NHL All Star Game Concept Succeeds; Leaves Room for Improvement

The NHL shook things up, stepped out on a limb and took a few risks. Not surprisingly, buzz was generated and people seemed to show genuine interest in the league’s All Star Game.

For years I’ve been suggesting ideas to spruce up each of the professional sports’ All Star showcases in an effort to make them more entertaining and watchable. For the most part, it seems the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL were oblivious to the fact that most people didn’t care about an event that featured each league’s biggest stars. Until the NHL decided that they were going to do away with the conference alignment in it’s All Star Game and used a Fantasy Draft to make up the two teams competing for the All Star Game win.

By Peter Christian and Bryan Vickroy

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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.

Chicago Blackhawks Exchange

Paul M. Banks and Peter Christian talk about the topics most important to Hawks fans everywhere

(PMB) What a difference your man-crush Patrick Sharp makes, the Chi was just 6-7-3 without him and (overlooking Sunday’s dominating shutout performance by Vancouver’s net-minder Roberto Luongo) the Blackhawks offense really gets a major boost from his presence.

A lot of people forget he was leading the team in goals before he went down with an injury. Tell us what makes him such a great pure scorer and what he brings to the table that makes you admire him so. Beyond the fact that he has a cool goal-scoring song (ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man”) and he seems to have started growing the “playoff beard” a little early.

(PC) I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on what it is that puts some on a pedestal when it comes to goal scoring. Typically the best players on the team are considered the guys who can make the great pass to set up the easy goal, however there are plenty of times where the player receiving the great pass just can’t find a way to put the puck in the net. Whether it is the puck bouncing over the stick, not getting enough on the shot or just plain bad aim it seems Sharp is a player that doesn’t really get affected by those very common on-ice problems.

He is unique in his goal scoring ability in the fact that he doesn’t need a ton of shots per game to notch his goals. He makes his chances count. While a pure scorer like Alexander Ovechkin gets all the pub, he takes more than 6.5 shots per game. Whereas Sharp takes an average of 2 per game. The comparison I would make is that Ovechkin is like Kobe Bryant in that he scores, scores and then scores again, but always needs to have possession of the ball/puck. Sharp on the other hand is more like a Roger Mason type that takes advantage in far fewer opportunities.

It doesn’t hurt that he often plays on a line with two great passers in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews (pronounced TAVES, rhymes with CAVES). When it comes to my admiration (sounds so much better than man-crush or the new term that makes me gag – bromance) for Sharp, there are quite a few reasons.

The first is the fact that I’ve known of him so long. Thunder Bay, Ontario is only an hour north of the Minnesota border and on more than one occasion teams from the area played against my teams or friends’ teams in tournaments. Since Sharp is exactly 9 days younger than I, I’m pretty sure we unknowingly crossed paths at some point (he is heartbroken I’m sure). I think I first heard about him when he played for the Thunder Bay USHL team as a 16 year old.

Second is his calm demeanor on the ice. He is always under control and in position to help himself and his team. Third is the fact that he is a closer. As I’ve watched with the Wild over the last decade, they have plenty of players that can set up a great scoring chance, but no one to find the net. Sharp is a great fill for that need.

(PMB) It would be good for “Sharpie” to start getting the publicity and recognition “Kaner” and “Toewser” do. (Although you’d be surprised how many Chicago sports fans still don’t know how to pronounce Jonathan Toews’ name). Another vital bone in the offense’s body of work is Martin Havlat. He started awfully slow, but has been on fire the past couple months. I doubt management will be able to procure enough cap room to keep him this off-season. Your thoughts on Havlat and if he should be considered a priority?

(PC) Havlat is one of those guys that goes under the radar amongst casual fans, but the stat guys, the die-hards and the league know that he is extremely valuable as a 2nd line scorer. Having players that can get comfortable on the 2nd and 3rd line situations and produce as well is key to any team having prolonged success. Scoring options on those lines help take the pressure off the first line while also stretching the opponent’s defensive limits.

Havlat’s already equaled his career best in points and has been able to stay healthy for the first season since 2003-04. That being said, it is extremely unlikely that Havlat will be able to return to the Blackhawks next season. With so much cap space already tied up in current players, Havlat would have to take a pay cut or the team would have to trade some of their already signed players. Plus the Hawks are pretty deep at right wing as it is, if there was a position that they could let someone go, it is at right wing. That being said, I think Havlat’s post-season performance will directly be correlated to the team’s success or lack thereof in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

(PMB) The cliche in the book is “taking them one game at a time,” but here at The Sports Bank we obviously destroy boring platitudes and look ahead. In forecasting the playoffs, who would you rather have in the first round, Calgary or Vancouver? The Hawks have played really well against Canada this season (I’m exempting the embarassing 4-0 loss at home to the most likely first round opponent Canucks yesterday) and especially outperformed the market against the Flames. I’d like to see Vancouver overtake them so Chicago can play the Flames in the first round. Of course, you can’t overlook scrappy Columbus as this Blue Jackets team has already set a franchise record for season points and they are within striking distance. No matter what happens, I’d like to see the Hawks hold on to that final home ice advantage slot as the fans have been so great this winter. I’ve never seen a buzz like this during a previous season on Chicago’s West side and they deserve a chance to try and be a factor in a tight game.

(PC) The play-off buzz for the NHL is unlike any of the other professional sports post-season’s mostly because the Stanley Cup play-offs are always so wide open. No other league can boast as many upsets as the NHL. As for the Blackhawks, their biggest asset will also likely be their biggest detriment in the play-offs. The post-season rookies will definitely bring a ton of energy to the team, however the inexperience and intense pressure could turn that energy into mistakes. No matter where they end up seeding wise, they are going to have to keep a loose leash on that energy.

As for match-ups that would favor the Blackhawks, I think that they can out skate either Calgary or Vancouver but need some more muscle to match what both teams have on their 2nd and 3rd lines. I’ve seen first hand how both teams use their 2nd and 3rd line grinders to wear down their opponent, which then opens up opportunities for their first line scorers.

If the Hawks got matched up with either team, home ice advantage would be crucial. The United Center is no stranger to a play-off atmosphere, however it has typically been reserved for a game with a hard court at the center of the arena. The same passion the fans of the Bulls had during their championship runs is going to be necessary for the Blackhawks. Calgary is always a tough place to play, but in the play-offs it is brutal. Vancouver isn’t much better. A young worn down team on the road at either arena would spell D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R for the Blackhawks in the first round. Unless either Calgary or Vancouver tanks with their last 6 games, Columbus will not be a potential first round opponent for the Hawks (although that would probably be the best match-up for the Hawks).

Great Hawks Players You haven’t heard of

By Paul M. Banks

Now that being a Chicago Blackhawks fan is as trendy now as it was in the 60s during the franchise’s glory days, the team’s marquee players: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and (to a lesser extent) Brian Campbell are all essentially local celebrities. But this team has some other All-Star level talent that you’ve never heard of. They’re currently fourth in the Western Conference despite having no one among the top 40 in the league in scoring- a testament to their depth. Beyond “Kaner,” “Taser,” and “Soupy,” (are you picking up the unofficial hockey player nickname generating formula yet?) these are the names you should know.

Patrick Sharp- “Sharpie,” the team’s leader in goals scored may be the most underrated player on the squad.

Duncan Keith- not to be confused with 90s one-hit wonder Duncan Sheik, he’s the Hawks other blue-liner with an All-Star appearance on his resume.

Kris Versteeg- Hawks bench boss Joel Quenneville described the NHL’s rookie scoring leader thusly: “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.”

Martin Havlat- started slow, but came on in January, when the team badly needed an offensive lift and is now second on the team (behind Kane) in scoring.

Goalie tandem of Cristobal Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin- Although they tried to shop Khabibulin earlier in the season, the fact that he’s playing solid hockey here now is a warm, fuzzy feeling. When the playoffs come, having both the Bulin Wall and Huet, another goalie the Hawks acquired via a big money free-agent contract, sharing the net will be advantageous over other teams that lack fresh goaltending.

In addition to hosting the NHL’s marquee regular season game (Winter Classic), the Hawks have the premier position in three key off-the-ice criteria. The Indian head was voted the most recognized logo in NHL and the Hawks currently lead the league in attendance and merchandise sales. This shows how much they’ve built the brand. If they go far in the ’09 Stanley Cup playoffs, and later make an annual habit of doing so, the names I mentioned above will be instantly recognizable in this city.

See more of Paul M. Banks’ work at the Washington Times and The Sports Bank