We look at some questions around the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks prior to their Stadium Series game at Soldier Field tomorrow night. Our friends at Second City Hockey were nice enough to stop by and answer some questions about the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Stadium Series game Saturday night could be the most anticipated outdoor game of the year - it has the highest resale prices and with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the skill on display should be amazing.
#1 - Hockey fans usually worry what's wrong with a team or what holes they have more than appreciating a good run (if you guys are anything like Penguins fans, at least). With Chicago slumping a little before the Olympic break, what's the confidence level like over there among the fan base? Any huge worries as the playoffs draw near? What if anything is the weakness for the Blackhawks?
If the Blackhawks had to pick a game this season in which to get shut out for the first time in forever, I am glad it was the last game before the Olympic break. It seems like everyone has put it out of their minds. The main concerns have been the Penalty Kill and the 2nd line center position. We were spoiled with an excellent PK last season and also had a terrible Power Play. This season the PK was awful for the first half of the season and the PP has been very productive. From mid-December through the break, things started to shape up on the PK so I am hopeful it stays that way.
The 2nd line center situation has been the source of drama for years. Last season the team finished the season with veteran Michal Handzus in that spot after experimenting with several others there. This season, Handzus has seen some time there as well as Brandon Pirri. I liked Pirri at the position but he's been up and down between the big club and the AHL with many thinking he will be traded. Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger also got little tastes of the 2nd line but that didn't last. Right before the Olympic break, GM Stan Bowman made a deal to get Peter Regin and Pierre-Marc Bouchard from the New York Islanders. Bouchard is down in the AHL but Regin is getting his shot at centering Patrick Kane now. I'm not convinced that this is the best choice but I hope I'm wrong. We'll see.
#2 - What's the mood like in Chicago and among fans for this outdoor game? It's so close to the Olympics I feel like it hasn't really gotten a chance to breathe and get some momentum for what should be a big event (for an NHL regular season game, anyways).
Coming so quickly after the Olympics, I wonder if people are hungry for some regular hockey instead of a spectacle. It will certainly be a spectacle, though, and I'm excited to watch it. I'm not going to the game so I asked around and got some interesting responses. The people going to the game fall into two camps. The first group is excited to go because it will be a very unique event and because it's live hockey. The second group is regretting their decision to get tickets because the weather forecast is awful. It's supposed to be very cold and since Soldier Field is right on Lake Michigan the wind is particularly cruel. It's also supposed to snow. Chicago has had a very harsh winter compared to the usual this year. Given that this game is at the tail end of such a bad winter, people seem to be too exhausted to deal with it.
Those who are not going seem more optimistic about the game. Some are hesitant about how the quality of play will be affected by the snow, but will still be watching. This is our first chance to watch Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews match up against each other in the NHL. Also, the Blackhawks have not played the Penguins in quite a while so that is exciting. Others have said they see this as a Stanley Cup Final preview and are curious about how the teams will match up.
#3 - Aside from being outdoors and at Soldier Field, this game has the natural angle of "potential Stanley Cup final". What's your take on how Pittsburgh and Chicago would matchup in a seven game series? And which team in the East do you think would be the toughest challenge to stop the 'Hawks from taking yet another Cup?
Should the Blackhawks end up in the Stanley Cup Final again this season, I feel that the Boston Bruins, Penguins and perhaps the Tampa Bay Lightning would be the toughest challenges. All have strong goaltending despite Marc-Andre Fluery's struggles last post-season. All three can score seemingly at will given the number of talented forwards on their rosters. Tampa is probably the least deep of the three in that regard so I lean toward the Bruins and the Penguins.
In terms of a seven-game series between the Blackhawks and Penguins, the real heroics will need to come from the defensive core and goaltenders. The offensive fire power on each roster is off the charts, but I will give the edge in the depth department to the Blackhawks. Quenneville has been matching the "4th" line of Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith, which is really a checking line, against the opposition's top line in order to free up the other forwards. This has resulted in guys such as Brandon Saad and Bryan Bickell, who funny enough end up being depth guys in Chicago to lead the team in CF% and CF%Rel (Corsi For % and Corsi For % Relative to teammates both of which measure puck possession). The fact that the last forward cut from Team USA's Olympic roster, Saad, is considered a depth guy is fairly remarkable.
I'll be curious to see if Quenneville runs Kruger's checking line out against the first two lines much during the game. The thought of that is actually fairly scary despite my confidence in them. The defense in Chicago is very deep as well. From what I have heard, the Penguins have gone through some rough patches of injury and illness so I think Chicago may have the edge there. Anything can happen in a seven-game series so it would certainly be a delight to watch given the amazing talent on each team.