The two teams have played over 800 times, but Wednesday night’s game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings is going to be special for a multitude of reasons.
The most obvious, of course, is that the two teams are battling in a Game 7 situation, with the winner advancing to play the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Finals.
It seems appropriate, then, that the two teams would go the full seven games in their 16th ever meeting in the Stanley Cup playoffs (the Hawks have won eight of the series, with the Red Wings attempting to even things up tonight). They often bring out the best, and sometimes the worst, in each other, and even those who think the NHL is right to separate the two rivals into different conferences readily concede that it seems a bit odd in the end that they would be apart for the first time since the early 1980’s.
Nostalgia aside, the Hawks have a hockey game to try to win, and there are several things that will need to go right for them as they attempt to finish off a comeback that many didn’t see coming.
Oduya and Hjalmarsson Must Step Up
Game 6 may have been a victory for the Blackhawks, but the truth is the team didn’t really play up to snuff. Their defensive core looked shaky at times, and it was only an excellent second half effort by goaltender Corey Crawford that enabled the three-goal comeback that ultimately won the game for Chicago.
Primary among those who had an off night were defensemen Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Granted, the pairing were separated from the guys who they had played with throughout the season (Oduya from Michal Rozsival, Hjalmarsson from Duncan Keith), but their Corsi numbers (a statistic designed to show how many shots a team generates when a player is on the ice) were both appallingly bad, and were the lowest on the team.
Hawks fans shouldn’t be tremendously worried about a repeat performance, however. The duo has been very solid in these playoffs, with Oduya stepping up offensively at times and Hjalmarsson having mostly good games despite a few clunkers to cloud the judgment of some observers.
If those two can regain the form that they have had throughout the season, then this key should take care of itself.
Hawks Must Stick to Their Strengths
The Red Wings are a team that has had chances to put away the Hawks over the past two games, but have been unable to do so. The reason has varied, though, as Game 5 was mostly because of the Blackhawks’ overwhelming offensive attack, and Game 6 was mostly about the indiscipline of several Detroit defenders that allowed the Hawks to get back into and ultimately win the game.
On home ice, the Blackhawks are going to have to deal with not only a super-charged atmosphere that could lend itself to adrenaline-fueled mistakes, but will also be dealing with a truly desperate team in a fight for their playoff lives.
With that in mind, the Blackhawks need to stick to their game plan, which involves getting the puck up the ice quickly and establishing long offensive zone possessions. Their aggressive forechecking and backchecking attacks will help to do that, and if they are able to win those puck battles in the neutral zone, then the Wings could be in for another long night in the way they were in Game 5 at the United Center.
Hawks Can’t Let the Ice Frustrate Them
With temperatures in the 80s Wednesday afternoon, the ice at the UC was already going to be an interesting issue for the two teams. With the Rolling Stones having played a concert at the arena last night, however, things could get even more interesting.
For the record, the two teams have both said they are alright with the ice and that they didn’t really notice anything untoward about it during their morning skates, but the fact is that the puck is probably going to be bouncing a bit more often than fans are accustomed to seeing during Game 7.
What does that mean for the Hawks? First and most importantly, it means they are going to need to try to make the simple play as often as possible. The stretch passes that have been working to such perfection over the last two games in spreading out the Wings’ defense may not be as accurate during this game as they have been, and so a dump and chase mentality might have to be the way to go if the ice surface is bumpy.
The second element is that the Hawks have to stay composed if things don’t break their way. After all, the Wings have to play on the same sheet that they do, and in an emotional contest like this one, getting flustered over a bad break could be the difference between advancing and being eliminated.
With a slew of veteran players, it shouldn’t be a big issue, but it will be something to keep an eye on if things look to be tilting the Wings’ way.