Similar to The Gambler’s Fallacy (of being “due”), when a team is mediocre-to-bad, nearly every game represents the potential for turning things around. The periphery of the playoff picture in the NHL is the very definition of the bare minimum of competence as far as sports are concerned, and the Hawks have once again put together a handful of wins against a cornucopia of teams somehow even worse than they are, and one win last night against a supposed contender, albeit one whose number they seem to have and has a blue line beset by injuries. So naturally that sets them up for a divisional matchup against the visiting Jets tonight where they could creep even closer to a wild card spot in the proverbial four-point game, the type of game they have found stunningly impressive ways to shit themselves in under Coach Cool Youth Pastor in the past season and a half.
First, to the visiting Jets, who sit two points ahead of the Hawks with a game in hand as far as the Central and wild card standings are concerned, and who last played Friday night and got their dicks knocked in the dirt at home by the visiting Lightning to the tune of 7-1, though the Ning have been doing that to a lot of people lately. The previously solid Connor Hellebuyck had himself an off night, allowing 5 goals on 12 shots in just 31 minutes of playing time, but that still only torpedoed his overall save percentage in 2020 to a .907. Hellebuyck’s .928 at evens and .920 overall should be enough for Vezina consideration given the perpetual fire drill that the Jets’s defensemen have been all season long, but probably won’t because the raw numbers, especially the all important WINS category aren’t there. but make no mistake, after a down year last year, he’s playing as well as he has in his career this season, and he’ll certainly be looking to purge the memory of Friday’s game this evening.
Now about that blue line. While Josh Morrissey has shown himself to be a solid NHL defensemen, he’s not exactly A Light That Never Goes Out and is probably in slightly over his head as the Jets’ de facto #1 defenseman this season after the inevitable trade of Jacob Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien off somewhere with his ranch dressing hose. Further complicating matters are the injuries currently afflicting the group, as Tucker Poolman, Nathan Beaulieu, and the erstwhile Carl Dahlstrom are all currently hurt, and were all contributing meaningful minutes, which drives the earlier point about Hellebuyck home with Mjolnir. As a result, Dmitry Kulikov joins Morrissey on the top pairing (and at the Cemetary Gates), with western conference castoffs Luca Sbisa and Anthony Bittetto behind them. Sami Niku and Neal Pionk were the third pairing against Tampa the other night, and might be the most Boers Voice defensive pairing the NHL has ever seen.
Of course, as is always the case with these Jets, the forwards are really going to be the ones that carry the weight if they’re going to go anywhere, as they still boast one of the most comprehensive groups in either conference. Blake Wheeler, who is good we’re told, has been relegated to 2nd center duties due to yet another Bryan Little injury, as well as Patrik Laine kind of bitching his way onto the top line on Mark Scheifele’s left opposite Kyle Connor. The top line as a general rule gets its skull caved in possession wise, but between the three of them they can mostly outshoot their territorial difficulties. On the other hand, in limited time together, the second line of Wheeler, Ehlers, and Copp have more than made up for it with a 63 share together. Having Copp on the second line pulls him away from his usual linemates of Adam Lowry and Mathieu Perrault, who still are two of the better checking forwards from an attempts-standpoint in the entirety of the league. Gabriel Bourque, Nick Shore, and Mason Appleton are not just auto-generated players by the computer, and are actual human men on the Jets’ fourth line.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, last night was probably as solid a victory as they’ve put together since dong-whipping the Preds in Nashville back in November, though that feels like it didn’t happen now after Ol’ Shit Hip’s goal last week. Yes the Leafs’ blue line is in shambles right now, and yes the Hawks needed some pretty excellent goaltending from Crawford at stretches to maintain their lead, but it was still a real team with real aspirations they beat on the road and in regulation. And once again, they’ll have the chance to build on that within the conference and the division tonight, a situation in which they have tripped over their own dicks repeatedly for 15 months. Since Crawford got the previous two starts including last night, it will obviously be Lehner who goes in net tonight for the Hawks. Other than that, with no morning skate, optional, intensive, or otherwise, the lineup seems unlikely to change from last night, which included the welcome return of Brandon Saad. And while the hockey community seemingly waits with baited breath for Garbage Dick to tally one more point to hit 1,000 for his career, it was Jonathan Toews and Dominik Kubalik who have been pretty quietly going off during this stretch of competence. It’s almost like in order to succeed a team needs more than just one guy to score. It’s the god damnedest thing.
Tonight’s game should mirror the type of team the Hawks faced in Toronto last night- a loaded forward corps with a blue line that certainly can be had. But two key differences are that the Jets have a goalie that has been making it stand up all year and who will be highly motivated to get a bad taste out of his mouth, and as a forward group the Jets are quite a bit larger than the Leafs and don’t mind throwing it around a bit. This could be a real test for Adam Boqvist, and even if he hasn’t shown a willingness to use his feet to carry the puck at evens, hopefully he is at least able to sense the large men bearing down on him in the corner and sidestep the hit enough to make a crisp initial pass. It’s also as bit a game as the Hawks have had yet this season with the specter of the mustache and that emotional evening looming on Tuesday. Teams that are to be taken seriously find a way to at least get a point in something like this, if not take both in regulation, and not look ahead to the next game. Maybe this time it will be different. Let’s go Hawks.