Blackhawks Buzz: March 28, 2014 at Ottawa Senators
After making the playoffs in the past two seasons, the Ottawa Senators were expected to put together another solid campaign, but they currently sit eight points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with just 10 games remaining on the schedule. Part of the problem has been in net, where starting goalie Craig Anderson has struggled to the tune of a 3.10 goals-against average and .908 save percentage in 47 games, a far cry from his stellar numbers in 2013 (1.69 GAA and .941 SV%, albeit in limited playing time due to injuries). Offensively, the Sens have been led by the always-dangerous Erik Karlsson (69 points) and mainstay Jason Spezza (59 points), who succeeded Daniel Alfredsson as team captain in his 11th season with the club.
The Sens’ announcement that leading goal-scorer Bobby Ryan (23 tallies in 70 games) would undergo season-ending surgery on Thursday likely signaled the end of their faint playoff hopes. Ryan enjoyed a quick start to the 2013-14 campaign, racking up 20 points (10G, 10A) in his first 19 games before collecting just 28 points in his last 51 contests, a drop-off that was likely precipitated by the injury—a sports hernia.
Winger Mark Stone has posted a goal and an assist in two games since being recalled by Ottawa last weekend, and he—along with young forwards Kyle Turris and Mika Zibanejad and veteran pickup Ales Hemsky, who has eight points in 10 games with the Sens this season—will try to provide offense in Ryan’s absence.
Friday’s contest marks the 200th NHL game for Marcus Kruger since joining the Blackhawks in the spring of 2011. Since then, the 2009 fifth-round draft pick has carved out an everyday spot as a checking center and penalty-killer; he leads team forwards and shares 13th in the league this season with 2:38 of ice time per game while the team is shorthanded. Kruger has also recorded a career-high 20 assists and 27 points in 74 games this year, and he currently ranks fifth in the NHL with a team-high 57.3 faceoff winning percentage.
One way the Blackhawks can gain the upper hand against Ottawa is by converting on the power play, as a lot of other teams have this season. The Sens average over 13 penalty minutes per game, having taken a league-leading 336 minor penalties this season, and Anderson's shorthanded SV% is just .835, one of the league's lowest among starting netminders. Chicago's power play could use the boost: They've scored just four times with the man advantage in the last 10 games, going 4-for-32 in that span (12.5 percent), including a 0-for-2 effort last night in Boston. And with Patrick Kane and his 25 power-play points out of the equation, the Blackhawks will have to rely on other top producers, including Patrick Sharp (23 points) and Duncan Keith (20 points), to generate offense on the PP.
Though Chicago and Ottawa aren’t known for being frequent trade partners, several former Sens have found their way onto the Blackhawks roster: forwards Marian Hossa and Peter Regin, along with defenseman David Rundblad. Hossa was the 12th-overall pick by Ottawa in 1997 and played in eight seasons with the club, Regin was a 2004 third-round pick who played for the Sens for parts of five season, and Rundblad made his NHL debut with Ottawa, skating in 24 games during the 2011-12 season. Hossa has played well against his former club, compiling 24 points in 16 games, including 11 points (3G, 8A) in nine contests in Ottawa.
Despite what the standings say, Ottawa’s style of play will be a test for the Blackhawks, especially coming off a frustrating 3-0 loss to the Boston Bruins the night before. The Sens love to play an open-ended game—they rank fourth in the league with 32.6 shots per game, but share 28th with 34.7 shots allowed per game—which was reflected in the previous matchup this season, a wild 6-5 home victory for Chicago on Oct. 29. If the Blackhawks want to limit Ottawa’s scoring chances and skate away with two points, they will need to batten down the hatches against the quickness and creativity of Erik Karlsson and a forward corps that is equal parts hard work and talent.