Chicago Blackhawks defensemen Duncan Keith (2) and Brent Seabrook (7) battle vie the puck with Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Josh Leivo (32).
If the Chicago Blackhawks miss out on a divisional title this season by only one point, many fans will certainly look back at the team’s early October meeting with the Tampa Bay Lightning as one that the team let slip away.
In that game, the Hawks not only held a 2-0 lead after two periods, but also held the Lightning without a single shot in the first period en route to only allowing 16 shots in the entire game. Unfortunately, it was the Hawks’ inability to finish off the Bolts that allowed Tampa to come back and win the game by a 3-2 margin in a shootout.
Chicago will get the opportunity to thank the Lightning for that loss on Thursday night when the two teams battle in the Sunshine State for the second and final time this season. The Hawks come into the game having won two straight tilts and five of their last six games, while the Lightning are coming off of a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the Boston Bruins on Saturday on home ice.
Key to the Game: Beat the Tampa Trap
While it isn’t as blatant as the one that former head coach Guy Boucher employed during his tenure with the team, the Lightning still employ a form of a trapping defense in the neutral zone designed to disrupt zone entries and to prevent teams from getting a head of steam going up the ice. To do this, the Lightning are using their forwards in much the same way that the Blackhawks do, aggressive back-checking the puck as it comes up the ice and going after puck carriers when they do find themselves in the defensive zone.
The Blackhawks were able to beat that trap with ease during the team’s first meeting, getting a consistent level of push from all four lines and racking up a 39-17 advantage in shots on goal during the contest. Only the stellar effort of Ben Bishop in net was enough to keep Tampa in the contest long enough to make the comeback that they did, and the Hawks will surely be looking to execute the same strategy again on Thursday.
Key to that effort will be the balancing of two seemingly disparate strategies. The first is to vary up the looks that the Tampa defense will get. Whether that means dumping the puck in and chasing it with their speedy forwards, or using stretch passes from the defensive zone to move the puck past the defense before they can get set up, the Hawks can’t settle into a pattern, or else the Lightning will have no trouble in disrupting the offensive push.
The other strategy will be one of patience. Staying aggressive and varying up attacks is crucial to beating a trap, but there is also something to be said for an ability to hold back with the puck and probe for weak spots in the defense before moving the puck up ice. The Hawks did that at numerous intervals in the first meeting between the two teams, often allowing their forward lines to change out while guys like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook played catch with the puck at the blue line.
If the Hawks can stick to their strategy and be patient even if results don’t come quickly, then they should be able to counter whatever the Lightning throw at them.
Blackhawk to Watch: Bryan Bickell
At the beginning of the season, Bickell looked like he was having a tough time trying to find his niche on the Blackhawks’ top line with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. He only picked up one assist in the team’s first seven games, and looked so out of sync that Joel Quenneville opted to drop him down to the third line with Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger.
That move has paid immediate dividends for both the Hawks and for Bickell, as the burly forward has picked up both his scoring game (goals in back-to-back Hawks wins) and his physical game as he tries to get his season turned around.
It will be interesting to see how the Lightning try to defend the Hawks’ lines now that Kane and Toews have been split up, but one can bet that with all of that focus on the Hawks’ top six forwards, Bickell is going to get some good opportunities to score.
Bolt to Watch: Martin St. Louis
One of the biggest reasons that the Lightning have been off to such a great start is because of the excellent offensive output by their captain, who already has four goals and six assists on the young campaign.
After blocking a shot with his foot during a game last week though, St. Louis has begun to come back to earth a bit. He didn’t have a point in either the Bolts’ win over the Panthers or their loss to the Bruins, and one would have to wonder if he isn’t still being bothered by being hit in a “tender spot” on his foot, as Lightning head coach Jon Cooper put it.
Will Cooper shield St. Louis in the same way that Quenneville will occasionally shield Michal Handzus, giving him random shifts off during a game to maintain some freshness in his legs? It will definitely be something to keep an eye on as the Lightning come off of a lengthy break after their last game, because if St. Louis is at peak form, the Hawks will have a tough time stopping him.