When the Chicago Blackhawks hit the ice on Monday night against the Minnesota Wild in the Twin Cities, they will be doing so with yet another variation on a lineup that has been in a constant state of flux in recent games.
This time, they will be putting Brandon Pirri on the second line in place of the injured Michal Handzus, who will likely miss a few more games with an upper body injury. Here is how the lines will shake out for Chicago:
Brad Mills and Ben Smith have been alternating that spot on the fourth line ever since Mills’ recall on Friday, so it’s not clear which player will be in the Hawks’ lineup on Monday, but what is apparent is that head coach Joel Quenneville has decided to top-load his lineup in a big way going into this game.
The top line of Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa is an interesting one to be sure. Sharp and Hossa have historically played well together, including last season when they were centered by Handzus on the second line, but for the most part it seems as though Sharp has more chemistry with Patrick Kane when they are paired up together, so it will be interesting to see how that duo will fare now that they’ve been split up.
There is also some concern about the defensive ability of that second line, with Pirri not being known for his defensive prowess at the center slot (a big reason why he did not start the 2013-14 season with the Hawks) and with Saad and Kane still largely considered to be offensive stalwarts who only occasionally play defense. Whether or not that assumption is correct (both players are excellent back-checkers, so it’s a bit of an unfair criticism) notwithstanding, there is no argument as to which of the top two lines is more responsible defensively, so it will be interesting to see if loading up the second line without a defensive stopper will hurt the Hawks Monday.
Finally, it was probably a smart decision by Quenneville to keep the third line of Jeremy Morin, Bryan Bickell, and Andrew Shaw intact. That line had some great offensive push against the Wild on Saturday, and all three players on the line are more than capable of playing some great defense too. With Morin’s aggressive speed and backchecking, as well as Bickell and Shaw’s physicality, this line is a great blend of skillsets that should provide a big challenge to a Wild team looking to knock off the Hawks for a second game in a row.
Blackhawk to Watch: Brandon Pirri
Obviously, Monday’s game is a big audition for Pirri, who will be looking to show Quenneville and the coaching staff that he is capable of handling all of the responsibilities that come with being a number two center in the NHL. His offensive game is definitely up to snuff, but the real question of whether or not he will make sure to attend to his defensive duties will define the success or failure of the experiment.
Odds are we will see Pirri get off to a great start in a similar fashion to the way Morin jumped into the lineup on Saturday, with some aggressive work in the neutral zone and a penchant for finding his way to open ice to receive passes from a skilled facilitator in Kane. If he can do that, and if he can make sure to keep an eye on some of the dynamic forwards that the Wild will surely put on the ice to test him, then he could go a long way to nailing down a spot that has been in flux for quite a while for the Hawks.
Wild Player to Watch: Matt Cooke
Pretty much every hockey fan knows about Cooke’s escapades as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but after a rash of suspensions and generating a lot of hatred during his time there, Cooke has really sought to re-invent himself with the Wild.
As such, Cooke has been seeing a lot of ice time during the team’s penalty killing situations. He is averaging 3:03 of ice time short-handed per game so far this season, which is second only to Kyle Brodziak among the team’s forwards. He was especially good against the Hawks on Saturday, doing some great work in stripping the puck from forwards trying to gain zone entry and also throwing his weight around with some good hits along the boards on those plays.
So long as Cooke stays out of trouble, he seems to be one of the best penalty killers on a team that hasn’t exactly been excelling in that area (the Wild are currently 27th in the league on the PK), and the Hawks are going to have to find a way to beat his aggressive style if they find themselves on the power play in this game.