PUCK DROP: 8pm Central
TV/RADIO: CSN, WGN Radio
SUUUUPER GENIUS: Five For Howling
The Hawks head out for a short two-game trip that will close out 2015 (the most roller coaster year ever, clearly). It starts with the last team in the West the Hawks haven’t seen yet this season, the Arizona Coyotes. And for once, they actually look like they’re staying put for five minutes. I know, right?
What they’ll see is a pretty promising collection of youngsters, and if the NHL was in any way smart and after all they’ve put in to keep the Coyotes in the desert, they’d rig the draft lottery to get hometown boy Auston Matthews to join them next season. Of course, that is if the Yotes don’t make the playoffs, which we can’t rule out given the horrific condition of the division and their current second-place standing. That’s right, the Coyotes are in second in that division.
They’re led by kids Max Domi, who will never buy a drink in Canada again thanks to leading sprightly underdog Canada to a World Juniors gold last year at home. Not too far behind him is Anthony Duclair who was also on that plucky outsider and looked like he would be a real ass-kicker in a brief cameo with the Rangers last year. Tobias Rieder might be the surprise, the Yotes best possession player while chipping in 18 points. The blue line also has some neophytes in Michael Stone and Connor Murphy, along with old friend Klas Dahlbeck (and wouldn’t he look nice right now?).
Obviously, the real star continues to be Oliver Ekman-Larsson who is headed for his third straight 15+ goal season from the blue line. Did you know he scored 23 goals last year? Did you know he did it on a normal shooting percentage? He’s doing it while facing the toughest competition for the Yotes while being top 10 in the league in time on ice per game. After seeing Justin Faulk on Sunday, OEL might be the most underrated d-men other than Faulk.
Usually the method for Coyotes success has been abnormal goaltending, because they haven’t been relevant since Mike Smith went back into the shitter after 2012. That’s not the case this year. Smith was mediocre until he had surgery on his core, he’ll tell you he had all of his intestines removed. Backup Anders Lindback hasn’t been any better, and Louis Domingue has been good but only in four appearances.
No, the Coyotes are benefitting from cleaning up on the woeful division (they’re 7-1-1 in the Pacific) and the league’s second highest shooting percentage at evens at 9.3%. This is not a good special teams outfit, they get outshot badly every night, they’re not getting goaltending, but they’re just seeing more of their shots go in than anyone else. At some point, this flattens out, though we’ve seen teams ride the percentages for full seasons before (like the opponent after this one in Denver).
It’s a Dave Tippett team, so you know they’re pretty defensively drilled. There will be no space in the neutral zone, they will backcheck like their jobs depend on it (because they do) and they will wait to pounce on any Hawks’ mistakes/turnovers. Given the greater mobility in their defense and a collection of responsible yet quick forwards, you might see the kind of advanced trap other teams have used against the Hawks where the defensemen sit on the Hawks’ blue line until they have to back up, giving the forwards the support to harass the Hawks immobile d-men down low and try and turn things over immediately. The Yotes were just about the first to do this back in 2012.
For the Hawks, the story is something of a new look defense. Erik Gustafsson has been recalled and he’s apparently going to play, which you’d have to think means Rob “Left Turn Signal Is Always On” Scuderi is headed for the pressbox. I can’t imagine Q would scratch favorite toys TVR or Rozsival. And Gustafsson does at least attempt to address the Hawks’ biggest problem, which is push from the back. Can he do that paired with Rozie? Will TVR slot down and Gustafsson get a real look? Tune in tonight.
The forwards are also getting a shuffle, where Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen will swap spots, though it gets Teuvo back on the right side where he should be. What Shaw will do on the top line… well, you’ve seen that movie already and you gave it a thumbs down. There aren’t any perfect answers on the current roster though.
The Hawks have been pretty poor the past two games, at least for large portions of the 120 minutes. Rarely does that malaise last three games or more, and this Yotes team shouldn’t provide any of the problems Carolina or Dallas do, as those are good possession teams. But Arizona is well-coached and quick like the previous two opponents, so the Hawks can’t just sleep walk to a win.