Game Time: 6:30PM CDT
TV/Radio: CSN, NBCSN, TVA-S, WGN-AM 720
Haunting, Haunted, Haunts: Raw Charge
While the Hawks might be in cruise control with at home ice in the first round only two points away from being clinched and being seven up in the conference for home ice in the West, this week is could certainly make things interesting by playing 5 straight games in the east, with every one of them with at least something on paper to play for. Saturday night already saw the Hawks get bitten in the dick by the Cats, and tonight they stay in Florida to face a Lightning team hanging by a thread.
Jon Cooper might be overtly and offputtingly forward about his sexual proclivities like someone who cannot shut up about getting a mold made out of his dick and how much his wife appreciates it during long road trips, but it’s clear that he can coach. Despite losing Steven Stamkos months ago, Tyler Johnson a few weeks ago, and his GM selling and/or cutting dead cap weight at the deadline, the Bolts still have an outside shot at the last Wild Card spot in the east, and have the fourth best shot attempt rate in the league at 51.65. He’s kept his team structured and interested when they could have packed it in a while ago, likely with the carrot dangling that if they can get into the playoffs, Stamkos and Johnson can return, and then anything can happen. Of course, it helps when a he’s got Nikitia Kucherov absolutely freaking the fuck off, and doing it with almost no help. Kucherov has gone simply nuclear with 38 goals and 40 assists while carrying nearly a 55 share at evens. And he’s doing it while being centered by Brayden Point. Sid is Sid, and McDavid is McDavid, but what Kucherov is doing is far more impressive than human carbuncle Brad Marchand, whose entire career is built on Patrice Bergeron’s (likely strained) back. And Kucherov is doing it to the tune of $4.7 mildo per, with Steve Yzerman taking full advantage of Florida’s lack of a state income tax. Ondrej Palat is still upright, but his responsibilities are more defensive with his Diet Hossa act, while Jonathan Drouin still gives the second line some East-West creativity as Alex Killorn smashes into things. But the bottom six here is quite the Island Of Misfit Toys, with only J.T. Brown as a recognizable name from the ’15 Final. Joel Vermin, Yanni Gourde, Greg McKegg, and Adam Erne all sound like players in the off brand SNES game that didn’t have NHLPA licensing, but all of them are somehow well above water in possession thanks to the focus needing to be paid to Kucherov at the top of the lineup.
The Tampa blue line still looks similar to what it did two springs ago when it proved to be the team’s fatal flaw, but at least Cooper right now is keeping Anton Stralman and Victor “I Am Become Death, destroyer of worlds” Hedman separated. Stralman is babysitting Luke Witkowski while Hedman is paired with Jake Botchin, both of whom likely owe the fact that they are in the NHL right now to being paired with them out of absolute necessity. Jason Garrison is hurt, so that means it’s the Easter Island pairing of Braydon Coburn and Andrej Sustr on third.
In net, it’s finally been Andrei Vasilevskiy’s shot as it was always going to be with Ben Bishop now out of the mix. Vas Defrens has been fine with a .915 overall and a .922 at evens, and given how much the Lightning spend in the other end, him being mostly average hasn’t burnt them too much. But since taking the gig, he’s thrown a .929 for the month of March, which suggests that as all goalies do, he just needed a consistent work routine. Either way, he’s still only 22 and athletic as all get out for the position, and fully capable of stealing a game with highlight reel saves. His lateral mobility especially is exceptional for a taller goalie at 6’3″.
As for the Men Of Four Feathers, the Debacle in Sunrise has not been without some consequences. Ryan Hartman appears to be scratched after two games at center, which seems a bit unfairly punitive even if he racked up 11 minutes in penalties in 2 games, good for 16% of his season total so far. But this is the ultimate example of Joel Quenneville flexing nuts and fucking with minds, last seen to this degree 5 years ago with Michael Frolik. Quenneville puts Hartman in an untenable position, as a center where he has never played in the NHL and has not played since spot duty in Junior, between the Hawks two shotgunniest and floatiest wingers, and then benches him when there’s no production. Even if the penalties were ill advised, Hartman was not put in the best position to succeed by his coach. As a result, the Schmaltz-Toews-Panik line will get reunited for the first time in three weeks, but that means the Working Class Kero will get his shot at the pivot between the Style Boyz. And Hartman’s absence creates a fourth line of Dr. Rasmussen, Desjardins, and TOOTBLAN, which is as inspiring as it sounds.
On the back end, Scott Darling gets what was allegedly supposed to be a scheduled start tonight, and of course if he performs well another goalie non-troversy will flare up despite the fact that this is, has been, and will be for the foreseeable future Corey Crawford’s crease to lose. The blue line configuration remains unchanged, much to the bafflement of everyone now that Johnny Oduya is back in the mix, likely including Johnny Oduya. As such, look for Q to try to get Keith and Hjalmarsson out against Kucherov at any opportunity.
The Lightning have probably only a slightly better chance of making the playoffs than the Hawks do of slipping out of first place in the Division and/or Conference, as every day peeled off the calendar is a friend to the Hawks in that regard. And even though the odds are slim, it’s best not to tempt fate against a team that’s not going to beat itself because that’s not in its DNA, and it can afford to even less. It will be a little more difficult to achieve on the road, but there is an obvious underbelly to the Lightning that can be taken advantage of, even if the Hawks are doing so with a willfully incomplete forward corps. This is a team that has a reputation of closing things out and is built to do so. Every point earned further entrenches them into home ice. Time to go out and get both tonight. Let’s go Hawks.