Game Time: 7:00PM Central
TV/Radio: NBCSN, WGN-AM 720
The Great Southern Trendkill: Defending Big D
Now that the pomp and circumstance of the Winter Classic is behind everyone, the Hawks can get back to the matter of actually pursuing titles that matter, such as the division, conference, and engravings in sterling silver. That begins tonight with the Stars visiting the snowy west side for their second of three trips this season.
Lindy Ruff’s Stars come into tonight having overtaken the Wild for fifth in the division in emphatic fashion last night, winning 6-1, and even that score might have given the Wild too much credit. After a hilariously bad start coming off a summer where they became the internet’s darlings for Jim Nill’s transactions, they appear to be hitting their stride a little, winning 9 of their last 11.
That’s mostly been on the back of Tyler Seguin, who leads the league in goals with 26, and is second in points with 46. While running mate Jamie Benn has lagged behind a bit in the goal scoring department with only 11, Seguin has been freaking the fuck off basically since he arrived in Dallas, which is hilarious because the Bruins basically traded their third Art Ross/Maurice Richard/Hart trophy caliber player because they didn’t fit the malformed ideals of Boston Toughness, whatever the fuck that even is. Seguin has been doing most of it at even strength as well (only 14 power play points) and against the top pairings the West has to offer, so this is hardly a fluke on his part. He was the #2 overall pick for a reason. Even behind Seguin scoring for the Stars really hasn’t been a problem, putting up 3.1 per game even with Ales Hemsky being a laughably bad acquisition with 12 points so far. Cody Eakin, Antoine Roussel, and Ryan Garbutt make for one of the most grating trios in the league, and all three have a good amount of finishing skill. And prospect Brett Ritchie already has 3 points in two games, displaying some nifty hands in the process.
The Stars’ blue line is part of the problem so far in Dallas, though it isn’t for lack of execution on their own individual parts. Most of the corps is above water in possession- among regulars only Trevor Daley and Jyrki Jorkipakka are sub 50%- but none of them have the makeup of a true #1 defenseman who can actually limit opposition shots in addition to playing in Lindy Ruff’s Fun and Gun system. The hope is that the gigantic Jamie Oleksiak, a former first round pick in his own right, becomes that, but he’s still a bit away from the elusive “200 games as a professional” threshold.
And when a team yields as many shots as the Stars do (31.2 shots per game, 59.7 even strength shot attempts per game), their goaltending better be up to the task. And until recently, Kari Lehtonen had not been. It’s still a dangerous line to walk in today’s NHL, and god bless Ruff for doing so because it’s nothing if not entertaining..But trading chances all game every game will eventually expose a goalie who isn’t up to the task, and Lehtonen’s months of .908 and .903 save percentages in October and November dug the Stars a deep hole. He’s been hotter of late, and even a league average of .915 for December helped spur on this streak that Dallas has been on. Considering he didn’t have to work all that hard last night, it won’t be the least bit surprising to see him turn right around again for the Stars tonight. Lehtonen always seems to have one stand-on-head game against the Hawks each year, and he’s been feeling it lately so there is potential for that type of performance.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, the story in the wake of Kris Versteeg’s injury during the Winter Classic is the return of Teuvo. The company line has always been that when Tarmac Teslacoil came up this season, it was going to be for good, and considering the Hawks jumbled three of their four lines as well as their line configuration to accommodate him, that’s hopefully the case. Teuvo will start out with fourth line duty between Ben Smith and Joakim Nordstrom, whom Teuvo had some chemistry with in Rock Vegas before getting saddled with Manshitter on his wing. That pushes Marcus Kruger up to center Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw in perhaps the most encouraging development of all- the end of the marriage of Andrew Shaw at center. With the top line of Saad, Toews, and Hossa remaining in tact, that then moves Patrick Sharp to Versteeg’s slot with Richards and Kane, which could once again produce some serious fireworks. However, with that second line being a slight liability defensively, and Teuvo likely to get cherry picked zone starts, the Quenneville will probably revert back to a more traditional 2-1-1 line dynamic, with the Kruger line obviously being the traditional checking line. That’s at least until Teuvo shows what he’s capable of.
On the back end things remain the same with no reports to the contrary coming from this morning’s skate. Hjalmarsson and Oduya figure to get a healthy dose of Seguin and Benn, but the Stars have enough team speed up and down the lineup to clown Michal Rozsival no matter the matchups they’re getting. Corey Crawford gets the net for the Hawks tonight, looking to bust out of the downturn in performance he’s had since returning from his punk as fuck foot injury.
The Hawks would like to remedy their slow starts of late, scoring first only once in the last three weeks (the 4-0 shutout of Toronto), and they should have every opportunity to do so against the damn-the-torpedoes Stars who just played last night. But Crawford will need to be better than he’s been of late if the Hawks are truly going to go chance for chance. Either way, this will be the first game in the Joel Quenneville era where the Hawks had four true centers in the lineup. Not converted wings, not experiments, but actual centers. Hopefully it isn’t the last. Let’s go Hawks.