The Flames, fresh off another blah outing on Wednesday, have an opportunity to enjoy the company of the defending champs this evening. Enjoy is a relative term, of course, since the Blackhawks have spent the last couple of years treating the Flames in roughly the same manner that a band saw treats a side of beef.
Or at least it’s certainly seemed as if the Flames were nothing but inert slabs of former life hanging from hooks, chilling while the Hawks went about their business. No team has exposed Calgary’s every weakness as cruelly as Chicago, and after a shaky start, the champs have found a bit of form in the last couple of outings.
For all the Strum und Drang of the off-season, Chicago managed to keep a very nice core in place. Their top players are, with the possible exception of Marian Hossa, likely to be proper contributors for another decade or more. Nice problem, isn’t it? They haven’t really looked quite themselves, though, and I do think that stripping some of their depth, along with a few injuries and a bit of poor EV shooting luck, has kept Chicago in the pack so far. That, and maybe a small dose of understandable ennui.
Joel Quennville is pretty consistent in terms of utilization for his forwards, routinely asking David Bolland and Fernando Pisani to play the other team’s best so that Kane, Sharp and Toews might get the softer matchups. It’s a pattern he used with Bolland and Madden last year to great effect, and in terms of out-shooting, his approach is still largely working, as the Hawks have a healthy differential at EV. The numbers aren’t quite to last season’s standard, though, and no matter how good your team may be, flushing Ladd, Versteeg and Byfuglien has meant that the Hawks don’t outplay every team’s third and fourth lines as a matter of routine. Andrew Ladd is a very good player outright, and the other two torched most bottom-sixers most evenings. The Hawks don’t quite have that happening this year with Kopecky and Skille in those sort of roles.
Teams still win with their best, though, and while most of us where watching the latest Flames’ abomination, young Mr. Toews had a very productive Wednesday evening at the Pharmaceum. At EV his on-ice shots for/against read as follows: 19 SOG for, 0 against. I know that was tallied against the Oilers, who might have a hard time giving a ringette team a game at the moment, but that’s still a trouncing by any description, and it was the third best effort by the members of his line, as Kane and Stalberg both went went 21/0. Good thing the Flames have Tom Kostopoulos in town to quell that sort of nonsense.
On the blue, Brian Campbell is back from injury, so Chicago’s top four are in harness again. The best of those men is the player who’s development first gave me an inkling of the Hawks’ likely ascension to the summit. I’ve mentioned this before elsewhere, but the Flames lost a game at the ‘Dome in February of 2008 to the Hawks where the signs of all that Chicago was becoming started to make themselves clear. That night, Duncan Keith was excellent at attacking Jarome Iginla in the neutral zone, taking away any space or chance of generating speed. Jarome, like every other Flame that evening, looked as if he was stuck in a bog, and the club has looked that way in the collective against the Hawks pretty much ever since.
The Hawks aren’t quite the same bunch of killers we’ve witnessed over the last two years for the reasons I’ve mentioned, but they still have the ability on any night to make a team look like chumps, and the Flames are slightly unsettled at the moment, to be kind. If the Flames have any hope, staying out of the box is paramount, since Chicago’s PP is north of 26% at the moment. That, and maybe there’s some addition by subtraction with Joker on the shelf. At least we won’t have to hear Chelsea Dagger half a dozen times or more if things go to hell. Small comfort, I know.