In the first meeting of the year between these two squads, the Flames were able to flip the script a bit and handed the Hawks one of their worst losses of the season with a 7-2 beat down. Chicago evened things up in December with a 4-2 victory, even though they were missing a few key pieces, including Patrick Kane who left the game early with an ankle sprain.
Kane and company are back, so Chicago will have a full complement of players tonight. That’s not as scary a proposition as it was last season, obviously, but the Blackhawks are still a team with a better than average top-end. Depsite his just okay depth, Quenneville still makes a habit of giving Toews, Kane and Hossa the high ground most nights. The trio all start more than 55% of their shifts in the offensive zone versus the d-zone and all boast double digit corsi rates, including Toews team leading +19/60. I have a lot of time for Marain Hossa as a player, but I suspect that if Toews isn’t the better right now, he soon will be.
Supporting the big guns up front is the still very effective shut-down pairing of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. The latter’s numbers are down this year and he probably won’t be talked about in Norris chats, but he remains one of the very best defenders in the league. He sees top-notch opposition every single night and is well above water in terms of possession. The main reason his couting stats have fallen is the bounces given a PDO of 97.9. Seabrook isn’t driving results quite to the extent as Keith, but he’s good enough not to drag his partner down which is saying something considering the work-load they see. Jarome Iginla is going to get a face-full of Seabrook-Keith tonight and it’s a match-up the Flames captain has lost more often than not over the last few years.
Things drop off significantly after those two however. Hjalmarsson and Campbell are okay for a second pairing (certainly not worth their combined pricetag of $10.5M), but things fall off a cliff after that. Nick Boynton is the best of the third pairing rotation with 19-year old Nick Leddy, towering pugilist John Scott, former buy-out Jassen Cullimore and fringe NHLer Jordan Hendry all taking turns. Many teams have less than great players patrolling from the 6th and 7th positions, but on nights when Scott or Leddy are dressed, Quenneville must be sweating bullets.
In order to give his big guns their favorable circumstances, Quenneville has been aping Allain Vignault a bit this year and burying a bunch of guys at the bottom-end of his roster. The dude getting fed to the wolves the most so far is Dave Bolland. His zone start is mind-bogglingly tough (33%!!) and he’s only marginally under water (-5.84) so he’s actually managing to swim with a couple of anchors tied to each leg. The guys who get fed to the wolves alongside Bolland is a grab bag of extra pieces: Fernando Pisani, Ryan Potulny (both former Oilers, so they know how it feels like to get their heads beat in every night), Jake Dowell and Bryan Bickell.
On the other hand, there’s some relative no-names going along for the ride with the big boys at the top of the roster too. The most notable of which are Troy Brouwer and Viktor Stahlberg. Both make appearances in the top-6 rotation, see soft circumstances and have high-end possession rates as a result. Brouwer is a homegrown Blackhawk and former Dustin Boyd teammate from junior. He’s a big guy who never put up really big totals aside from his 20-year old season in the dub, so I view his emergence this year with some skepticism. That’s not to say he’s merely riding coattails, just that his break-out is as much due to circumstances as his own abilities. Word is he’ll be working on the Hawks first PP unit tonight, likely as a Holmstrom facsimile in front of the net.
In the crease, the Hawks are once again going through a season where a kid is busily unseating the incumbent. Marty Turco was signed in the off-season as a cheap replacement for the fallen Huet and the departed Antti Niemi and well…let’s just say you get what you pay for. Turco’s results are bad across the board, particularly his below average ES SV% of .905. Luckily for Chicago, rookie Corey Crawford has stepped in and split time with the fading veteran, providing a much more palatable .927 ES SV% in 28 games. Crawford is 26-years old and has plied his trade in the AHL for five seasons without really putting up noteworthy results (thus the long apprenticeship) so it’s an open question whether he’ll be able to sustain this long-term. That said, he’s the superior option currently and the Flames will no doubt face him tonight.
The Hawks don’t have the depth they once had, but their top-end is still scary and they’re deployed in the same manner as the Sedin Twins in Vancouver. The Flames will have to survive the assault from Toews et al and take advantage of Chicago’s relatively weaker bottom end in order to come away with the win tonight.