Analysis: Blackhawks continue to raise the bar
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks spent the weekend reminding the rest of the NHL why they are the defending champions. The Boston Bruins made some progress in trying to find their way without Dennis Seidenberg.
Chicago dominated the League-leading Anaheim Ducks for about 55 minutes Friday, with only a strong night from goaltender Jonas Hiller and a couple of quick lapses keeping the Blackhawks from a more lopsided victory than the 4-2 final score. The Blackhawks began the game Sunday in the same manner, but the Bruins eventually provided a stern test before Chicago prevailed 3-2 in a shootout at United Center.
"I think these matchups were something that might have sparked us a little bit," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "To go head-to-head with Anaheim, a team that has had a lot of success, and has been winning a lot of games lately, I think we were ready for that one. It was the same with the matchup we had [Sunday]. We've got to keep up with that effort regardless of who we're playing."
The Blackhawks won a shootout, which has been an issue this season, but more importantly for the long term was the way the team played against Anaheim for nearly all of the game and for much of the game against Boston. They looked like a team ready to defend its title, and Chicago does still have the fewest regulation losses in the League.
"Two big games against two great teams. It's nice to win at home always," forward Patrick Kane said. "Obviously, we weren't going as well as we wanted to before these two games, but this game and Friday night's game against the Ducks were big games for us to get our confidence back up and know that we can play with the best in the League."
Chicago scored early against Boston and nearly had a 2-0 advantage before the Bruins registered a shot on goal. The Bruins are a notoriously tough team to manage the puck against. They want to frustrate teams as they try to transition from offense to defense, but early in this contest the Blackhawks raced through the neutral zone with little resistance.
The top line of Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa were all above 60 percent in shot attempts at even strength (Corsi for percentage) after two periods of play before a much better third from the Bruins brought that number back closer to 50 percent for each of them.
Sharp and Hossa both made a couple of great plays to keep the Bruins from getting out of danger, and Toews looked like an angry superstar after spending 10 minutes in the penalty box for tossing his busted stick into the crowd.
Kane, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw did not dictate the play as much, largely in part because Patrice Bergeron's line spent a lot of time against them for the Bruins, but when they avoided Bergeron they created a couple of near-misses that would have been highlight-reel worthy.
Toews and Kane get most of the headlines in Chicago, but Sharp and Hossa are the best No. 3/4 forward duos in the League. Saad has taken a significant step forward in his development this season, and combine that with the addition of Kris Versteeg and the Blackhawks might be even better than they were a season ago.
Combine this performance with the dominance Friday against a Ducks team that had won 18 of 19 games coming in, and the Blackhawks sent a pretty clear message that they remain the League's standard when they are rolling.
"We've said all along we know what we have in here," defenseman Duncan Keith said. "Even if we go through a patch, a stretch of games where we're not at our best, it doesn't mean we're down in confidence or we're not a good team. We've always believed in here. There's always going to be tough times and more adversity ahead, so I think it's just good on our team to know these [were] two big games and we got four points out of them."
Meanwhile, the Bruins were plenty upbeat after securing a point at the Madhouse on Madison despite the slow start. Combine that with a strong effort Thursday against the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center, and Boston might be onto something after losing five of seven games following a season-ending injury to Seidenberg and yielding 25 goals in the process.
The Bruins struggled to handle the Blackhawks' speed and ability to transition from offense to defense early in the game, but found ways to slow Chicago down later on.
"Definitely, I think we are starting to turn things around," Bruins forward Brad Marchand said. "Guys are doing what they're supposed to do and are working hard. We're going to get rewarded. If we play every game like we did [Sunday], we're going to get a lot of wins. We just have to keep playing like we did [against the Blackhawks]."
For long stretches Sunday, the Bruins looked like two different teams. They looked like the championship contenders they've been for the past few seasons when Bergeron's line and/or captain Zdeno Chara was on the ice, and they looked like a mess at times when those players were not.
A big part of that is the loss of Seidenberg. Boston coach Claude Julien has put Chara and Seidenberg together and played them with Bergeron's line when he wants to shut down a specific player or unit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but generally speaking he keeps the two defensemen apart during the regular season.
That allows him to use them in different situations, and Seidenberg can anchor the second pairing or spell Chara if he was just on the ice for an important penalty kill or defensive zone faceoff. The Bruins might also miss Andrew Ference, who went home to play for the Edmonton Oilers as a free agent in the offseason.
Julien's dilemma was this: put Chara with Bergeron's line, and Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville had the last change and the ability to get one of his top two lines out against an inferior defensive alignment. Julien was able to mitigate the damage at times by using Chara against one line and Bergeron's unit against another.
"The more you play together, the more chemistry you have," Marchand said. "[Bergeron] and [Chara] are two of the top players in the League, so I just kind of ride their coattails a bit, but obviously we have chemistry and know where we're going to be. We trust each other. That's what you see with [the Blackhawks] too, right? They've got some great players who have played together for so long that they have great chemistry."
Boston's "top" line might be the one with David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla on it, but its best two-way trio remains Bergeron, Marchand and either Reilly Smith or Loui Eriksson. Along with Chara they remain the engine for the Bruins, though the big captain from Slovakia could probably use some help on the blue line when he returns from the 2014 Sochi Olympics if Boston is going to make a long playoff run again this spring.