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Seeing Double: Blackhawks @ Flyers Game Preview

March 13, 2010

Game Time: 12:00 PM CST
TV/Radio: WGN / WGN (720-AM)
Know Thy Enemy: Broad Street Hockey

Stat Pack:

7-2-1 7-2-1
Record on the Road: 18-10-3 at Home: 20-12-2
PP% 19.2% (11th) 23.1% (3rd)
PK 84.1% (6th) 81.6% (16th)

Gather round, children, and let me tell you the story of a young hockey club with an explosive offense and a stalwart defense, led by a young captain who embodies everything that makes a complete player. This team will go far after the regular season is over, followers and observers alike will tell you, if only its issue between the pipes is resolved. But the hopes of this hockey-crazed city now rests on the tentative shoulders of its backup goalie since its starting netminder stumbled into yet another injury–

Yes, injury. Ray Emery’s out for the season, haven’t you heard? I didn’t realize you thought I was talking about the Blackhawks; I mean, whatever gave you that idea? Oh, right.

Truth is, we could be facing a team that’s pretty similar to ours today–at least, in the most basic generalization of how the teams were made. The Flyers more than stumbled early this season, though, with rumors of locker room tensions fanning media speculation, but for the most part they’ve righted their ship, holding the exact same 7-2-1 record that the Blackhawks do in their last 10 games– second only to Carolina’s (wait, what about Taylor Hall?) 8-1-1 record among the league. Led by the top line of Richards-Gagne-Carcillo with a supporting cast including Jeff Carter and James van Riemsdyk and a defense corps that boasts of Chris Pronger, the Flyers are fighting for a way to catch up to the Penguins and the Devils, who lead their division, while dealing with their own kind of goalie crisis.

The Flyers brought back Ray Emery before the season started in the hopes that he would be the final piece in a long playoff run. This, along with the trade for Chris Pronger, catapulted them to the top of most pundits’ lists for Cup favorites, and while Emery did start out strong, injuries set him back and the Flyers were forced to trade for Michael Leighton, who is as serviceable as far as back-ups go, but not ideal when you’re setting your sights on something bigger. He’s been pulled twice in the 6 games since the Olympic break (*cough*) but backup netminder Brian Boucher is less than inspiring, with a 2.86 GAA and a save percentage of 0.896.

They’re getting by well enough, though, sitting 6th in the East, which isn’t much when you consider their point totals are two less than the 9th place Wings out West, but quite substantial when you take into account that they went through a 17-game stretch mid-season and came out with only a 3-13-1 record to show for it. Jeff Carter has 10 goals in 10 games and their top line has played effectively for the most part, but their fans do seem to think they’re liable to pay for mistakes at their own end and coast from time to time.

But enough about the Flyers. The Blackhawks rebounded quite sufficiently from their loss to the Red Wings with a 3-2 overtime win against the Kings last Wednesday, but the road ahead is only going to get harder beginning with back-to-backs this weekend. While obviously we’d like to end the season strong so that we can carry that play into the playoffs, with 93 points on the season the Blackhawks can technically lose its next 16 games and still probably grab a playoff spot. It’s not as good as actually clinching both a playoff spot and the division, however Southeastern it may be, as the Capitals have done, but let’s save that for Sunday’s game preview. The point is, the Blackhawks right now just mostly need to focus less on scrambling for a win and more on refining the fundamentals so that they’re ready come playoff time.

And boy, do the fundamentals need polishing. The power play has not been clicking as of late–you’ve heard me whine about this before, obviously–and the penalty kill even less effective. While the Blackhawks at one point in the season (maybe during the November/December run of amazing “wait-until-we-regress-to-the-mean” hockey?) were in the top five of BOTH power play and penalty kill percentages, the boys have found themselves slipping further and further down. Penalty kill could be crucial today, considering how the Flyers rank 3rd in the league. The Flyers’ relatively low-ranking PK won’t account for much, either, if the Blackhawks fail to convert on their chances. Moving around and attempting to draw the Flyers out of position might help. Avoiding cute-and-pretty would, too. So would just shooting and getting a dirty rebound goal in.

Cristobal Huet will be in net on Saturday, with Antti Niemi very likely to face the Caps the day after. Debating the merit of each goalie is so pre-Olympic, so let’s leave it at this: Huet would probably be better off regaining his December form away from the United Center anyway, as the the crowd’s turned against him (to the advantage of no one, regardless of how deserved the hostility is or not). He’s got a 3-0-1 record against the Flyers with a 2.54 GAA.

Game starts in three hours. I’ll be getting  my drink on, since it’s also the de-facto date for everyone’s celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, and hopefully, I won’t need more reason than that to go on my alcohol binge. Let’s go Hawks!

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