The Chicago Blackhawks only have one regulation defeat so far in their Stanley Cup title defense, and it came at the hands of the St. Louis Blues. Alex Steen potted the game winning goal for the Blues with 20 seconds left in regulation, and the win allowed the Blues to stay undefeated and gain an early upper hand on the Hawks.
Quite a bit has changed after that game last week, however. The Hawks have gone on to win their last three games, and the Blues are coming off a drubbing on Tuesday at the hands of the San Jose Sharks, who racked up six goals despite losing one of their best offensive players when Dan Boyle was knocked out of the game by a dirty hit from Blues forward Maxim Lapierre. As it stands now, Lapierre will not be on the ice for the Blues on Thursday night when they take on the Hawks in a rematch of last week’s slugfest.
Despite the nationally-televised loss, the Hawks have plenty to be optimistic about. They dominated possession in the game for long stretches of time, and lulled the Blues into the kind of track meet-style game that definitely favors Chicago. The Blues are at their best when they are able to muck up the neutral zone, using their physicality to bully puck-carriers and prevent teams from gaining entry into the offensive zone. For the most part, they weren’t able to do that against a Hawks team that is not only faster than St. Louis, but also much more disciplined with the puck to boot.
Fans shouldn’t be surprised if the Blues come into this game with a chip on their shoulders from losing Lapierre from their lineup, and they will likely be willing to concede the majority of possession time on Thursday if they are able to throw their weight around and slow the Hawks down in that fashion.
Key to the Game: Resist the Temptation for Goonery
The Blackhawks aren’t a team loaded with bruisers, with only guys like Brandon Bollig and Andrew Shaw really having the urge or ability to drop the gloves at a moment’s notice. What the Hawks have to be more vigilant about is the Blues’ ability to draw teams into committing penalties against them with the extracurricular activities that they engage in after whistles.
The cost of lacking discipline was clear to both teams in their previous matchup. The Blues committed quick penalties after their first two goals in regulation, and the Hawks responded by scoring each time. The Hawks themselves gave the Blues two power plays, and while they were able to kill one of them off, they gave up a goal on a set play following a face-off.
If the Hawks are going to win on Thursday, they are going to have to stay out of the penalty box. Yes, their penalty-killing unit has been improving as the season has worn on, but the Blues have the league’s fourth-ranked power play unit, so giving them chances to deploy that group is a recipe for disaster. Guys like Bollig and Shaw will be especially critical to keeping a clean sheet on Thursday, and it’s likely that Joel Quenneville will instruct the youngsters to toe the line between physical play and penalty-worthy action.
Blue to Watch: Vladimir Tarasenko
One of the key players for the Blues in recent weeks has been their talented winger, who has scored a goal in each of the team’s last four games. His blazing speed and quick hands make him a tough matchup wherever he is slotted into the St. Louis lineup, and the Hawks would do well to make sure that he is kept in check.
Blackhawk to Watch: Brent Seabrook
Seabrook has been having a good season so far with the Hawks. He’s benefitted greatly from being paired with Duncan Keith, as both guys have a good feel for when they should attack or when they should hold back and play defense.
Unfortunately for the Hawks, the pair had a bit of a communication problem during the late stages of last week’s loss to the Blues, as Seabrook pinched in late on a defensive possession and Keith was left to tangle with a 3-on-1 rush that the Blues eventually scored on. It was a play that Seabrook has executed before, but with no forward readily available to go back to the blue line to prevent a rush, it probably wasn’t the best timed attempt to spark some offense.
Seabrook has done a good job since then of not letting the miscue affect his play, so the thing to watch with him more tonight will be just how often he tries to stretch the ice out with passes like his partner Keith does, and also to see if the execution on his pinches from the blue line will continue to be smooth.