As the Blackhawks embark on their annual circus trip, I wanted to dump some of my random thoughts, for your reading pleasure.
- First off...I'm excited for this trip. The Hawks have a few matchups against opponents that intrigue.
Tuesday, they face-off against their new divisional rival, the Colorado Avalanche, for the first time this season. Over the last couple of years, the Avs organization went all "Bill Wirtz era Hawks." First, they named Joe Sakic Executive VP of Hockey Ops, which pretty much means General Manager. This summer, Sakic and company decided former goalie and Avalanche legend Patrick Roy would be a good fit as head coach. I hated the hire when they made it, and despite their impressive 14-5-0 start this season, I'm still not sold. Roy is a loose cannon, and has proven to be a bit of a hot head already. It's one of those moves that will work for a little bit, then crumble into a complete disaster. Think of a poor man's Mike Keenan. I've certainly been wrong in the past, but I feel pretty confident that Roy will validate my opinion sooner than later. I can't wait to see the Av's against one of the Western Conference's proven elite teams. I'm not convinced they're for real just yet.
Saturday, the Hawks get their first look at the 2013-14 Vancouver Canucks, now coached by former Rangers' head man John Tortorella. It seems like forever since the Hawks and Canucks have played. Hell, they haven't had a playoff series in two whole seasons. It will be interesting to see if the venom still lingers. Roberto Luongo has gone from public enemy #1 to a bit of an endearing character. I've changed my mind on him, almost entirely because his his wonderful, self-deprecating Twitter account. The hatred still lingers for Kevin Bieska, Ryan Kesler and the other divas on their roster, but the intensity and hated feel like a long time ago. I'm looking forward to rekindling that fire.
Next Monday, the Hawks will travel to Edmonton to face the Oilers. Why is this exciting? Well, the Oilers just recalled goaltender and nutbag Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryzgalov, who was bought out by the Flyers this offseason, could start that game. It will be fascinating to see if he's the Bryzgalov who dominated in Phoenix, or the dumpster fire that manned the pipes for the Flyers. If it's the former, the Oilers could get a huge boost.
- Let's talk about the Brandons, Saad and Pirri. First, Brandon Saad. Every game, the kid impresses me more. Last night's set up of Kris Versteeg's goal was not a play a 21 year old kid should be able to make. At times, I don't think his teammates believe what they're seeing. When Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews or Marian Hossa have the puck, you can notice that their linemates always have their sticks on the ice, knowing a pass could get to them at any time. I've seen a few instances this season where players like Hossa or Toews have been surprised to have a Saad pass find them, based on the traffic around him. He's been outstanding, and he's only getting better. Could he be a sleeper to make Team USA for this winter in Sochi?
Pirri has been a revelation. The 2nd line center position has been an enigma since, well, for a long damn time. When the preseason began, Pirri was the favorite for the job, but an injury set him back. Since his recall and eventual promotion to the 2nd line with Kane and Saad, he's been scoring consistently, including 5 points in his last 4 games. Let's hope Joel Quenneville doesn't outsmart himself and put Pirri on the 4th line when Michal Handzus, who was just put on injured reserve, returns. Pirri has won the job fair and square. The kid is ready for this job, and he's proven it. Pirri is going to slip up. When he does, let's hope Q doesn't "send a message" to Pirri like he did to Jeremy Morin, who is now back in Rockford after being benched in favor of...wait for it...Sheldon Brookbank.
- Despite his excellent game last night, I'm starting to worry about Michal Rozsival. The "best 6th d-man in hockey," as I dubbed him last season, has seemingly gotten very, very old in a few short months. The reliable and intelligent veteran we saw last season is even through 11 games this season. Last year, he was +18 over 27 games. Obviously, an even rating is nothing to panic about, but it's been a rough season for Rozsival so far. Hopefully, last night's performance was a sign of things to come instead of an aberration.
- Kris Versteeg is back, and that's a good thing. It's funny, though, how time has a way of erasing our memories. I'd forgotten about the over stick-handling, the falling down, and the shots from impossible angles. All those flaws aside, Versteeg is still an extremely valuable asset, especially at a $2.2 million cap hit. The line of Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell and Versteeg is better than most 2nd lines in hockey...let alone 3rd lines.
- I'm very impressed with Brandon Bollig so far this season. The work and commitment he put in this summer is showing very clearly. He's faster and more agile. His stick-handling has improved and he's playing with confidence. He's played in every game this season, and has done nothing to lose that right.
- After the home opener, I wrote this piece about how I thought Hawk fans had matured. I was so impressed with the knowledge of the United Center crowd that night. They really seemed to have turn the corner as a fan base. Well, those feeling are challenged every time Corey Crawford lets a goal get by him. I'm not sure what Crawford has to do to win the faith of many Hawk fans. Have a full solid season as the starter? Check. Solid playoff run? Check. Win a Stanley Cup? Check. This guy is almost as unfairly vilified as Jay Cutler. But Crawford isn't a jerk. He's always been good to the fans and media. He doesn't sulk or pout. In fact, he's the kind of goalie Hawk fans should love. He's feisty on the ice. He stands up for his teammates and protects his own net, all while posting obscene numbers. It's unrealistic to expect a shutout every night, or for every goal he allows to be an absolute snipe through a screen. Pucks get past goalies. It happens every night in the league. It just happens far less for Crawford. Get on board, people. He's here for the long haul.
- Speaking of goalies, the lower body injury to Nikolai Khabibulin has led to the call up of Antti Raanta. Impatient Hawk fans will finally get their wish...but will they be happy with what they see? Raanta has been decent in Rockford. In 14 appearances, he's 7-5 with a 2.83 GAA and a .914 save percentage. Those are decent numbers, for sure...but it doesn't point to the second coming on Dominik Hasek. The Hawks wanted to give Raanta time to get used to the North American game and ice surface. Now, they've been forced to call him up sooner than they would have preferred. Quenneville said he'll likely get a start on the circus trip. Hopefully, he lives up to the hype Hawk fans have put on him. We wouldn't want him in the dog house with Crawford. Man, I love meatball nation.
Thanks for indulging my busting hockey thoughts. I appreciate it, always.
Filed under: antti raanta, Blackhawks, Brandon Bollig, brandon pirri, bryan bickell, Chicago Blackhawks, Chicago Sports, Corey Crawford, hockey, jay zawaski, joel quenneville, jonathan toews, kris versteeg, Marcus Kruger, marian hossa, Michal Handzus, michal rozsival, new york rangers, NHL, nick leddy, nikolai khabibulin, Patrick Kane, patrick sharp, philadelphia flyers, roberto luongo, Sheldon Brookbank, stan bowman, vancouver canucks, wscr