Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Four Lines Deep - 12/1/09

Blue Jackets at Blackhawks; United Center
8 p.m. (EST); Versus/TSN2 (HD)

Tonight's return to the United Center is the first since the Jackets clinched a franchise-first playoff spot there on April 9.

What can't you say about the Blackhawks? They are a dominant, elite team right now and the Jackets will have to bring their very best game to stay in this one. The Hawks already have 10 wins at home, and are well rested after a West Coast swing that ended with two consecutive losses to Anaheim and LA. However, they dominated the Sharks 7-2 in the game previous to put the final touches on a streak of eight consecutive victories. Wow. They sit in first in the Central with an impressive 35 points and a positive goals differential of +22.

The Hawks, with the recent addition of Marian Hossa from the injury report, have a ton of firepower and very solid special teams and defense.  Huet has been exceptional between the pipes, and continues to enjoy great goal support and solid play in front of him. The top D pairing (Seabrook/Keith) has already accounted for 34 points and a combined +23. They roll three forward lines that can score at any moment - and the fourth line punishes you on the body. It's also important to note that the Hawks are very balanced in scoring -there are 10 players with four goals or more, and Hossa has just returned and had two goals in his first game back. Kane leads the team with nine goals.

 It's a challenge to find any weakness or shortcoming on this team right now. That being said, the Hawks didn't lose the "heart and soul" of their team to injury last night. The Jackets did, and I believe that they're going to build on the momentum established in the third period against the Blues, and really show up in Chicago. I think the entire team built a lot of confidence, and The Conscience nailed a hat trick. It was a powerful statement for the whole team.

Continuing that energy with the current roster is possible, but I think it's a lot more probable with the short-term changes that are coming. For starters, I Need My Weighty Back (insert Chili's babyback tune here). The Jackets are still not getting production from all lines and Blunden in particular isn't making enough of an impact - literally. I don't think there's a lack of effort on his part, but his name just isn't getting called in the exciting parts of the ice. The Jackets are going to significantly benefit with the return of the defensive-minded Murray and the raw energy of Dorsett. I think Dorsett's absence has been felt by the whole team, as he provides value that doesn't always show up on the stat sheet. I for one, would really like to see a Dorsett/Murray/Boll line at some point. Modin --is unfortunately, more like Haley's Comet for me. Everyone think he's amazing when he makes a visit...but the visits are really rare and really short.  I hope he joins the team, but I'm not holding out too much hope. I digress.

The Jackets' defense will have to find a way to deal with the loss of Klesla, who was logging heavy minutes and playing the most consistently strong hockey of anyone on the blue line. Here's the good news...Death and Taxes were re-united. Perhaps Hitch will pair them up again? I really liked what I saw against the Blues. Commodore was a MAN last night and earned a +4 rating -- by far his best game this season.  Regardless, the Jackets will have find a way to neutralize the Kane line for the Hawks, which is just lethal.

The formula for a road victory isn't too complex -- it's just difficult. The Jackets have to outwork the Hawks in their own barn. If the Jackets are careless with the puck in the defensive zone and stop checking in all three zones, this game will get ugly fast. The Hawks make very few mistakes, and the Jackets have to force those in the neutral zone and convert on their chances. Conversely, the Jackets have to win the battles in the faceoff circles - especially in the defensive zone - or Chicago's talented blueliners will carve up the Jackets from the outside in.

I think this game has the potential to be a big statement game -- even bigger than last night against St. Louis. Remember when the Jackets had to face Washington last year and Mason had back spasms and the team was riddled by injuries? They won on grit and hard work and it created a lot of momentum. We'll learn a lot about the mental strength and potential of this team tonight.

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