When the final horn sounded at the United Center in Chicago on April 16th, one sensed the sagging hopes of Blackhawks faithful as the Nashville Predators wrested Game One from the favorites. Though the game had effectively been decided by a single goal, the two more empty netters must have felt like added punches in the gut, not only for the crowd, but for the players as well.
It didn’t take long for the hockey pundits to sound the alarm.
Chicago writers Tim Sassone and Steve Rosenbloom colored their columns in ominous tones. Focusing squarely on the bouncing puck that eluded the otherwise excellent Antti Niemi to tie the score, Sassone and Rosenbloom underlined the cliché ‘bad goal’ in red crayon. As if there might be such a thing as a ‘good goal’ in the playoffs.
Playoff hockey is, players, coaches, and purists will tell you, the very best hockey, where all the qualities of the sport are exhibited to the maximum. It is, during those Hockey Hall Of Fame moments, beautiful.
It is also ugly hockey. The referees ‘put their whistles away’, as the saying goes, and hockey becomes trench warfare. Every hit can be the one that puts a player off his game, or even out of the game. Every error is magnified to the nth degree. A stumble becomes a breakaway. A supposedly harmless lob—as Niemi and former Hawk Jean Pierre Dumont demonstrated—ends up in the net. Every bad decision, every momentary lapse, every unforeseen circumstance, can mean a game lost, just as the opposite can be true.
Teams that win Championships are often those who can ‘win ugly’.
The Blackhawks, with their matinee idol roster, know how to play exciting, stylish, dominating hockey. Do they know how to play ugly?
The Nashville Predators, on the other hand, have, at a glance, a patchwork collection of unknowns, veterans, and some certified world class players. What they know, is how to play ugly, and win ugly.
When I did my analysis of the Blackhawks’ potential playoff opponents a few weeks ago, I suggested the series could see the Predators prevailing in seven games. From the article:
The Predators have given Chicago trouble all year. Even if the Hawks have won more games, they’ve been by the narrowest of scores. Barry Trotz’s guys play a suffocating style, and against the Hawks, it works.
Forwards: Check, check and more check. The Preds’ relentless pressure creates turnovers. Hornqvist, Erat, Arnott, Dumont, Sullivan, Legwand, Tootoo and Ward may not dazzle, but they know how to hurt the Hawks on the scoresheet with timely, if infrequent, goals.
Defense: Weber and Suter are arguably the antidote to Keith and Seabrook. Hamhuis, Klein, Bouillon, Franson and Grebeshkov may not be fantasy hockey picks, but they follow the Nashville pattern of defensive reliability; Weber and Grebeshkov have PP cannons.
Goaltending: Finland versus Finland. Take your pick of Pekka and Antti.
Competitive Edge: Nashville’s persistence and special teams allow them to steal a game in Chicago.
Keys to the series: Does Weber counter Kane? Can the Hawks beat the Preds at their own game?
There was a crushing irony in Jean-Pierre Dumont scoring the goals that earned Nashville its initial victory. The Montreal native had been drafted first by the Islanders (third overall) while still playing for the Quebec Major Junior League in 1996, but never played a game in New York, instead ending up in Chicago for the 1998-99 season. In 2000, he was sent by then-Hawk GM and Coach Bob Pulford, along with Doug Gilmour, to the Sabres for Michal Grošek. Why, remains a question, as Grošek scored all of two goals for the Hawks before being shown the door.
Dumont is a good example of a hockey player hardened in the cauldron of success and failure. Going all the way to the 2006 Conference Finals only to lose to Carolina, J.P. Dumont was courted as a UFA and made his way to the Music City. With the Predators’ seemingly perpetual uphill battles, one can imagine how hungry he is for another chance to compete for the Cup.
He’s not the only Pred lusting for Stanley silver.
Though Nashville gets dissed as a hockey town by some fans and media, the city was actually a destination for an NHL franchise as far back as 1995, when New Jersey Devils owner John McMullen threatened to move the team to Tennessee. The Predators have an enthusiastic following who are proud of their club, and they seem to relish the underdog role.
Coach Barry Trotz and GM David Poile are acknowledged as two of the league’s finest executives, and have been with the organization since its debut.
Much has been written about the budget restrictions under which they operate. At just over $44 million, the Predators have the 28th lowest payroll in the NHL.
That said, Trotz managed to take his team to a 49-win, 100-point season, so no one should be shocked if they present stiff opposition for the Blackhawks.
Interviewing WGN Radio color analyst and former Hawk great Troy Murray, I asked him how the Hawks could counter the Predators.
“Troy, you always talk about ‘keys to a game’ in your radio broadcasts. What are the ‘keys to the series’ against Nashville?”
“The Predators play a strict team game. We may see some 1-0, 2-1 contests. Skill being what it is, being able to work as hard, or harder, than they do, is going to be critical. And not creating turnovers, because Nashville knows how to take advantage of those.
“I would say the keys to the series are patience, special teams, and goaltending.
“One, be patient—let your skill make a difference. The Hawks have a higher overall skill level and higher overall scoring ability. So they have to trust that skill and ability.
“Two, special teams, as we know are always important, especially in the playoffs. The Hawks have some definite advantages there, including their ability to score in shorthanded situations.
“Three, goaltending. Rinne against Niemi is an interesting matchup, because they’re both unproven commodities. But that’s the million dollar question for a lot of teams this year.”
Link to the full article here: http://hockeyindependent.com/blog/david-morris/14338/
Watching the opening game, fans may have been frustrated by the evidence of Nashville’s use of the infamous ‘trap’, also known as the ‘neutral zone trap’ or ‘1-2-2’. Basically, with one forechecker and four men clogging the areas between the blue lines, the trap compromises the execution of the transition game by speed-oriented teams, like the Blackhawks.
Long passes are one way of breaking the trap, but with the risks involved, these require a high degree of precision. The Hawks have made the stretch pass one of their calling cards in the past two seasons, so in theory they can overcome the obstacle.
One can logically assume that the acquisition of defenseman Kim Johnsson was made in part because of Johnsson’s experience and versatility, as well as his familiarity with the ‘trap’ from being coached by one of its most successful advocates, Jacques Lemaire, during his time in Minnesota. Johnsson’s injury hurts the Hawks.
Brian Campbell’s absence is also a major factor. Campbell’s speed, passing and offense add another dimension to the Hawk attack, and makes playing the trap more difficult for opponents.
Still, in theory, the Hawks can win.
Of course, in the chaos of playoff hockey, theory gives way to the reality of what Hawk coach Joel Quenneville, among others, has called the ‘hard game’.
This description has been used by coaches to include a variety of aspects, including checking, puck pursuit, and presence in front of the net.
The Blackhawks have been criticized at times for playing a ‘soft’ game, relying too much on their ability to make dazzling moves when they should simplify their approach.
The Predators, from all appearances, keep things simple.
As the series unfolds, we are observing a study in contrasts as we watch the Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators.
Some may cite the Hawks-North Stars matchup of 1991, but the 1967 opening round against the Toronto Maple Leafs may be a more appropriate comparison.
The 1966-67 Black Hawks were as stacked with talent, one could say more so, than the current team. Led by Bobby Hull—who potted 52 goals that year–Stan Mikita, Dennis Hull, Phil Esposito, Eric Nesterenko, Pierre Pilote, Pat Stapleton, Doug Jarrett and Glenn Hall, just to cite a few, they were first overall in the NHL. But they had the luck to draw the irascible Punch Imlach and the Leafs.
The Leafs, like the Predators, favored a hard-nosed, lunchpail style of hockey. Apart from Frank Mahovlich, whose year had been poor, Toronto had few real superstars. The work of forwards like Captain George Armstrong, Dave Keon, Ron Ellis, ‘Red’ Kelly, Bob Pulford and agitator Eddie Shack, was solid. Tim Horton, Bob Baun, and Marcel Pronovost anchored a tough, experienced blueline, and the iconic Johnny Bower held the fort in goal.
On paper, the Hawks should have thrashed the Leafs. On the ice, it was a different story with Toronto winning in six, after splitting the first games in Chicago. Despite the Hawks’ convincing 5-2 victory in Game One, the rest of series featured low scoring contests, most decided by one or two goals. Bower was brilliant, holding the Hawks to one goal in three of those games.
Can parallels be drawn?
Should today’s Blackhawks fans reach for a sedative, and should Predators loyalists start dreaming of an upset?
It is far too early to tell.
The other side of the equation, that the Blackhawks’ multi-layered offense can eventually break the attempts to contain it, has merit.
As those who watched the Capitals-Canadiens match Saturday night April 17th, saw that when the gunslingers get loose, the party starts.
The Blackhawks have plenty of gunslingers.
So what advice will the coaching staff and the leaders in Chicago have for their team?
The words of the eminent British statesman Edmund Burke, and paraphrased by the philosopher Santayana, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it”, might be worthy of note by these Chicago Blackhawks.
But as motivation, they might also put this quote from an old warrior on their bulletin board: “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”
Ulysses S. Grant never played hockey, but he knew how to win. And as ugly as he had to.
About the Author: David Morris' hockey writing has been featured at KuklasKorner.com and Chicago Sports Then & Now. He is also the North American correspondent for leading Swiss hockey site, Planete Hockey.