With a pivotal Game 4 taking place on South Figeuroa later this evening, the question of this series has become can the Hawks generate enough secondary scoring to match that of the Kings, and thus finding a way to stem the tide of the Kings’ lethal second line. Or is Jonathan Toews basically going to have to do all of this by himself?
While the series leading Kings probably wouldn’t prefer having their all-world two-way center Anze Kopitar consistently getting his lunch fed to him in terms of possession metrics and classic scoring production with just an assist in the series so far, they’ll certainly take his keeping Toews occupied enough to allow the second line of Carter, Toffoli, and Pearson to be running absolutely wild on the remainder of the Hawks lineup. And with last change at home at Staples, it seems like the mushmouthed Darryl Sutter has no intention of changing his strategy, as the Hawks have not proven it to be an incorrect one to this point.
Similarly, the Hawks have not put any pressure on the Kings lower pairings which feature the likes of Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell, who have only really been made to chase anyone down with their lack of speed during the first half of Game 2. Hurt shoulder(s) or not, Drew Doughty is playing at the absolute peak of his powers right now, and that’s been more than enough for him to cover up any perceived defensive lapses from Jake Muzzin since his catastrophic pinch in Game 1. As a result the Kings are playing offense far more often than they’ve needed to defend, which has been a catalyst in getting Jonathan Quick in rhythm after a wonky first 100 minutes of the series. Quick has been seeing the puck far better because the chances are primarily coming from the outside from 3 of the Hawks’ 4 lines, where it’s easy for any goalie to settle in.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, while it might not be fair to pin an entire team’s offensive struggles on one person, there’s no dancing around the fact that there is a 6’5″ Slovakian shaped black hole at center on the second line. At press time there’s been no word on line configurations for the evening, and Q sidestepped it at yesterday’s practice by not having line rushes. But having Michal Handzus once again centering Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane would be the very definition of insanity. The numbers are well established regarding Kane’s struggles when dragging Handzus, and there just simply is no more time left to wait for whatever Joel Quenneville believes will finally click between the two.
This playoff run has also unfortunately revealed the reality that the Hawks are going to need a Patrick Sharp contingency plan, and soon. As depressing as it is to think, Sharp is now 32, and has played the most hockey in his life this season with the ever-so-meaningful Olympic selection in February along with one of the few Hawks to play all 82. Having Andrew Shaw accidentally crash into him probably didn’t help, but this may just be a case of not having a lot left in the tank at this point. And putting him with Handzus isn’t maximizing what he can still do.
The fault doesn’t lie solely with Handzus, however, as there have been some serious deficiencies down the lineup with Brandon Bollig once again proving to be an active detriment to the team, and Kris Versteeg offering next to nothing. The blue line is not without blame as well. Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival have been beaten, and badly, for some very glaring goals against. And once again, they’re two players in their mid thirties who participated in the Olympics, Oduya the maximum number of games. So to reiterate statements made nearly a year ago, the Olympics are fucking stupid, and the evidence is now out there.
Of course, it hasn’t helped that Corey Crawford has sported a ghastly .871 save percentage in the past two games where he’s allowed 9 goals on 62 shots. Traditionally Crawford has bounced back from shitting himself in games the following performance, but that certainly was not the case on Saturday night. He’ll flat out have to be on top of his game for the Hawks to even this series.
Believe it or not, history is on the side of the Hawks even still at this juncture. Under Quenneville, they have not lost a series where either they’ve had home ice advantage or have won game one, which they had both of in this case. They have shown the ability to look completely out of sorts for the first parts of series and storm back and adapt, as last year against Boston and Detroit, 2011 against Vancouver in defeat, and 2010 against Nashville, and even this spring against the Blues all standing in evidence of that. And no team that has needed the full 14 games to reach the conference championship round as the Kings have has ever advanced to a Cup Final. But the Rangers are in that very same boat and on the verge of wiping that record clean off the books. And this is a Kings team who very recently erased a three games to none deficit against the Sharks and has plenty of championship pedigree of their own. It’d be wise for the Hawks not to test that mettle. And for all of the doomsaying, they are still an efficient, balanced, and coherent performance away from putting this series right where it needs to be for its remainder. Get out there and make it happen. Let’s go Hawks.