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Gameday Preview: Maple Leafs vs. Blackhawks

Talented forwards, goaltending keying great start for Leafs

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Gameday Preview: Maple Leafs vs. Blackhawks

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Dave Bolland (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

 Before the team embarks on the annual Mother’s Trip next week to Florida, the Chicago Blackhawks have one last bit of business to attend to as they face off with the Toronto Maple Leafs at the United Center.

While the Hawks are off to a good start of their own at 4-1-2, the Maple Leafs have surprised a lot of people after an offseason of questionable moves by winning six times in their first eight games. Their goaltending tandem of James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier have been playing some great hockey in the early going, and despite being outshot in a vast majority of their games (including by a 37-14 margin in a 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild), the Leafs are still rolling.

The Hawks are going to be up for an interesting challenge in this game, as the Leafs have several forwards who are off to rollicking starts in the early going. They have four forwards who are averaging a point a game or better, led by winger Joffrey Lupul, who has six goals in the team’s first eight games. Toronto is also being aided by the great starts of their American forward duo, with James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel combining for seven goals and seven assists (van Riemsdyk has missed two games with injuries in the early going).

Key to the Game: Take Hossa’s Back-Checking Example to Heart

In order to contend with the skill and speed of the Leafs’ forwards, the Hawks are going to have to do a much better job of back-checking than they did in their last game against the Blues, and will also have to do better work in terms of winning puck battles along the boards. Too often, the Hawks were conceding the neutral zone to the Blues’ skaters and trying to stop them along the offensive blue line, but the tactic didn’t work and as a result the Hawks gave up some good rushes.

The Leafs arguably have more dynamic forwards than the Blues have, so the strategy of attacking the puck-carrier in the neutral zone is even more crucial. Guys like Marian Hossa do this on a regular basis, but it’s the guys like Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad who are going to have to be willing to do the dirty work to keep the Leafs from gaining easy zone entries and establishing possession against the Hawks’ blue liners.

Leaf to Watch: Dave Bolland

With a slew of talented players to choose from, it would have been crazy for us to pick anyone else for this spot other than Bolland.

For starters, there is this gem from Tab Bamford. Bolland is only the third two-time Stanley Cup champion Blackhawk to play in Chicago with another team. The other two players were Louis Trudel, who returned with the Montreal Canadiens, and Elwyn “Doc” Romnes, who returned with the Maple Leafs. Both of those players played against Chicago in the Windy City during the 1938-39 season following the Hawks’ second Cup championship in four seasons.

Aside from the historical implications of Bolland’s return to Chicago, there are the emotional ones to consider too. The team really embraced Bolland’s reputation as “the rat” during his tenure, enjoying the way he would get under the skin of opponents and do a lot of the little things that most players stay away from. Whether it was a well-timed fight, aggressive forechecking, or goading opponents into careless mistakes, Bolland always had the right blend of spark and smarts that is rare in a hockey player.

Many fans grew to dislike Bolland because of his lack of success on the team’s second line last season, but the fact of the matter is that when he was put in a position that he was comfortable with, he not only survived, but he thrived.

The team is planning on doing a video tribute to Bolland during the game tonight, and it is a well deserved honor for a guy who embraced the blue collar ethos that Chicagoans see in themselves. If the crowd at the United Center can look past Bolland’s failures in a role he wasn’t comfortable with, then he should be greeted with a rousing cheer rather than a chorus of boos.

Blackhawk to Watch: Patrick Kane

Despite playing over 22 minutes on Thursday night against the Blues, something seemed to be missing from Kane’s game, as he only managed two shots on goal and really wasn’t the same player who had been aggressively pursuing the puck both offensively and defensively that he has been through the early part of this season.

It was likely that slowdown that prompted head coach Joel Quenneville to switch around his lines, separating Kane from Jonathan Toews for the first time since the Western Conference Semi-finals. The duo had a great run together, including Kane winning the Conn Smythe Trophy, but with the offense sputtering, Quenneville decided that in order to shake things up, he needed to separate his two stars.

The big key for Kane will be to take more initiative in trying to create offense. Normally, Kane does better when there is another player on the ice capable of carrying the puck into the zone and drawing at least some of the attention (although Kane will always get the majority), and even though Patrick Sharp should provide some cover in that regard, the onus will be more so on Kane to create his own chances.

If he can do that, then his production should come back up to acceptable levels, and the Hawks’ offense as a whole will be much better off.

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