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SportsMonday: The Cup Is Chillin'

The Hawks' first line hasn't even shown up yet. The entire team struggled mightily on defense in Game 1 and couldn't put the puck in the net to save their lives for over 59 minutes of Game 2.

And yet the Hawks hold a 2-0 series lead as they head out on the road, where they have been all but unbeatable all postseason long, for Games 3 and 4. I would say it isn't too early to begin planning for a small celebration in town this weekend . . . a celebration that has been almost a half-century in the making.

Last night, though, a little more than 30 seconds of offense was enough. That and some great defense highlighted by so many blocked shots Dwight Howard might have joined the Hawks' defensive corps.

At the other end, clearly the threesome of Marian Hossa, Tomas Kopecky and Troy Brouwer has played remarkably well in two straight games. Patrick Kane, Dustin Byfuglien and Jonathan Toews will remain the team's first line until further notice, but Hossa and Co. are about as good a second group of forwards as a fan could hope for. Then again, wasn't Dave Bolland's line the second line?

Bolland was certainly the team's second-best center against the Sharks. And when Hossa flipped in the rebound to start the scoring Monday, he did so after Patrick Sharp put the initial shot on net. I have no clue where Sharp fits into the discussion about which line is the second line but the bottom line is that Hawks coach Joel Quenneville is mixing and matching his forwards like a maestro.

Hossa proved yet again that he was a bargain at $62 million (the total value of the 12-year contract he signed with the Hawks last off-season). Way to go Dale (Tallon, the Hawks' former general manager who made all the right moves the last three off-seasons to make this playoff run possible). Again.

All of 28 seconds later, not only did Ben Eager score a big goal, he did so while modeling the team's by-far best playoff beard. The highlights:

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The first game of the series wasn't exactly a great display by the Hawks either, playing terribly in the first two periods on Saturday. But they tightened up their defense in the third and pulled out a victory first thanks to great work from their second - or is it their third? - line, second thanks to their overall depth and third thanks to Philadelphia goalie Michael Leighton's poor performance.

Now let's be clear: Antti Niemi wasn't any better than Leighton. All through the first and second periods, right after their teams had scored yet another goal to either tie it or take the lead, Hawk and Flyer fans were saying, "now if our goaltender could just give us one big save, we'd be in the driver's seat."

But neither goalie had it in 'em. And oh by the way, hopefully before the series ends we can get a break from genius analysis (hello Eddie Olczyk and Pierre McGuirre) like the guys telling us that teams took advantage of "great scouting" to go five-hole against Leighton or up high versus Niemi.

It didn't take even merely good scouting to figure out the best way to go at these goalies. It was obvious to everyone paying even a little bit of attention. And of the six Hawk scores Saturday, only Bolland's shortie was clearly the result of a guy who had time to think about it going ahead and trying to shoot the puck through the five-hole (the spot between the pads and the stick that is roughly equivalent to the middle spot on a die showing five).

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At the other end, Niemi almost always makes a conscious choice to take away as much space along the ice as possible. Unless he notices something unusual, his preferred plan is to use his exceptional flexibility to spread his pads and stop everything up to six or eight inches above the playing surface.

But the main thing to take away from this is that hockey players can't do the same thing over and over again. The other team figures out what you're doing after a shift or two and then you have to adjust again. So every once in a while, Niemi has to make a stand-up save. And Leighton didn't let anything else slip through his pads after Bolland's tally.

Even in the third period Saturday, Niemi wasn't Mr. Big Save. But the Hawks cranked up the defense in front of him just as they had during the clincher versus San Jose.

Now it's looking like deja vu against the Flyers.

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Jim Coffman rounds up the sports weekend every Monday in this space. He welcomes your comments.


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