Some have said that a playoff series does not start until a team has lost a game at home. Well, if that's true, here's hoping we have a great Stanley Cup Final.
Some have also said that a Stanley Cup Final against the "untested" seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers would be a cake-walk. Those prognosticators are now singing a different tune. After all, the last five Stanley Cup champions have won game four of the series.
So no one should tell the Blackhawks that game four is a momentum shifter in the truest sense. Don't put the pressure of having to win game four, as to prevent the series from going to seven games, on them. Remind the Flyers that they are still losing, despite having played a damn-near-even series, thus far, with the Blackhawks.
How have the Flyers made this a battle and not a on-ice coronation of the new NHL kings? Well, they are playing their best hockey of the season.
Chris Pronger is getting away with seemingly anything he wants to and has only had to feel shame for two minutes thus far in the series. Then he got free and continued to make Dustin Byfuglien his personal crash-test dummy.
Daniel Briere is playing great hockey despite playing center, a position that should neutralize his skills.
A healthy Jeff Carter is starting to show his old form once more, and Simon Gagne is yet to get injured—that spells trouble for the Blackhawks. Both are top-of-the-league scorers.
If Mike Richards wakes up, the Blackhawks could be in for disappointment. Right now the teams are playing even. Any sort of upwards, or downwards trend from either team will be the difference in the series.
So how do the Blackhawks get back to dominating? Three not-so-easy modifications: Short shifts, long passes and a truck.
The Blackhawks played a solid road game on Wednesday, coming up short in overtime. As a Blackhawks fan, you would be a fool not to take the game the Hawks played on the road every time they put on the white uniforms. At the same time, the Blackhawks were not as crisp as the could have been in game three, and that's why their seven-game road winning streak was snapped.
On the defensive side, the trust has to be with Brian Campbell to make plays when the going gets tough. It's bad enough that the Blackhawks are playing, in effect, five defensemen in the second and third periods. It's even worse that one of those players is Brent Sopel.
The Sopel is great. He's a fantastic penalty killer and a warrior on the ice. He's playing some of the best hockey of his career right when the Blackhawks need it. That said, there isn't any more giddy up in those legs and the longer he is on the ice in five-on-five situations, the higher the likelihood he is exploited.
Hjalmarsson, Seabrook, and especially Duncan Keith have been playing nearly half the game. Sopel isn't far behind. Campbell is not getting the icetime he should be getting.
I am aware that the two-man forecheck of the Flyers is making Campbell act crazy, but he is a game-changer in the truest sense of the word, and you have to trust that he can figure out how to beat that attack. Because if he does, the Blackhawks will have unbelievable scoring chances. He's the Blackhawks' secret offensive weapon, and he's been reined in. Let the thoroughbred roam free, and trust that everything will be ok.
The Blackhawks go four lines deep, they don't need to worry about the forward match-ups as much as the Flyers do. Don't worry about Dave Bolland versus Briere or Toews versus Richards. When it comes to line changing, the match-ups are not the issue, it is the length of shifts. Sopel is being left on the ice for far too long. To a lesser extent all defensemen are being left on the ice for too long.
The Blackhawks have been terrible in the third period in the last two games. The reason? In my opinion it is because the men trusted with defending the defensive zone are tired. Minute-and-a-half, two minute shifts—the Blackhawks defensemen are being overextended, and for no good reason.
Quenneville needs Duncan Keith to be at his best for all three, or more, periods. If he is going to play 30 minutes a game, he needs to play shorter shifts. Running him out there for minutes at a time is going to leave him vulnerable late in the game. Brent Sopel is receiving the similar treatment, and Sopel is no Duncan Keith. Having him on the ice for long shifts is a goal against waiting to happen.
Meanwhile Brian Campbell, viewed as a defensive liability, is rested and on the bench. How is a rested version of Campbell any more of a liability than a tired Keith or Sopel?
The Blackhawks need to play a three-period game. Their forwards are holding up their end of the bargain, but the Blackhawks top four defensemen, Sopel, Hjalmarsson, Seabrook and Keith are running on empty when the Blackhawks need them most. Shorter and more frequent shifts earlier in the game will help alleviate that problem, and allowing Brian Campbell to earn his paycheck could eradicate it all together.
The reason I petition for Campbell to play more is because he is missing assists by inches. In the first three games of the final, the Blackhawks have been missing an uncharacteristic number of long passes. With the two man forecheck leaving the neutral zone wide open, the Blackhawks are trying the stretch pass more frequently. The idea is on target, the passes are not.
Even the primary pass after a takeaway is missing for the Blackhawks. For a team that is built to score by gaining speed through the neutral zone, having the first pass of a spontaneous or planned breakout is the kiss of death. With all the missed passes, it is quite remarkable the Blackhawks have two wins to their name.
But the Blackhawks need to keep trying the long pass, especially when the offense sets up for a break out.
Is there a solution to the long pass problem? Not at the professional level. Whether it is bad ice, poor skating or defenseman panic, the long pass is just not working, and the only way to make it work is to keep trying it until it clicks. And when it does, you will see a different offensive team playing the Flyers.
The Blackhawks powerplay has stunk in the past two games, and the problem isn't Pronger dominating Byfuglien. The problem is powerplay's second forward unit.
Marian Hossa is playing fantastic hockey in the first three games of the finals. Five-on-five there is not a better player on the ice, for either team. But his powerplay perfomance is leaving something to be desired. With Hossa, Kris Versteeg at center and Tomas Kopecky in front of the net, Brian Campbell and Brent Seabrook on the blueline, the Blackhawks' second powerplay unit does not have excuse for not scoring.
The primary man-advantage squad is coming up just short. Patrick Kane is playing with condifence along the half-boards, and Byfuglien is fed up to his helmet with being neutralized. Because of those reasons, I expect Jonathan Toews and company to get their act together. They won't have do do it with flash and glamour, either.
One of the reasons the Blackhawks were scoring at a 22% clip in in the rounds before the Cup final was the newfound scoring trick employed by Jonathan Toews. Standing on to the right of the goal, Toews, typically unmarked, would take the puck, come to the front of the net and try a stuff shot. It worked — a lot. Toews has been trying, but the puck hasn't gone in with the man advantage. Yet. If Toews continues the stuff shot play, the Blackhawks will break through with the top unit in game four.
But that doesn't solve the problem of the second powerplay unit. With Hossa, Versteeg, Campbell and Seabrook, the Blackhawks second powerplay team is one better than the top unit of most NHL teams. Yet they are not scoring.
A reason for the drought is the play in front of the net. Tomas Kopecky is a skilled player, but a crease-mashing, loose-puck-finishing, goal-scoring powerplay winger he is not. There are only two of those types of wingers on the Blackhawks. One, Dustin Byfuglien, is now a household name due to his play with the top powerplay squad. The other, Troy Brouwer, is sitting on the bench while Kopecky masquerades as a Slovakian Tomas Holmstrom.
Quenneville has tried to create Slovak magic with Hossa and Kopecky plenty of times this year. Each time he has failed to see results. The Stanley Cup finals is not time to experiment. Koepcky was crap on the powerplay in the regular season, despite more than his fair share of icetime early in the season, and he's crap in the playoffs.
In November, Troy Brouwer replaced Kopecky as a powerplay winger. After that personnel change. Brouwer soon moved up and played with Toews and Kane on the top unit, while Kopecky again wallowed on the second unit. It was obvious in the regular season, but apparently the lesson has not been learned. The formula is simple: Troy Brouwer + powerplay icetime = powerplay goals. I could run through all the stats to back up my point, but there isn't a single statistic I have found that disputes it. You can have at the hockey sabermetrics here. The difference between Kopecky and Brouwer is black and white.
Brouwer is not only better than Kopecky in front of the net, the stats prove that he's was better than Byfuglien in the regular season. Now, Byfuglien is playing the best hockey of his career and has won the top line duty back from Brouwer, but what has Kopecky done to earn powerplay time?
The Blackhawks could be unbeatable if both units of their powerplay score goals. The first unit is close to breaking through. A weird bounce or a dirty goal is all that separates them from a flurry of man-advantage tallies. All that separates the second unit is a simple roster change. Call in the Truck.