Chicago Blackhawks Season Preview: Meet the IceHogs

Lost in the shuffle amid all the roster moves that were made today by the Chicago Blackhawks as they prepare for their regular season opener on Friday was the fact that the roster for the Rockford IceHogs, their AHL affiliate, was solidified as well. Several players who were sent down today, including Brandon Pirri, Dylan Olsen, and Marcus Kruger, undoubtedly will be looked at to make a big impact on the upcoming season for the Hogs, who are coming off a disappointing season in which they finished in last place in the West Division. The injury-depleted Blackhawks didn’t help matters in terms of prying players away from Rockford, but so is the life of an AHL affiliate.

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Blackhawks Face Much Bigger Challenge in 2nd Round

By Paul M. Banks

In their 54th all-time Stanley Cup Playoff appearance, the Chicago Blackhawks advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals 4-2 where they’ll meet the 3rd seeded Vancouver Canucks. If that 54 sounds super-high, remember that the Hawks are one of the NHL’s original six franchises. This series will be the third all-time Stanley Cup Playoff meeting between the Blackhawks and Canucks, with each club taking one series. The Blackhawks swept the Canucks 4-0 in the 1995 Western Conference Semifinals. Vancouver earned a 4-1 triumph over Chicago in the 1982 Campbell Conference (Younger readers may not remember the old names NHL divisions and conferences once had) Finals.

The Blackhawks have ruled Canada like Prime Minister Stephen Harper this season, owning a 15-5 record (including playoffs) versus Canadian teams this season. But this round will provide a much bigger challenge than Calgary did in the first round. Chicago and Vancouver split the four game regular-season series. The Blackhawks won the first two meetings (Oct. 19 at United Center, Dec. 20 at General Motors Place), before dropping the final two match-ups (Feb. 7 at GM Place and March 29 at the UC).

When Canucks opponents visit General Motors Place, they often find their offensive game plans to be as valuable as GM stock. That’s because the 26-12-5 at home Canucks feature Roberto Luongo, one of the hottest goalies in the game. Loungo posted a 4-0 record in Round One with a lights-out 1.15 GAA and .962 save percentage against St. Louis. He also netted his first career playoff shutout in Game 2. The last time he faced the Hawks, he registered a 26 save shutout. Key to this series will be the play of Blackhawks rookie Left Wing Kris Versteeg, because “Steeger” led the Hawks with 5 points in the season series with the Canucks. “We try to keep it simple and play within our limit and let the guys like {Martin} Havlat do their thin, and just try to play hard every night,” Versteeg said.

The Hawks currently have the dubious distinction of the longest Cup drought in the NHL. 1961 was the last time they drank from the Cup; supplementing their championships in 1934 and 1938.

Kris Versteeg Latest of Young Hawks Stars to Emerge

By Paul M. Banks

The rise of the Chicago Blackhawks franchise from obscurity to fan and media darling has been well documented. But there’s another (and even more positive ) story that also needs to be told. As bright as the present currently is, the future looks even better. The team’s leaders are a very young core of players whose best days are likely still in front of them. The most recent player to emerge is speedy left winger Kris Versteeg, one of three finalists for the 2009 Calder Trophy, given out annually to the league’s top rookie.

Great at both ends of the ice, Versteeg has the chance to become the ninth Chicago player in team history to be awarded the Calder Trophy and joins teammates Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews as the third Blackhawk in the last two seasons voted a Calder Trophy finalist.

Versteeg led all NHL rookies with 31 assists as part of a youthful nucleus that’s set to meet the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference semi-finals. His four shorthanded goals (or “shorties”) were also tops among League rookies and fourth overall. “Playing on this team we’re exciting, we play hard for each other and Kane and Toews, they’ve kind of been through it before and they know what it takes to do it,” Versteeg said.

Patrick Kane captured the honor last season. Other past Blackhawks to earn the award are: Mike Karakas (1936), Carl Dahlstrom (1938), Ed Litzenberger (1955), William Hay (1960), Tony Esposito (1970), Steve Larmer (1983) and Ed Belfour (1991). “It’s been huge just to be nominated for it,” Versteeg stated. The winner announced June 18th. The other two finalists for the award:

-Steve Mason, Columbus Blue Jackets. Named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for both November and December, he accomplished a four-game winning streak where he stopped 94 of 95 shots. As Columbus captured the first playoff berth in franchise history, Mason’s 10 shutouts led the League and his 2.29 goals against average was second only to Boston’s Tim Thomas (2.10).

The second overall selection in the 2005 Draft, Ryan led all rookies with 31 goals and 57 points in just 64 games. Ryan earned Rookie of the Month honors for January with 11 goals and five assists in 14 games.

Q & A with Coach Q.

Paul M. Banks interviews Joel Quenneville

Quenneville talked about the team’s recent skid, following the franchise record winning streak that preceeded it…

“I think the whole process is going to be good for us, during that stretch pucks were going in for us left and right, but lately they’re all low scoring affairs and we have to be ready to play that game because that’s what it’s going to be from here on in,” Quenneville said.

He’s also instilled a specific strategy and philosophy for stopping the opposition’s attack.

“Teams win by checking, playing hard defensively and try and prevent. Everybody’s gonna play that way, nobody’s going to try and get into a track meet and exchange chances and think you can win that way in our league. Whether you got a high powered offense or not, the offense comes from how well you check, play positionally and move together,” he stated.

On Hawks first year forward Kris Versteeg, the NHL scoring leader among rookies…

“I think he’s consistent- he sees plays, makes plays, has some confidence with the puck.
He’s a competitive guy that doesn’t get distracted by any of the stuff that goes on during a game: got good quickness, good imagination without the puck.”

Regarding the Minnesota Wild…

“They’re very good at protecting dangerous ice and boxing out, they’re probably the best team in the league at not letting anything hang around the slot area or passing through those seams, you gotta recognize that.”

Quenneville emphasized the way he motivates scorers in slumps…

“They’re ways you can contribute and feel good, I think everyone loves to score especially scorers and when it’s a little dry you can get some satisfaction by doing other things well and complementing our team game.”

On the sometimes fickleness of Hawks fans…

“I think we should all be appreciative of our fans and the impact they can have on our team and just don’t get distracted and try to get them back on our side.”

His philosophy and outlook for winning the close ones….

“There’s no easy games, look at the 6 games we had on the last road trip, they’re almost all tied or one goal games in the third period. You gotta win in different ways in our league and don’t want to just give them anything to make it easy on the opposition. Get the timely goal and sometimes it doesn’t have to be pretty. I think we’re gonna learn, as we go along that safe and simple, at the right times, is very effective in our game.”

On the rivalry with St. Louis, his former team and why the games are so close…

“They’re improving, they’re a team that plays us hard, all the games have been on the line from start to finish. We know it’s going to be a low-scoring, tight-checking affair. That’s how we’ve got to approach it and we’ve got to find ways to win these kinds of games. They’re a team that prides themselves on playing hard and simple.”