And so brings to a close the Third Age of Middle-Earth, as tonight will mark the last game between the Hawks and Scum wherein they will be divisional opponents. And, as usual, the stakes are high.
Coming into tonight, the Orcs of Mordor find themselves clinging to the 8th seed among the Men of The West, holding a two point lead over the Warg pack in Phoenix. Additionally, Scum are the only team currently in the current playoff picture underwater in goal differential, sitting at a -3 while being 14th in the league in goals-against at 2.5. This was apparently enough for the Lidless Eye of Ken Holland to give goalie Jimmy Howard a six year extension at $5.3 mildo per. This is, along with Howard’s stat line of 2.39GAA with a 9.18 save percentage, is tacit admission by Holland of his inability to shore up a blue line that has been absolutely lost without Nicklas Lidstrom, who even his advanced age would still manage to ensnare any trespassers through the Morgul Vail.
It’s left Witch King Mike Babcock with an unsightly and malformed group of goblins on his blue line allowing far more shots against than they’re used to at 28.6 per game, which while not an unholy number, is still far greater than Scum units have in years past. Newcomer Dan DeKeyser so far is -1 with no points in three games after the “derby” to sign him predictably ended with him at the foot of Mt. Doom. The leaping Nicklas Krownwall is currently a team worst -10, tied with rookie Brian Lashoff. With incredulous healthy scratch Ian White, plodding Jonathan Ericsson, and the surprisingly productive but still defensively confused Jakub Kindl rounding out the unit, more than ever this unit can be beaten with speed wide, as the Hawks emphatically showed two Sundays ago.
Along the front lines of the army of orcs, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg still pace the group, going 1-2 in scoring on the team at 39 and 38 points respectively. Zetterberg didn’t play in the last scorching which Scum fans will say makes a difference, but Z hasn’t been the powerhouse he has been in the past either, carrying a -4, and only shooting 6.1%, and is running out of time to create a market correction for himself.
Compounding all of these issues are the normally well-regimented special teams also middling this year, with the power play only converting 18.2% of chances, with the PK 21st in the league at 79.9%. Ordinarily the difference in opportunities created on the advantage against the times shorthanded would mitigate these numbers for Scum, but that gap has closed considerably this year with 154 power play opportunities versus 139 PK attempts, and their record shows it. It’s all combined to put the soon-to-be dark forces of the East perilously close to their season not extending past the end of the month.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, tonight poses an opportunity for Corey Crawford to once again get back in the good graces of Lord Denethor. While Crawford’s numbers this season have been sterling mostly as a result of a positionally sound defense in front of him, a few iffy if-not-even-really-costly goals against in his previous starts against the Preds and Blues earned him a seat for the past three games. During those three games Ray Emery certainly laid his claim to the cage with two shutouts, albeit against a couple of squirtgun offenses in Nashville and Minnesota. Crawford will need to play a more stay at home, positionally sound game (despite the fact that no matter a goalie’s style, TV pundits always say being out on top of the crease is a good thing), and carry his glove a little higher if he’s going to shed the yips.
Up front for the Men of the West, look for Patrick Sharp to continue to take draws on his strong side (pulling the puck to his backhand) in place of Marcus Kruger after riding back into the fray with the Rohirrim after a protracted absence. However, as usual, a Hobbit will more than likely be relied upon to bail the unit out. With Dave Bolland still in the Houses of Healing, the lineup figures to be the same as against Minny, possibly with immaterial turds Bollig and Gorilla Salad swapping spots. Same goes for the blue line with Rozsival and Brookbank, with Rozie’s passing ability and Scum’s lack of an assaulting forecheck.
With a win tonight, the Hawks put themselves in a position to take back the Central, needing only a loss from Scum Jr. to the Jackets tonight, or to take a point in St. Louis Sunday to clinch. With that said, it’s fitting that to get to that point means going one final time through the Black Gate.
The board is set, the pieces are moving. We come to it at last, the great battle of our time. Let’s go Hawks.