that are setting the pace for the Ducks, as Saku Koivu is a gaudy +11 with 13 points, and Teemu Selanne continues to motor along at age 43, leading the Ducks with 14 points, including two separate 4 point games. There will be time in late March to begrudgingly acknowledge Selanne’s accomplishments in what could be his last visit to Chicago, but for now he still gets all the bile that’s churned up in Hawks fans’ stomachs with every back-breaking goal he’s ever potted. You would think these two geriatrics would embarrass Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry (he of a Hart trophy two seasons ago, and one lone goal this year) into stepping their games up in free agent walk years for the both of them. But as we’ve seen in the past, there’s shockingly little that takes place on the ice that embarrasses either of them.
On the back end of things, the usually reliable Jonas Hiller has had a rough go of it to this point in the season, which has led Uncle Barbecue to turn his jowly gaze to rookie Viktor Fasth, who has thus far answered the bell to the tune of a 5-0-0 record, a 1.72 GAA, and a .932 save percentage, and will get the start tonight. In front of Fasthsthsth is a blue line featuring the stable Toni Lydman, the lumbering Bryan Allen, the shockingly productive Sheldon Souray (+10? Really?), and Committed Indian man crush Francois Beauchemin. The puck moving Cam Fowler will miss tonight’s game as he has for the last week, rendering that corps rather stationary outside of Luca Sbisa, so rushing the puck to the outside and winning races to corners will be paramount against this group.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, one would imagine they’re feeling pretty damn good about themselves. Even still, they’ve been saying all the right things in the media, with every successive sound bite hammering home that there’s still room for improvement. That improvement should come in the form of the power play tonight, as the Ducks are a grotesque 67.5% on the kill, though they’ve had the 4th fewest times shorthanded at 40 (a hallmark of a Bruce Boudreau coached team), the lone mitigating factor to that wretchedness. The only team with the top-to-bottom speed that the Ducks have faced to this point has been the Canucks twice, one of which was the Schneider opening night diaper filling, the other a 5-0 skull cracking on home ice in which the Ducks were shorthanded nine times. The Hawks churning legs, particularly those of Brandon Saad who’s acquiring a knack for drawing penalties, could put the Ducks in such a position once again.
The Hawk blue line will need to be resolute in their desire to absorb a hit to make a play, as the Ducks have never been shy about sending wave after wave of angry forward to plaster a defenseman into the end boards, and have the size to do so. Anaheim’s forward corps has always given the Hawk D-men fits when they’re interested, and it appears they are at this point in the season. As a result, Corey Crawford, coming off his first shutout since forever, will need to be especially sharp in controlling his rebounds, as there is bound to be at least one Duck forward ready to pounce on anything left behind.
The broadcast tonight will undoubtedly hammer home the tendency for a letdown in the first game on home ice upon returning from a long roadie. And up until last year when the media seemingly willed it into being, the Hawks have by and large done well with such games. But complacency with what’s been done through the first quarter of the season won’t lead to the favorable result, and though the next two and a half weeks will be on the West Side, it’s not exactly going to be a bunch of popsicles for opponents. That starts tonight with the division leading Ducks, and however surprising that fact might be, the Hawks will need to treat them as such. The road trip will only matter if the homestand is a success, and that needs to start tonight. Let’s go Hawks.