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Hey NHL, a little help!
The Hawks are taking care of business. They just keep winning, pulling within a point of the division-leading Wild with their 4-2 victory over the Blues last night. But now Minnesota has piled up the games in hand again. They have played three fewer games than the glorious locals who have won nine of their last 10.
So of course what needs to happen now is the rest of the NHL needs to start knocking off the Wild with considerably more consistency. First up? The Los Angeles Kings travel to the Twin Cities tomorrow evening. Let's go LA!
With every win (and the increased puck possession times that have gone with just about all of them) it becomes more and more apparent that Blackhawk general manager Stan Bowman's faith in the Hawks' next generation of young players was not misplaced. The locals (Chicago-area natives Ryan Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza and Scott Darling) continue to kick ass and now Nick Schmaltz is making a big old name for himself.
Schmaltz wowed fans with his awesome, against-the-grain pass to Jonathan Toews to set up a critical goal against the Wild early last week. And then, a mere few days after celebrating just his 21st birthday (!) with another glorious assist less than five minutes into the game. He took a cross-ice pass from his centerman and then sent a slick cross-ice pass right back through a defenseman's legs.
That pass triggered a breakaway and the scorching hot Toews made quick work of the scoring chance to put the Blackhawks where they have been for about three weeks now - in the lead.
In between those contests all Schmaltz did was post multiple points in a 6-3 victory over the Coyotes. The young winger is a native of Madison but he grew up in Verona, which is located just to the southwest of Wisconsin's glorious state university town. He has benefited from playing with Toews and linemate Richard Panik (nice pickup for nothing last year, Mr. Bowman!) but those guys have also benefited from Schmaltz's growing confidence and obvious skill.
The thing that seems to have triggered this recent run of success (for the line and the team) more than anything was Toews doing something he almost never does. He made a public plea (as opposed to keeping things in the locker room) to his coach for more stability. That meant giving him a chance to work with the same linemates for an extended period.
The early returns on coach Joel Quenneville's response - pairing Toews with Schmaltz and Panik while sending Marian Hossa back to work on the third line with Hartman and Hinostroza, among others - are about as positive as can be. One suspects that the playoffs may see Toews and Hossa reunited, especially following a loss or two, but it appears the coach has more options than even he knew a month ago.
The divisional hockey standings are especially important because the top three finishers and a wild card from the conference enter the playoffs set up to match up. So the division champ plays the wild card in the first round at the same time that the second and third-placers face off.
The Hawks would much rather face the wild card in the first round and let the Wild battle whoever emerges as the third-place team. Currently the Predators hold a small lead over the Blues for that spot. And then of course the Hawks would like to have the home ice advantage in a possible second-round match-up with the Wild.
If the Hawks keep playing like they are, home ice advantage isn't going to matter much. But there is still a decent amount of regular season left to be played - about 20 games - and it is great that the Hawks will have something to play for right until the end.
Nevertheless I'm sure it won't be long now before some genius starts advising the Hawks to rest their starters to prepare for the playoffs - oh wait, they don't do that in hockey.
Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.