Game Time: 6:00PM CST
TV/Radio: WGN Ch. 9, WGN-AM 720
Mike Ribeiro Is A Sex Criminal: On The Forecheck
It seems like every single year the Hawks manage to have played more games than anyone in the first half of the season, with the entire rest of their division having games in hand up until the final week of the season. This year is no different, and what better way to pile on than with three games in four nights, all at home.
Tonight’s guests on West Madison are the Nashville Predators, who hilariously find themselves behind the Vancouver Canucks on the outside looking in for the Western Conference playoff picture. That’s not to say that the Predators are a worse team than the Canucks, they assuredly are still one of the more talented teams in the league, despite the fact they’ll be missing James Neal and PK Subban tonight. And they play an entertaining flavor of hockey for sure, as Peter Laviolette doesn’t know any other way even if his way always eventually gets him shitcanned. The problem is, as it has always been, a lack of real top flight scoring, particularly down the middle. Ryan Johansen is as talented as they come, but he’s probably not a real #1 center in the NHL and is miscast as one here, as he’s basically a younger, doughier Jason Spezza. Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro are closer to 40 than they are to 30, and were never truly reliable from a scoring standpoint on top of being absolute garbage people off the ice. Filip Forsberg’s percentages are finally snapping back, but other than him and the injured Neal, the wingers of note are Colin Wilson and Craig Smith, who only seem to kill the Hawks. And due to the bottom-of-roster churn that happens for every team this time of year, Harry Zolnaicarxeczc will see actual NHL minutes on a team that wants to win something and will probably attempt to decapitate someone.
On the blue line, without PK Subban, bum slayers extraordinaire Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm will have to take on at least one real assignment between the two of them, and once they get out into the cruel world of non-cherry picked assignments (particularly on the road), things haven’t always gone as smoothly for them. Same for Roman Josi, who for as great as he is, isn’t a one man show who can flip the ice without a stable partner. That’s not to say that any of these players are bad, far from it actually. They all have the wheels and vision to make things happen if they’re given enough space. But the bottom pairing for Nashville has been a problem this year, as Matt Carle has already skulked his charred remains into retirement, and the Preds just gave one-way paper to Matt Irwin, who came into camp on a PTO and is now playing top 4 minutes with Subban out. Yannick Weber and Anthony Bitteto are a far cry from what Ellis and Ekholm used to be able to do from the third pair.
In net, Ol’ Shit Hip will get the cage again, having last played on Thursday with Juuse Saros taking a turn Friday in 2-1 loss in Sunrise. Rinne has alternated productive months to this point in the season, with a .905 October followed by a .949 November, and then a ghastly .875 December. Since the calendar has flipped, he’s allowed 3 goals on 71 shots against in two starts. And he’ll need to continue to be solid for the Preds to survive key injuries. But at 34, with a ton of miles already and a degenerative hip condition on his medical history, he’s still on pace to make 73 appearances this year, and eventually the curve of diminishing returns will catch up, despite the fact that he can still steal a game on his own with his glove on any given night.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, they’ll trot out the same lineup that barely survived the storm surge from the Hurricanes on Friday (GET IT?) thanks to a superb performance by Scott Darling, even if the shot totals were skewed a bit by power play time, and the attempts were amplified by score effects. Even still it highlights the fact that this Hawks group is incomplete at best as far as being fully playoff ready, as they’d certainly rather have the puck more than they’ve been able to to this point in the season. But this is the new world order for both the Hawks and the rest of the league – there are no dominant possession teams anymore, and even the league leaders in LA, Boston, and the Blues are so blunt in their attacks that they generally only get reliable scoring from one place (Carter, Bergeron line, Tarasenko respectively).
In the wake of Friday there has also been much hew and cry (for the 11 zillionth time) to trade Corey Crawford for cap space and make Scott Darling the full time starter. While Darling has been excellent when called upon this year, the resume on Crawford is far longer, and not to mention he has a full no movement clause, and Darling would clearly be looking at a couple mildo AAV raise anyway. It is quite possible that Corey Crawford is the least respected top-tier at his position athlete this city has ever seen, and he’s a value at the contract he’s signed for. Furthermore the success of Antti Raanta and Anders Nilsson along with Darling should be further proof that the Hawks can scout goaltending out of the wilderness.
Last change will be key tonight for Quenneville to get one of this top two lines away from Josi and let them go at Weber and Bitteto, but the Preds will push the play from any line they throw out there, and the Hawks would do well to curb their stretch-passy tendencies that they have fallen back into over the past couple of weeks. It’s unclear which version of Rinne will make an appearance tonight, but putting as many pucks at him (and not his glove) as possible should ensure a decent chance. It’s getting late early for the Predators, and David Poile made the BIG TRADE to try to save the season last year in getting Johansen. The next step is whacking Laviolette, who having had a case of toasty buns before, will in all likelihood be coaching like his job depends on it, because it’s going to soon. Let’s go Hawks.