Game Time: 6:00PM CST
TV/Radio: WGN Ch. 9, ESPN+, WGN-AM 720
Taking Their Talents To South Beach: Litter Box Cats
It took damn near til Christmas and halfway through the season, but the Hawks are riding their first three game winning streak of the season, and have an legitimate opportunity to extend that to four tonight at home against the equally struggling Florida Panthers.
While there were some moderate expectations that the Panthers might challenge for a playoff spot this season, but to this point nothing has really materialized, and they sit ahead of only Ottawa in the Atlantic division via tiebreakers with 34 points, 9 arrears of the final wild card spot with three teams ahead of them. One of those teams happened to the the Detroit Red Wings, whom the Panthers beat last night 2-1, with the soon to be 40 Roberto Luongo stopping 33 of 34 shots. Luongo has finally started to show his age with a .905 overall save percentage and a .909 at evens, but that’s still far better than James Reimer or Michael Hutchinson have fared when spelling Borat, with an .888 for Optimus Reim and an .835 for Hutchinson might be enough to make him Disappear to the AHL. It will be Reimer getting the cage against the Hawks again tonight, and when the Hawks last saw him he was giving up a literal last-second goal to Alex DeBrincat to force overtime in Sunrise. Reimer has given up at least 5 goals in every December start, granted there have been three of them and two were against the Leafs and Bolts, but still this is not what could be described as an upward trend.
Given that the Panthers played last night, there’s no morning skate and no real way to know what the lineup in front of Reimer is going to look like. But based on what they trotted out last night, Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle will keep together as the top pairing, and while it doesn’t make sense that this would work out given Yandle’s career of cowboyism, Ekblad is more than talented enough to cover for him, and they’re carrying a 55 share as a pairing against middle six competition. The tough assigments recently have gone to Mike Matheson and Alex Petrovic, but the latter missed yesterday’s game and it’s unsure whether he will answer the bell today. Petrovic’s return could displace either MacKenzie Weegar or Bogdan Kiselovich, two people that actually exist and are not in any way names that are made up.
Up front, the Panthers are missing both Vincent Trochek and Nick Bjugstad, though it’s debateable just how much they are missing the latter, as Bjugstad has never quite put it all together despite his first round pedigree and being built like an NBA stretch-3. Of course, with Jonathan Huberdeau playing as well as he is with 16 points in 10 games on Sasha Barkov’s wing it hides a lot of lineup flaws. Barkov is one of the hidden gems of the league, basically playing Anze Kopitar’s game from 10 years ago, all while having yet to take a penalty this entire season. Injuries have forced the unfortunately facial-haired Bob Boughner to load up on the top line with Evgeny Dadanov, the Panthers’ leading goal scorer with 17. Mike Hoffman has a respectable 16 goals, but with Trocheck out, his production has suffered, and there’s not much beyond that, with Troy Brouwer still collecting a paycheck on the third line and Micheal Haley being trotted out with a straight face.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, what better way to follow up a goalie win from youngster Collin Delia than to trot Cam Ward right back out there as if this season can in any way be salvaged. Make no mistake, Ward has played very respectably in his two starts since Crawford went down again (in relief against San Jose not so much), but no one should give a shit, even Cam Ward himself. Literally the only acceptable explanation to continuing to put Ward out there is to up his trade value for a team looking for goalie insurance come the deadline, and certainly stopping 56 of his last 59 should help. But the Hawks absolutely should be getting a look at what Delia can provide at any possible juncture given that Corey Crawford’s career is now legitimately in jeopardy.
With regard other infuriating lineup decisions, at least Dylan Strome has swapped spots with Wide Dick Artie in taking over the center position on the third line. No one would go so far as to call him a “revelation” since coming over for Nick Schmaltz, but there are at least fairly regular flashes of just what made him the #3 overall pick, and there’s no reason that he should be playing out of position in a lost season. Jacob Nilsson, who no one had ever heard of prior to his callup yesterday, figures to slot into Suckbag Johnson’s 4th line center role now that Johnson has been demoted. And the third line of Kampf, Sikura, and DeBrincat continues to intrigue even if ADB is absolutely worthy of a true top six scoring role.
There hasn’t been much to feel great about surrounding this team for about two months, and while every win works against the Lose For Hughes motto, as Feather said last year, performing well in winnable games is far more valuable for the young players that are already on the roster than getting one’s moon pounded nightly in search of a savior. Tonight’s game is winnable, so the Hawks capitalizing on it would be preferable, and will keep the Yule Log burning through the holiday break. Fuck it, let’s go Hawks.
Game #39 Preview Suite