Catching up with the Blackhawks via Blackhawks Daily
With the Bruins and Blackhawks set to meet Thursday night for the first time this season, we got together with Cathy Limanowski and Chris Dubiel of Blackhawks Daily to catch up on what has been happening with the Blackhawks.
Bruins Daily: After struggling a bit out of the gate, the Blackhawks enter Boston red hot. What have they done that has helped them catch fire?
Cathy Limanowski (CL): The biggest thing Chicago has done to continue this winning streak is to play consistently. The Blackhawks struggle with playing a full 60 minutes from time to time but the last two weeks has been the most complete games we have seen all season. It also hasn’t hurt matters any to have Head Coach Joel Quenneville put together a red-hot Richards line. The combination of Patrick Kane, Brad Richards and Kris Versteeg has been fun to watch and the puck movement on that line has been very clean and quick, opening up a lot of space on the ice and allowing them to find the back of the net quite often. Combine that with some impressive goaltending and you’ve got yourself a seven game win streak.
BD: With Corey Crawford out for a few weeks, how do you see the goaltending situation played out with Scott Darling and Antti Raanta?
Chris Dubiel (CD): Raanta and Darling have both been playing well in the action they’ve seen with Crawford out. In fact, Quenneville has gushed about all of his goalies on multiple occasions, as it hasn’t seemed to matter who’s in net; they’re getting the job done.
What’s interesting is that even though Raanta was clearly #2 on the depth chart coming in, Darling has looked good in all but maybe one of his appearances and gives the Blackhawks strong depth in net. If Raanta falters, Q can go to Darling without hesitation. While the backup job is most likely Raanta’s to lose, Darling could easily be Crawford’s backup if the Blackhawks want to get creative with the roster and need the extra cap space. However, I don’t think that’s likely, as Raanta would have to play pretty badly to lose his spot.
BD: How has Corey Crawford’s injury affected the Hawks’ play defensively? Are they doing anything different in his absence?
CL: I really don’t think Crawford’s injury has affected the Hawks defensive play much at all. Both Antti Raanta and Scott Darling have been solid in net while Crawford has been out. Chicago seems to always find strong backup goaltenders to fill in during the Hawks time of need. You can tell the players have confidence in both Raanta and Darling because they play aggressive offensively, knowing that in a worst-case scenario, either goalie will be able to handle most any situation.
There hasn’t been a need to change anything defensively with Crawford out because the defense has played consistently well this season, with an occasional off night of course. Even Klas Dahlbeck, who has played in only two games so far this season, has caught the attention of Coach Quenneville and the rest of the team. Dahlbeck has made some big plays in key moments to help the Hawks get the win.
BD: Patrick Sharp, often overlooked on a loaded Hawks team returned to the lineup on Tuesday night. What makes him so important on the Hawks PP?
CL: He’s got an excellent one-timer and seems to find a way to sneak into the open scoring areas to get that back-door chance. Although Sharp’s two-way play has dropped off a bit, he’s still an offensive weapon and routinely leads the Blackhawks in shots.
BD: We’re seeing resurgence in Kris Versteeg this season. He’s always been rumored to be a difficult guy off the ice. What’s contributed to Versteeg’s turnaround this season?
CD: In training camp there was all kinds of lip service paid to Kris Versteeg’s offseason workout regimen. Quenneville and company kept telling us that Versteeg would be better because he was training during the summer as opposed to rehabbing from a serious knee injury the summer before. While most were expecting Versteeg to be better than he was last season (he was awful), I don’t think anyone saw this type of resurgence coming.
Versteeg looks quicker and more confident with the puck. He has his swagger back. He’s meshed well with Richards and Kane. Versteeg is an entirely different player than the one relegated to 4th line duty last spring and if he plays like this all season it could be a special year.
BD: Last season, the lack of a second line center proved to be an Achilles heel for the Blackhawks. How important was the signing of Brad Richards to solidify that spot?
CL: Signing Brad Richards has made a big difference for the entire Hawks team this season. Richards’ line had been on fire when he was paired with Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg. The second line created a lot of coverage issues and opened up the ice for Chicago’s #1 stick handler, Patrick Kane, to really shine. Aside from that, just having a veteran and a real Center on the team takes some pressure off other guys like Andrew Shaw, Jonathan Toews and Marcus Kruger to allow Quenneville to have the freedom to change up lines as he often likes to. On top of that, it gives Teuvo Teravainen the time he needs to mature and learn the North American game better in Rockford before dropping him into an environment he isn’t quite ready for yet. Although Teravainen did well in the few games he has played with the Blackhawks this season, he still has a lot he can improve upon and with Richards on the team, Teuvo has the time he needs to acclimate himself properly before hitting the big stage on a more consistent basis.
BD: As much as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and company get all the headlines, the Blackhawks have gotten plenty of secondary scoring from Richards, Kris Versteeg, Brandon Saad and more. Even with their two Cup wins in five years, is this team deeper, from top to bottom, than the two championship teams?
CD: This team might be deeper at forward than those teams with the addition of a rejuvenated Brad Richards and vastly improved Kris Versteeg but the defensive depth is still a concern. The Hawks top-four continues to be solid, as Keith and Seabrook have maintained their high level of play and Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya can still handle tough assignments.
That being said, there have still been some yippy moments from Oduya, which can be a concern in a playoff series. The bigger question is the third pairing. David Rundblad, Adam Clendening and now Klas Dahlbeck have been part of a cast of rotating youngsters in the #6 spot. Michal Rozsival has been the #5 on most nights lately and while he can be effective, the 36-year-old looked glacially slow on multiple occasions and is another player to worry about in a playoff series.
Trevor van Riemsdyk was off to a very promising start, providing the Hawks with steady play on the bottom pair. Quenneville took a shine to him in camp and TVR just kept getting more confident and didn’t show any tendency to make rookie mistakes. He’s out with a fractured kneecap and won’t be back till the end of the season, so there’s no telling how effective he’ll be when things start to ramp up in the spring time.
BD: With two Norris Trophies under the belt, Duncan Keith has been one of the top defensemen in the last few seasons. What makes him such a great player?
CL: I think the key to understanding what makes Duncan Keith so good is his ability to make plays anywhere on the ice at any time. He has great awareness of where the puck is and where his teammates are. He’s got a great slapshot from the blue line that has scored him a lot of goals the past few seasons, but he can also crash the net at the appropriate time to tap the puck in off a rebound. Just the other night against the Devils Keith was in the blue paint and found a loose puck that had bounced off Keith Kinkaid’s pad which he buried to tie the game they eventually won in a shootout. He also has a great calm, veteran presence on the ice. When things go south he stays poised and will give every effort to do whatever he can to save a goal. Keith has a strong eye for when to take risks and when to hang back and protect the goal. Skills like that are the reason he has won two Norris Trophies.
BD: Aside from who we touched on during this Q&A, who are some other players to watch Thursday night, and what are your keys to a Blackhawks victory?
CD: Keep an eye on Niklas Hjalmarsson. He may be the most underrated player on the Blackhawks with all of the attention the stars on this roster get. Hjalmarsson has excellent gap control when defending against puck carries, he’s a fearless shot blocker and his breakout passes are excellent. Hjalmarsson has a knack for finding the open man in his own zone when the Blackhawks are under pressure and it’s paid huge dividends for Chicago’s transition game.
Keys to victory for the Blackhawks tonight will be disciplined play in their own zone and making the simple plays instead of forcing long passes and one-on-one moves. While the Blackhawks are known as an offensive team, everything that makes them successful stems from their ability to quickly move the puck out of the defensive zone. When Boston dumps the puck in, the Hawks defensemen will quickly retrieve the puck and look to make the first pass in a hurry. Chicago’s quick forwards typically make breakouts simple by back checking and making that first pass an easy one. Where problems occur is when the forwards get lazy and the defensemen are looking to make stretch passes that are prone to being picked off.
Against a strong fore-checking team like the Bruins, the Blackhawks’ discipline in their own zone will be imperative to extending this streak.
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