Thursday’s Three Stars: Saad Shines But Staal and Penguins Get Last Laugh

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The Chicago Blackhawks skated into Pittsburgh on Thursday night looking to end a streak of seven consecutive road preseason losses, but unfortunately for them, Jordan Staal and the Penguins had other ideas. Staal scored twice, and Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy also added goals as the Pens pulled away late and beat the Hawks 4-1. Michael Frolik picked up the lone tally for the Blackhawks in the second period, and Ray Emery gave up four goals on 19 shots in a losing effort.

For most Hawks fans, last season was defined by several things, but the biggest of those was the team’s seeming inability to play well in the third period of games. They often looked lethargic and uninterested in those games, and those words could easily be used to describe the team’s effort in the third stanza tonight. They only managed six shots in that frame, and the Penguins seized the game with a combination of aggressive offensive attacks and smothering defense, led by the duo of Staal and Nick Johnson. Both players had an amazing amount of energy for a preseason games, and the Hawks simply could not keep up.

Before the third period came and allowed the Penguins to grab the reins, the first period was a snoozefest if there ever was one. Both teams kind of seemed to go through the motions, and both Hawks starter Alexander Salak and Pens’ netkeeper Brent Johnson were barely tested, with the shots going in favor of Pittsburgh 5-3. Both teams were good enough on defense, but offensively it was an incredibly boring period of hockey.

The second period saw some more scoring opportunities, but only Frolik was able to cash in on a nice shot between Johnson’s legs midway through the frame. Both teams had better puck possession, but both seemed like their skates were loaded with lead. In the third, however, Pittsburgh really opened the floodgates, pouring 14 shots on Emery and dominating in just about every category. Three of their goals, including the gamewinner by Cooke, came with less than 10 minutes to go in the period.

Even though Emery came into this game looking like he was in the lead in the race to be Corey Crawford’s back-up, but he took a step back in this game. He looked very solid in the second period, getting into position with ease and snuffing out a slew of Pittsburgh opportunities. In the third, however, he started to look lost. The Pens’ first goal was admittedly a bit of a fluke, with the puck going off Johnson’s stick and the post on its way directly onto Staal’s stick blade, but the other three could be argued to be Emery’s fault. The second goal came on a deflection in front, but Emery was in poor position to stop the deflection by Cooke. The third goal came off a rebound from Emery’s pads, and after the puck bounced off of him it seemed like he was unable to even attempt to move to the other side of the crease to prevent Tyler Kennedy from pounding home the rebound. The fourth goal saw him get tangled in knots by a Staal deke, and once again he looked as though he couldn’t maneuver his body into a position to stop the puck.

Knowing Emery’s history of health issues recently puts this performance into a more negative light. Whereas Emery looked nimble and in charge in the second period, it could be argued that his flexibility was simply gone by the third period. He looked stiff and also looked like his reaction time was slowed, almost as if he were focusing on something else. Of course both of those things could be untrue and he may have just had an off night, but it is a fair question to ask of a guy with hip problems. If he continues to struggle with his mobility in the crease, Joel Quenneville may not have a choice but to give the nod to Salak.

One positive for the Hawks on this night was the performance of their penalty killing unit. Even without most of their stars (which was painfully obvious on the power play especially), the team still made it a point to stay responsible defensively and not to overpursue the puck. Even though the Pens were just as undermanned as Chicago, the fundamental execution that the Hawks displayed on the Pens’ three power plays will hopefully carry over to the regular season, because an improved PK unit could go a long way in pushing Chicago up the standings.

The best player on the ice by far for the Penguins tonight was Staal. He came into his own in a big way last year with the season-ending injuries that both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin suffered, and that confidence is clearly carrying over into this season. He seems locked in even though the preseason just started, and his stick-handling and speed were simply too much for the Hawks to handle. It will be fascinating to see if he can keep that up during the regular season.

The Blackhawks will next take to the ice tomorrow night in their preseason home opener at the United Center. They will be taking on the Washington Capitals, and reports are saying that Alex Ovechkin and Tomas Vokoun will both travel with the team for the game. It should be a good one, but will unfortunately not be available on radio or TV.

With that, here are tonight’s Three Stars:

Third Star: Bryan Bickell

Bickell was a minus-3 on the night, so normally he would not be on a list like this, but his physical play overall is worthy of commendation. He was a beast all over the ice tonight, dishing out seven hits and even picking up an assist in the game. He is a guy who is capable of scoring around 20-25 goals, but it’s his defensive ability and physical attitude that make him an invaluable asset to this team, and he displayed both on Thursday.

Second Star: Michael Frolik

Frolik did score the game’s lone goal, so he is certainly deserving of a spot. The shot displayed not only precision, but it was also a matter of patience. Rushing up the ice, Frolik had the puck on his stick and was ready to shoot, but a Penguins defender skated in front of him. Sensing an opportunity, Michael hesitated for a split second and waited for the defender to get directly in front of him, and flipped the puck between both the d-man’s legs and Brent Johnson’s legs as well.

The Penguins’ announcers on Root Sports described the goal perfectly when they called it a “goal scorer’s goal.” That’s certainly high praise coming from an opposing team’s announcing crew, and it demonstrates the kind of ability that Frolik brings to the table for this squad.

First Star: Brandon Saad

Even though he was once again held off the score sheet, Saad was the best player on the ice for Chicago. He displayed his trademark speed throughout the game, beating an icing call in the third period and putting tons of pressure on the Penguins’ puck handlers in their own zone. One particular possession that Saad had a large impact on game in the second period, when he and linemate Daniel Carcillo (yes, he actually made a couple of good offensive plays in this game) held off the Penguins from the puck deep in the zone and gave themselves a couple of great scoring opportunities. Saad put a good shot on Johnson and then chased the puck into the corner, where he dug it out and put it right on Carcillo’s stick and nearly into the net. It was a beautiful play from one guy you’d expect it from, and one you wouldn’t, and it showed yet again that in the coming years, Saad may be regarded as the biggest steal in the 2011 Draft.

 

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