This is the way it used to be, where the Hawks could fly under the radar and there'd be about seven of us who cared while everyone else worried about the other teams in town. However, the Hawks have set up as a nice appetizer for Bears fans this weekend, taking on our biggest rival on Saturday and then providing the background to your pregame meal/drinking binge with a return date with Finals-conquered Philadelphia on Sunday. If you can't handle the pregame show on Fox (and really, who could?), the Hawks are there to keep you from losing your mind.
The Hawks have just about the most challenging weekend they have faced all year, and probably will. Coach Quenneville said today's practice was as good as they've had. Hopefully that means they're slobbering to get back out in a game, and that everyone (especially Mssrs. 81 and 88) are as healthy as they've been. Generally, when coaches rave about a practice, I get all prepared for a true clunker of a game. But I'll reserve judgement until Saturday about 3:30pm.
Anyway, couple things we should watch for in these two games:
The Penalty Kill - This is obvious. The Hawks will be facing the two biggest offensively loaded teams in the league, and if they're penalty kill still rhymes with "clown car", these games could be over early. They can talk about systems and personell all they want, but a lot of this comes down to do Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook want to kill. Keith has been a bystander around the net for most of the year, leading to a lot of problems. While the Hawks don't ask any of their d-men to clear out the goalie-screeners on a constant basis, they are expected to clear rebounds -- or at the very least tie up stick so that rebounds aren't deposited in their net. They haven't done this. While they won't have to deal with Tomas Holmstrom, whose entire career is defined by giving goalies a whiff of what he had for lunch from the wrong end, there's till Todd Bertuzzi and Johan Franzen, followed by Scott Hartnell on Sunday. They have to be dealt with. Secondly, will the forwards keep crashing down too low to allow the point men space to get shots through? Because letting Brian Rafalski, Nicklas Lidstrom, Kimmo Timonen, Chris Pronger, and others the time and space to pick their spots is like mixing pain killers and wine. Not that I'd know.
The Top 6 - While the Hawks are playing better, if the Hawks hope to defend what is theirs in the spring they're going to need their Top 6 to not be shut down. People forget that in the last two rounds of last year's playoffs, Jonathan Toews had one goal. Patrick Kane had three. Marian Hossa had one. They were bailed out by Sharp, Bolland, Ladd, Buff, and others. They won't get away with that this time. They need everyone. So this weekend they'll get a look at what could be some very big obstacles down the road. Can the players the Hawks count on most break through when facing some of the league's best, who are specifically designed to shut them down?