Chicago Blackhawks Hidden Strategy for Stanley Cup Finals
I have read and heard from analysts all over the place that the Chicago Blackhawks have not played well this Stanley Cup Finals. I write this after the Blackhawks won game 5 to set up a possible home-ice clinching. The criticism of the Blackhawks is that they have been "sleepwalking" or "not skating" or not getting enough shots on goal. They've started games too slowly, haven't challenged the Lightning, and so on and so on in crockville.
Nonsense at the Center of Foolishness Wrapped around Absurdity
What a bunch of hooey this all is! This is certainly not a prediction that Chicago will win the Cup nor that it will do so at home in game 6. This is merely a critique of the notion that the Blackhawks have not played well in this series.
I believe that there are a couple of reasons the Hawks have looked "slow" in the first five games. The primary reason by far is that the Lightning are so fast! The Blackhawks usually look fast against their opponents because the Hawks are fast and their opponents are slow. (By slow I mean half a step to three quarters of a step slower. Any slower than that and the team is playing in the AHL.)
Their series against Anaheim was a case in point. The Ducks are a bruising team more than a skating team so they tried to slow the Blackhawks down by hitting them again and again. It worked to some extent but the Blackhawks still won in seven games and the seventh game was far less close than the score indicated. The Blackhawks skated rings around the Ducks in game seven and won with relative ease despite the "close" score. It took the Hawks the full seven games to feel confident that playing their full speed game would result in a lopsided game.
Ducks "Waddle" Lightning "Flashes"
The Lightning are a completely different set of challenges for the Blackhawks. The Hawks have looked slow compared to the Lightning because the Lightning can match the Hawks stride for stride. The Lightning also have tremendous offensive skill both up front and on the backline.
So Coach Joel Quennville of Chicago devised a great strategy for this series. Coach Quennville knew that his depleted defensive corps would not be able to stand up to a back and forth series with a lot of odd man rushes. If the Hawks defensemen were just a fraction slower in this series than in the previous one against the Ducks, they would be sitting ducks! Tampa Bay would have worn the Hawks defensemen down by game four and the series would probably be over by now! Instead, the Blackhawks have won three games by 2-1 scores and can raise the Cup at home in game 6.
Joel Quennville Channeling his Inner Einstein
Quennville's strategy appears to have been the epitome of genius if you look at genius in sports as doing the unexpected and winning by doing so. So, instead of getting caught in wild, back and forth games, the Blackhawks have matched the Lightning's speed without attempting to make the series a repetitive 200 foot race. If the Blackhawks were really sleepwalking through the series it would have lasted four games. Over and done with. The fact that it is going to Chicago for game six with Chicago poised to win it, speaks to just how well the Hawks have played. They've convinced everyone that they've been slow when in fact they've been both fast and in control.
A lot has been said about the Hawks top guns not scoring. Again, this is part of the strategy they are employing. Rather than look for odd man rushes the forwards are backchecking hard. This helps the tired defensemen and goalie Corey Crawford, possibly the most under-rated player in all team sports.
In any Stanley Cup series, the goalie is the odd man out, the big question mark. Corey Crawford may not be the most elegant goal keeper but he has the knack for playing his best when his team needs him the most. He is usually in perfect position to save shots that are too close and fast for quick reflexive saves. This reflects well on his coaching but even more on his willingness to learn. Crawford has taken a long time to develop into a top NHL goaltender and, in my mind, is one of the top five. This year he has kept rebounds to a minimum thus thwarting Tampa Bay's snipers. By preventing rebounds he has created defensive zone face-offs. The Blackhawks have excelled at winning face-offs this series, as they usually do, so the downside of a defensive zone faceoff is far better than the downside of giving up juicy rebounds.
I'll finish with a word about the Blackhawks defensive corps. The top four of Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook, and Johnny Oduya have carried an enormous load for two series, since Michal Rozsival broke his ankle. Duncan Keith is the undisputed catalyst that drives this quartet of defensemen. Seabrook has a harder shot, Hjalmarsson is the shot blocker extraordinaire, and Oduya makes the stretch pass better than anyone in the league but Keith is still the core of the corps. His playing time has only gone up as the series has progressed. If he isn't this year's Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP there is no justice in the hockey world.