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Hawk Talk: How to beat the Blackhawks

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Hawk Talk: How to beat the Blackhawks

Saturday, May 15, 201012:15 PM

By Brett Ballantini
CSNChicago.com

Contrary to that clown-car clash going on in the Eastern Conference, in its final the West boasts a battle of the best, top-dogged San Jose Sharks and second-seeded Chicago Blackhawks. Its a shot at redemption for the Tiburones and a shot at destiny for the Redshirts. Both teams are worthy of a Stanley Cup final, and either would be a prodigious favorite to win the Cup once there. So, ladies and gentlemen, the true fight to raise the greatest trophy in sports starts Sunday in San Jose. Heres how the Sharks can topple the Blackhawks:

Ninny Niemi: Sure, Antti Niemi has become a Blackhawks hero with his terrific work so far in the postseason, including a pair of shutouts in the quarterfinals -- a feat that hadnt been accomplished since Tony Esposito. But here it is: The rookie is vulnerable. He tends to hit the splits quick, leaving the top shelf open often, as well as let loose rebounds. The Blackhawks defense, for the most part, has played a great moat around the crease, keeping Amazing Antti from seeing shots and wiping up his leavings at first drop. But theres weakness there to be exploited.

A Quick Bite: One of the few openings the confident Hawks leave opponents is a mild and brief tendency to become discombobulated under duress. This may not make Chicago any different from 29 other NHL teams, but unlike most of those other teams, that standing eight-count is often the best chance you have to knock it off in a single game, much less a series. The Nashville Predators were in many ways the antithesis of the Blackhawks, a team that had to scratch and claw for any advantage over the sublimely talented Hometown Heroes. That heads-down approach gave Nashville 1-0 and 2-1 leads in the series and pushed the Blackhawks to within 14 seconds of an elimination game. Vancouver dealt Chicago a smackdown in Game 1 of the semis that left the Blackhawks dressing room more than a little stunned. San Jose coach Todd McLellan is a sharp cookie, and hes doubtlessly lecturing his charges on the advantages to pinning the Blackhawks quickly. The Sharks are at home, with the advantage theyve worked all season to use, so if they execute it to knock the Hawks down in Game 1, unease again may set in again for Chicago.

Push Their Panic Button: A Joel Quenneville team is normally immaculately prepared and motivated from the get-go, which made the malaise his team felt throughout the early stages of the Nashville series and the strangely flat start to the semis particularly perplexing. While an immediate San Jose win in the series is probably not integral to an overall conference finals win, any mucking up of Chicagos game plan could yield emotional riches down the road. Quenneville is a known tinkerer, although so far, hes been perfect with his tweaks -- his overhaul of the club prior to Game 4 of the quarterfinals yielded three straight wins and advancement and his flip of Dustin Byfuglien from the blue line to the top line was a work of art -- but shuffling for shufflings sake still can take a toll on a team, as seen in Chicagos post-Olympic stumbling. If the Sharks can find a way to push Cool Hand Qs panic button early, it could leave the Blackhawks unsettled for the duration.

On a related note, to everyones surprise, the Blackhawks admitted being ill-prepared and perhaps undermotivated after losses to Nashville in Games 1 and 3 of the quarters and Games 1 and 5 of the semis. If San Jose senses any such lack of (in Qs parlance) compete level, the Sharks can swim in and chomp the heart out of the Hawks.

Keep em Slippy-Sloppy: Normally cool and collected, Chicago was downright panic-prone in their own zone for most of the quarterfinals. While the Hawks rarely repeated such mistakes against Vancouver, that was as much a case of the Canucks being undisciplined and unable to enact a true game plan that sheer maturity on Chicagos part. A confident, skilled San Jose team can cough turnovers out of the Redshirts and will be able to bury every bumble the Blackhawks make.

Go To Smashville: Sure, the Sharks wanna bite, attack, swoop -- theyre a high-powered offense with skills to flash. But San Jose would be smart to pull a few Barry Trotz tricks out of the playbook. Button down the game and Chicagos puck-possession advantage tends to disappear. The Sharks might not have the defensive chops of Nashville that would allow them to simply dominate the series from the blue line, but they can pack enough feistiness to bring the game right to Chicagos jawline. Based on how the Blackhawks wilted in the face of some of Nashvilles physical pressure, a bit of slog-it-out brawling could go a long way in the semis.

History Never Repeats: San Jose so far has faced down the demons of playoff failures past. The Sharks just bit down hard on the closest thing the NHL has to a dynasty, dispatching the gilded (and white-hot heading into the playoffs) Detroit Red Wings like stale octopus. So theres no reason -- no, not even Chicagos decided dominance this season -- to choke or gag or have second thoughts now. Tighten up the mental jujitsu, table any vertigo, work the Shark Tank to advantage and blow right past Chicago into the franchises first Stanley Cup Finals.

Defend the Tank: Yeah, the Blackhawks have beaten San Jose both times in the Shark Tank this season, but this is the advantage the Sharks battled all season for and now a mere point in the standings has created a potential difference of four home Western Conference finals games rather than three. While Chicago clearly is not intimidated by the Shark Tank, its San Joses job to create unease and establish the tone and tenor of the series from Game 1 forward. Grant the Blackhawks even a split in these first two games and the Sharks have not only lost their home-ice advantage, theyve swung momentum drastically in Chicagos favor and increased the likelihood of returning to California for a must-win Game 5.

Top Line is Go! The Sharks boast a top-six on offense that is a beast, and while the Blackhawks boast better depth overall, sometimes that depth can spread responsibility too thin -- witness Jonathan Toewss everyone is waiting for someone else to do it disgust after Chicagos Game 5 loss to Vancouver. Theres no such question of where to place the burden with San Jose. Strategically, San Joses strength plays right into Chicagos weakness. The Sharks love to linger deep and deftly maneuver in the shadows of the defense -- and thats just the sort of attack that makes the Blackhawks nervous and prone to fumbles. Plus, a calm, collected San Jose offense will end up being its best defense as well -- the Blackhawks puck-possession game is predicated on keeping the puck out of the Chicago zone and opponents on their heels.

A Steady Hand: OK, Evgeni Nabokov didnt have his best season against the Blackhawks this season, being run from the first Sharks-Hawks tilt in San Jose on Nov. 25 and nearly dealt the same blow in the Tiburones Tank on Jan. 28. But historically, Nabokov has been strong against Chicago: 14-6-5 with a 2.50 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. And if he builds on the second and third periods of that Jan. 28, as well as his masterful work in stopping 45 Chicago shots in a Dec. 22 win at the United Center, the Sharks will boast a massive advantage in net for the series.

Brett Ballantini isCSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnikon Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawksinformation.

Blackhawks make sports history with fifth straight overtime game to start season

Blackhawks make sports history with fifth straight overtime game to start season

The Blackhawks made sports history on Saturday after they appeared in their fifth straight overtime game to start the season.

No NHL team has done that since the league introduced a regular-season overtime period in 1983-84, per the Elias Sports Bureau. It also has never happened in the history of MLB, NBA or NFL, showing just how crazy this early season run has been for the Blackhawks, who have rallied from all five games and have come away with wins in three of them.

"We’ve had five games, every one of them have been extremely intense and the game’s been on the line from start to finish," coach Joel Quenneville said following a 4-3 overtime win over the St. Louis Blues. "Our group’s been competitive this year, the guys have been working hard for one another. I don’t know how many games we’ve been down in the third period, and coming back to win is special."

The Blackhawks appeared in 17 overtime/shootout games last season and won seven of them. They are one of six teams this season that have yet to pick up a regulation win.

On a separate note, Saturday marked the eighth time in Blackhawks history that one player scored a tying goal in the third period and scored in overtime (Alex DeBrincat), according to the NHL's PR department. It's the second time it's happened this year for the Blackhawks, with Jonathan Toews the other on Oct. 6 against St. Louis.

Four takeaways: Alex DeBrincat salvages divisional game for Blackhawks in overtime on Duncan Keith’s special night

Four takeaways: Alex DeBrincat salvages divisional game for Blackhawks in overtime on Duncan Keith’s special night

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-3 overtime win over the St. Louis Blues at the United Center on Saturday night:

1. Special night for Duncan Keith — and Brent Seabrook

The Blackhawks celebrated Keith's 1,000-game milestone in the perfect way. Every player wore a No. 2 jersey during warmups, his family was on the ice for the pregame ceremony, and Patrick Sharp made an appearance to present Keith with a silver stick. Seabrook was also paired with Keith among the starters, a great touch by Joel Quenneville and the coaching staff.

But it was also a historic day for Keith's partner and close friend Seabrook, who became the franchise leader in games played by a defenseman, surpassing Bob Murray who previously held that mark at 1,008. It's only fitting Keith and Seabrook shared that moment together.

"We've been riding shotgun together for our whole careers," Keith said. "I couldn't imagine my career, my 1,000 games without him and all the experiences and memories that I've had winning and even losing, and the fun times we've had off the ice. I owe a lot of my success, and I think the team does as well, to Brent and what he means to the team and what he brings to our friendship and as a teammate."

To put a bow on the game, Keith had a vintage Keith moment on the game-tying goal in the third period when he intercepted a pass in the neutral zone on his backhand, then fed Toews a dart leading him into the offensive zone that set up DeBrincat's goal. 

2. Alex DeBrincat's torrid start

The Blackhawks continued to get contributions from their top players such as Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, both of whom extended their point streaks to five games to open the season. But DeBrincat has propelled himself into that conversation as a top player on this team.

He had a multi-goal effort for the second straight game, upping his goal total on the season to a team-leading six. His overtime winner is the first of his NHL career in that fashion.

DeBrincat didn't score his sixth goal until Nov. 12 last season, which was the 18th game. And he still finished with 28. While it's hard to envision him continuing to score at more than a goal-per-game pace, it's not hard to see him continuing to be one of the best players on the ice and generating offense and scoring chances on a nightly basis.

"I think I'm getting pretty lucky right now," DeBrincat said. "I'm playing with [Toews] and [Dominik] Kahun, they're making great plays and getting me the puck. It's pretty easy when you have those guys as your linemates. Even on that last goal, [Erik Gustafsson] made a great pass backdoor to me. Pretty easy tap in."

3. Squandering another two-goal lead

The Blackhawks took a 2-0 lead for the third straight game. And they squandered it for the third straight game, in large part because they committed five straight penalties in the second and third periods.

It's no longer a blip at this point and is becoming an alarming trend, even though the Blackhawks have come back to force overtime in each of those three games. That will be something the Blackhawks work on all season long.

But Quenneville would have liked to have seen the Blackhawks keep their foot on the gas pedal and cash in on their opportunities to make it a 3-0 game.

"Score the third goal," he said. "I loved the way we were playing. We had a lot of good things going. Eventually they’re going to get chances, get opportunities. But we had some great chances to get it to three. It was one of those nights, every game is kind of different how the leads changed."

4. Brotherly love

For the first time in the NHL, the Schmaltz brothers finally got their chance to go up against each other at the highest level. There had been a handful of other opportunities in the past, but it never lined up for a variety of reasons. 

They didn't see much of each other while on the ice — they were on together for only 1:30 of the game — but Nick did commit a penalty that led to Jordan assisting on the Blues' first goal on a delayed call. 

The best battles between Jordan, who turned 25 on Oct. 8, and Nick, 22, came when they were kids.

"We had a little roller rink downstairs in our house growing up," Nick said. "It would be me vs. my sister (Kylie) and my brother. Those were probably the best battles. Someone would usually come up crying or high-stick or puck to the face or something like that. A lot of good memories. Looking back at it, it was awesome to have that and work on each other’s game and push each other to get better."