We thought it was coming back in April. Then Scum shocked almost no one outside of Orange County by giving the paper tiger Ducks more than they could handle in seven games to draw one final matchup with the Hawks. The consensus had been that the Hawks would make short work of Detroit (this blog included), but an outfit as decorated as this would not cooperate so easily, pushing the top seeded Hawks to the brink of elimination with a commanding 3-1 series lead. But the Hawks have pushed back and forced a decisive Game 7 on West Madison, with tonight marking, at long last the final meaningful intraconference meeting of these two heritage franchises. And it should be fitting that so much is on the line.
For Scum, coach Mike Babcock has pretty much thrown every tactic he’s had against the wall, and it’s still led them to two blown opportunities to put and end to this series. He’s had his two hall of fame centermen Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg focus on erasing the Hawks attack mostly to the expense of their offense, with only one goal between the two of them, Datsyuk’s back-breaker in Game 3. But Dats pretty much had his way in terms of the possession numbers on Monday night, with he and linemates Justin Abdelkader and Johan Franzen all above +15 in the Corsi department. However, this came with Babs able to get the matchups he wanted, which was mostly against Toews’ line along with Hammer and Oduya, neither of whom had a particularly strong game.
One area where Scum has yet to find any success thus far is on the power play, and word out of practice today is that they’ve been working on a modified look. The Hawks have given this team far too many opportunities thus far this series, and so far it has only come back to bite them once in Game 4. Even if Babs is grasping at straws to find a way through on the advantage, if he’s given enough looks, he, Datsyuk, and Zetterberg will eventually find a way.
On the Scum blue line, the series has now provided a large enough sample size that this corps is finally starting to show their true capabilities. Brendan Smith was torched on Zus and Bickell’s goals Monday, and Carlo Colaiacovo made a Keith-esque poor choice in trying to shoot through Michael Frolik, and then couldn’t catch him going the other way, which resulted in the penalty shot goal. Putting pucks behind this group and forcing them to make decisions quicker than they’d like to with an aggressive forecheck will continue to force them to play under duress. It certainly doesn’t have to be punishingly physical, as the Hawks aren’t really built for that, but making an effort to go in that direction won’t hurt.
And in the crease it will once again be Jimmy Howard, whose glove hand remains unflinching, but certainly did not appreciate the high traffic area his crease became in the first and third periods of Game 6. Continuing to pepper Howard with vulcanized rubber low should leave rebounds for pursuant forwards, but the Hawks would be well served to remember that his glove works fine and doesn’t need to broken in any more.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, they find themselves in unfamiliar territory in a lot of respects. This is the first game 7 on United Center ice (such as it is) since 1995, where the Hawks sent the Maple Leafs packing before heading east three years later. They also have the opportunity to overcome a 3-1 series deficit, something they have never done in the history of the franchise.
Since the Hawks are obviously coming off of a win, the starting lineups are remaining the same as is Quenneville’s way. However, as he’s also done throughout his tenure, going to the blender early and often is never out of the question. The slot machine came up 7′s for Q with the choice to get Bryan Bickell and his size out with Toews and Hossa to clear some space, resulting in the go-ahead goal 5 minutes into the third. With the benefit of last change at home, Q will be able to tinker to his mustachioed heart’s content, more than likely finding a way to get Toews away from Henrik Zetterberg. The real key though will be for the Hawks’ bottom six to play above Scum’s as the line of Andersson, Brunner, and Nyqvist has mostly outplayed the likes of Shaw, Saad, Stalberg, Bolland, et al. Giving Michal Handus heavily shielded minutes with favorable zone starts also seems to be in the mix, as Zus just really can’t flip the ice from his own end even with Sharp and Kane as his wings.
The Hawk blue line will need to have a far more even affair from 1 through 6 tonight in order to emerge victorious. While Brent Seabrook seems to be dining on B12 infused nachos since rejoining Duncan Keith, Nik Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya were simply snowed in on Monday. And though the Hawks were perilously holding onto a lead in the third, keeping Nick Leddy stapled to the bench completely flies in the face of what has made the Hawks successful. He’s earned the right to be trusted with those minutes, and is capable of breaking the Hawks out of their own zone clean moreso than any other rearguard. Three shifts in the third is not going to cut it.
One of the more underrated aspects of Monday night was also Corey Crawford’s ability to bounce back after allowing a serious boner, that being Joakim Andersson’s fluttering softy in the second. The pitchforks came out, and Crawford responded with what ended up being a 35 save victory, some of them spectacular, particularly two sprawling saves on Hank at the doorstep. Crawford hasn’t always looked pretty or comfortable, but the results are there, and he should have every confidence in himself this evening.
To this point in the playoffs, the Hawks have spent more time shorthanded than any other team at around 72 minutes, taking 51 minors, highly uncharacteristic of the Joel Quenneville Blackhawks. And though the PK has been light’s out, with the season once again hanging by a thread, marching to the box is going to serve no purpose other than making life more difficult.
Both teams have shown their hands and it comes down to execution. Not allowing the Scum blue line any room to breathe if the Hawks still struggle at the dot will be the best way to regain the puck, and making short, manageable passes for zone exits will allow the Hawk forwards to hit the line with speed. The first goal tonight will be massive with the crowd in a bloodlust frenzy, but the Hawks will need to keep things under control to stay at even strength. The drums will shake the castle walls and Ring Wraiths are out in black. Let’s go Hawks.