Game Time: 6:30PM Central
TV/Radio: CSN, WGN-AM 720
Pete The Puma: Litter Box Cats
Now that the winning streak is a thing of the past, halted at 12 games last night in Tampa, the Hawks have to regroup quickly to complete the road leg of the Florida two-step tonight in Sunrise against the Panthers, who were recent owners of a 12 game win streak that vaulted them to the top of their division as well.
It is likely less than a coincidence that the win streak came to an end and has now been followed by four straight losses for the Panthers has overlapped with sophomore Aaron Ekblad missing all four of those games. Ekblad picked up right where he left off last year winning the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, continuing to drive play with Brian Campbell (sky point) from the Panthers’ top pair. And though they get a comical amount of zone starts in the offensive end, he and Campbell are the only Panthers defensemen above water in 5v5 attempts. Ekblad will return tonight, which should balance out the Panthers’ defensive pairings, once again with Erik Gudbrandson and Willie Mitchell taking nearly all the defensive zone draws.
Along with the top pairing of Campbell and Ekblad, the Panthers rode their top line of Huberdeau, Barkov, and Jagmeer Jagwire during their win streak, mostly because they were the only line not getting shelled during that time. Having Nick Bjugstad come back from injury certainly helps things, and the Panthers are not lacking for solid forward prospects with pedigree. Uncle Dale was able to turn anthropomorphic mattress Jimmy Hayes into Reilly Smith, who has been a pleasant surprise in Florida with 24 points so far, and is second on the team with 13 goals behind Jagr’s 15. Smith also only one of two Panthers regulars (the other being Jussi Jokinen) who are above 50% in shot attempts at evens, and Juice leads the team with a 50.84% clip.
And yet, this is a first place team who was able to win 12 straight. The answer to this riddle, as usual, can be found in the crease when teams are able to defy the odds of possession metrics, and Roberto Luongo is defying age along with those numbers. Luongo will be 37 in April, and he’s still as good as he’s ever been with a .927 overall save percentage this year, with a .938 at evens. And when Luongo has needed a night off, Al Montoya has been able to keep pace with a .929 of his own, and has seemingly recovered nicely from that one time your buddy absolutely roofed one on him at that rat hockey out at Bensenville over break.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, actually skating with a fourth line last night might have helped things, but the streak was always going to end at some point. Last night marked the first time the Hawks have trailed at any point in 2016, the last time coming in the first period for a 14 minute stretch against the Avs. Still, from an aesthetic standpoint, it looks like Richard Panik ended up being the fall guy for a team as a whole that appeared to enjoy itself Wednesday night. Given Panik’s spot on the team, look for him to be in the pressbox again tonight, because oversleeping is something to be made an example out of, just as is drunkenly injuring ones’ self at a punk show, but a criminal sexual assault investigation is nothing for anyone to miss time over.
It’s also likely that Jiri Sekac will make his Hawks debut tonight on the fourth line, sparing everyone from another night of Rob Scuderi at forward. Sekac has the skill to slot in further up in the lineup, but one loss in twelve is no reason for Quenneville to start playing line bingo just yet. Scott Darling will be in net, and after a win in Toronto last Friday night, his road save percentage finally crossed the Mason-Dixon at .901.
The Panthers take on a lot of water and expect Borat to bail it, and he’s been up for the task this season. This team mirrors the division winning Avs from a couple years ago, minus the woman beating goalie. Given his experience, one would think Uncle Dale would also not learn every single wrong lesson from surfing the percentages that Sakic and Roy did, but no one’s ever gotten rich giving hockey executives too much credit. Either way, this is a team that has the skill to counter attack and finish with flair, and with the significant mismatch in net tonight along with Ekblad’s return, the Cats could very well snap their losing streak. The Hawks are all but post season locks at this point, so now that they’ve assured themselves of that, they’re about due for their annual dial back, and it’s all a matter of seeding to them at this point. But home ice of any kind is always advantageous, and would be much more so to this team than previous iterations. Points on the road, even in back to backs in January count just as much as in March and April.