Blackhawks

Hawk Talk: How to Beat Preds

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Hawk Talk: How to Beat Preds

Thursday, April 15, 2010
10:30 p.m.

By Brett Ballantini
CSNChicago.com

As ascendant Stanley Cup favorites and critical darlings, most analysts see the Chicago Blackhawks quarterfinal series against the Nashville Predators as nothing more than an afterthought. And why not? The Hawks stitched together a superior regular season and potent 6-0-1 stretch run kick to sprint into the postseason. Here are 10 ways the Blackhawks can beat the Predators:

Puck Possession: Yes, this is the top bullet despite Chicagos wounded troops (hurry back soon, Soupy Campbell!). There is no greater key to Chicagos domination of the 2009-10 regular season than its ability on both ends of the ice to simply strongarm and suffocate the game by never letting go of the puck. Chicagos shot differential of 9.0 the third-biggest of any team in the post-lockout era and is a distinct measure of playoff success. Yes, Nashville has the potential to squeeze the juice out of the puck and demoralize opponents and fans alike with slowdown, Slurpee play. But the Hometown Heroes can simply go Globetrotter on teams, playing keepaway until daylight to the goaltender breaks; puck possession on Chicagos level is nothing short of a neck-snapper.

Antti-Dote: Sure, rookie netminder Antti Niemi has just 42 games of NHL experience under his belt. Yes, between his first run as a starter right before the Olympics break and Cristobal Huets utter abdication of the crease just a matter of weeks later, Niemi wasnt razor-sharp. And yes, rookie netminders whove sipped from the Cup are few and far betweenKen Dryden may be able to both out-argue and out-save Niemi even today. But listen, Niemi is a bad, bad Finn. He stole the blue ice from a veteran making close to 6 million per year, a guy who still ranks in the NHL all-time top 10 in save percentage. The rook finished second in the NHL in points percentage (.757), third in shutouts (seven, tied with his countryman counterpart in this series, Pekka Rinne) and fourth in goals-against average (2.25). And most importantly at this time of year, Niemi is unflappable. In coach Joel Quennevilles parlance, the rookie is laid-backish. That quality makes him goalie-wise beyond his 26 years.

By the Time They Get to Phoenix: Perhaps the Blackhawks can emulate the Phoenix Coyotes in their 3-2, Game 1 win over Detroit, as they took their poor power play unit and stung the Red Wings with three man-advantage goals. Aside from a nice streak at the turn of the calendar, Chicagos man-advantage looked awfully five-on-fivish for most of the season, to the point of slowly fading to black post-Olympics (dwindling to an NHL 16th-best .177 by seasons end). But on the flip side, Nashvilles penalty kill is a .771 embarrassmentthats the worst mark among playoff clubs and 28th overall in the league. In this battle of bad to worse, Chicago capitalizing with scores on those rare Predators penalties could help turn the series.

Defensive Domination: Without Campbell, the Blackhawks are weaker on D, of course. But the top four d-men, paired up as Duncan Keith-Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Seabrook-Niklas Hjalmarsson, have kept the ship afloat. Buff is a Seabrookian big body whose time served on offense over the past two seasons has served him well now that hes back on the blue line. Seabs and the Babyfaced Gangster both pack just enough puck-possession and big-hitting skills to form a pairing few opponents want to skate through. Nashville has a deep forward corps, but its not particularly skilled; down a key man or not, theres no reason the Hawks shouldnt stymie whatever is passing for offense south of the Mason-Dixon Line these days.

Home Cooking: The Blackhawks won the third-most (29) home games in the NHL in 2009-10 and in the United Center have an advantage like none other in the game. The UC has hosted the two dozen biggest indoor crowds of the entire NHL season, so no barn gets louder and less hospitable for opponents than Sweet Home Chicagos. Last year, the decibel level for the pregame national anthem alone was eardrum-bleeding. Its only going to get louder this season.

Be Cool: Chicago is well aware that the Preds play a lull game. It masquerades as bruising, old-school yawner pucks, but its really a series of traps, and by the time you take the ice off of your bruised cheek and look up at the JumboTron, youre down two with 10 minutes left. The Hawks have shown a tendency to play to the level of its opponent, and in the case of this matchup, against a team that sports inferior talent top-to-bottom, they cannot let this happen. For all the experience gained in last years surprising run to the NHLs final four and in a full season played out as hunted and not hunter, the Blackhawks are still young and subject to pressure. Nashvilles sole aim will be to bully the Hawks, frustrate them with physical play, and with the help of a fortunate puck dribble or two, cast growing doubt in the minds of the heavy favorites. The Hometown Heroes need to be cool, weather any slumps or mid-game stagnation and continue to play their ruthlessly efficient, puck possession game.

Stay Cool, Q: Quenneville played Cool Hand Q to the hilt this year, steadying his troops through the seasons ups and downs. But he does tend to be a touch paranoid when it comes to his lineshes quick to toss his players into a Lotto Hopper of lines when the offense goes a touch stale. When he panics at the sight of stagnant offense mid-game or drops a key cog three lines because of a single brain cramp, it doesnt inspire the troops. During the March skid that made the Redshirts look more AHL than NHL, the players said a lot of the right things, but boy howdy, there were some 10,000-mile stares being cast in the dressing room. Q needs to stay calm at the wheel and not give in to a game of 52-card pickup at the first downturn.

Fourteen Deep: The Blackhawks are outrageously deep on offense. The team was carried to a six-game win streak by its fourth line of Colin Fraser, Tomas Kopecky and Ben Eager, all of whom had been healthy scratches for at least one game earlier in the season. Bryan Bickell and Adam Burish, both who could contribute to fourth or even third lines on most any NHL team, appear likely to spend the quarterfinals watching in the press box. And in spite of major injuries to the defense, none bigger than the loss of Campbell for the quarterfinals, the Hawks have shifted on the fly and mostly retained their characteristic toughness and puck possessiveness.

Spreading the Wealth: The Blackhawks score a ton of goals (at least five-on-five, or shorthanded, heh) yet only Patrick Kane could be considered a team superscorer, topping 30 goals, 80 points and more than one point per game. But overall Chicago is a much more high-powered offensive team than Nashville, no matter how thin the O is spread: The Hawks have four players with more than 60 points, while no Sabertooth topped 51. Which means in parched or lulled time

Superstars Take Over: Despite any talk of spreading the wealth, the Blackhawks have a half-dozen playmakers superior to any Nashville skates, from the Big Red Cheese, Jonathan Toews, to the wizardry of Kane and Marian Hossa, the explosiveness of Kris Versteeg, the steady scoring of Patrick Sharp and the center of the line of defense, Duncan Keith. When times get tough, superstars step up. The closest forward Nashville has to a superstar is Patric Hornqvist, whos tallied all of one goal in eight career contests vs. Chicago. Any of the aforementioned Blackhawks could equal that with a single sneeze.

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

Blackhawks 2018-19 season grades: Coaching

Blackhawks 2018-19 season grades: Coaching

Jeremy Colliton had difficult shoes to fill. That's an understatement.

He replaced a three-time Stanley Cup winner and the second-winningest NHL coach of all-time in Joel Quenneville. And Colliton jumped in at the age of 33 just days after he and his wife welcomed their third child.

To make things even more complicated, Colliton took over as Blackhawks head coach just one month into the season and had to implement some new components of his system on the fly. That took a while for the veterans who had been playing one way for the last 10-plus years to adjust.

Colliton's No. 1 priority when he came to Chicago was to help fix a power-play unit that ranked third-worst during the 2017-18 campaign with a 16.0 percent success rate and 26th through the first 15 games of the 2018-19 season with a 14.0 percentage. It wasn't getting any better.

But from the day he got hired and on, the Blackhawks finished with the seventh-best power play (21.8 percent). It dried up down the stretch, but that was after a two-month span where it was converting at nearly a 40 percent clip. It was bound for regression.

The penalty kill, however, is something that stayed in the basement of the NHL all season long. They were 23rd under Quenneville through the first 15 games (76.6 percent) and finished last with a 71.7 percent kill rate under Colliton in the remaining 67 games. You can overcome a struggling power play, but it's almost impossible to overcome a bad penalty kill.

At 5-on-5 play under Quenneville this season, the Blackhawks had an expected goals for percentage of 45.8, a scoring chances for percentage of 49.2 and high-danger chances for percentage of 43.6, according to naturalstattrick.com. Under Colliton, they had an expected GF percentage of 45.8, SCF percentage of 46.9 and HDCF percentage of 42.6.

The sample sizes obviously aren't the same (15 games vs. 67) and, as we mentioned above, it took a couple of months for the Blackhawks to really get comfortable with Colliton's defensive structure. They certainly went through growing pains.

But with the Blackhawks expected to be active this summer in free agency and adding players that fit their new head coach's style, coupled with the fact that Colliton will have a full training camp to iron out the kinks and incorporate even more elements into his system, and the team could hit the ground running for the 2019-20 campaign rather than playing catch-up all season long. 

"I think as you go you get more comfortable, you gain confidence, you go through experiences and deal with situations that come up and they're challenging at times," Colliton said. "You get through it. And then the next time stuff comes up, you feel more confident, you feel better about what you're doing. I had confidence when I came in November that I had a plan and we as a staff could make some progress. It took longer than we all would have liked, but I think I'm a better coach now than when I walked in, and I'm going to use that going forward. 

"There's going to be challenging circumstances next year too where maybe doesn't come easy. But I think all the best coaches get better all the time. Every day they're bringing new ideas and new energy and looking outside for inspiration. That's what I expect to."

Coaching: B-

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What Ian Mitchell returning to college means for Blackhawks

What Ian Mitchell returning to college means for Blackhawks

After falling short of a Frozen Four championship with Denver, the attention in Chicago turned to defenseman prospect Ian Mitchell and whether he'd sign an entry-level deal with the Blackhawks. It felt like it was only a matter of time before he would do so, but as the days passed, there seemed to be growing speculation that that may not be the case.

On Wednesday, Mitchell made it official and announced his decision to return to college for his junior season by releasing this statement on Denver's website:

"In the past few days since our season ended, I have had the chance to reflect on the year and the season our team had. It became clear to me during that time that I did not feel ready mentally or physically to leave Denver. I believe this is the best place for me to become a better hockey player and as a team we have an opportunity to do something very special next year. I would like to thank the Chicago Blackhawks organization for being so supportive and respectful of my decision to remain in school and continue my development. I am looking forward to next season."

So what does this mean for the Blackhawks?

For one, it immediately eliminates Mitchell from the equation of making the 2019-20 Opening Day roster even though he might be the most pro-ready of the three top Blackhawks defensemen prospects that haven't appeared in an NHL game yet (Nicolas Beaudin and Adam Boqvist). It's probably a wise move for his long-term development.

But with Beaudin and Boqvist also in the same boat as far as maybe needing some more time to develop, it's entirely possible all three won't be in the NHL next season. Which is fine. The Blackhawks have always preached patience when it comes to prospects developing at their own pace.

But it puts the Blackhawks in a position the following season where they could be breaking in several young defensemen at once depending on where they're at in their timelines. Maybe that's a good problem to have. It also depends on the number of roster spots available, which is a conversation for a different day.

In going back to college, Mitchell, a second-round pick (No. 57 overall) in 2017, pushes back his eligibility to sign with the Blackhawks to the spring of 2020. And yes, it's too early to start wondering whether the Blackhawks could lose his signing rights if he returns to college for a senior season and elects to go to free agency. 

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