Dirk: Are the Chicago Blackhawks trying to render goaltending obsolete? It seems like no matter who plays back there, and whether or not they put up decent numbers, Chicago keeps winning night after night. What's the story on this new guy, Antti Raanta?
Jen: The goaltending has been a bit off to start the season. The even strength numbers for Corey Crawford are not bad but the Penalty Kill Sv% has dropped over 9% which is a problem. Luckily for the Blackhawks, they could shoot their way out of a nuclear missile crisis. The Blackhawks lead the league in goals scored at 131 with second place being held by the St. Louis Blues at 109. Despite the PK problems, the greatly improved Power Play (26 goals) and the amazing clip of Goals For at even strength have kept the Blackhawks winning.
Backup goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin had been lit up in every appearance he has made and as Nashville fans will recall, Shea Weber's deadly slap shot caused Khabibulin's groin to explode landing him on LTIR ever since. Crawford injured what appeared to be his groin recently and Antti Raanta, who started the season as the starting goalie for the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL, has landed in the hot seat. Raanta is a 24-year-old Finn who played in Liiga last season winning the Championship with Assat, earning league MVP honors for both the regular season and the playoffs. He signed an entry level deal with the Blackhawks in June.
Although he is not a very big goalie, he is incredibly athletic. He's got some growing and learning to do to be certain but he has filled in nicely during the current goalie crisis. Aside from the team-wide drubbing the Blackhawks took at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Raanta has performed very well and seems to have earned the confidence and affection of his teammates. He's already made great strides along the learning curve so I expect that will continue. He's also a very fun character who has spent time with the Finnish Army and earned adoration from fans for doing FaceTime with his dog online.
Dirk: Bryan Bickell turned a red-hot playoff run into a juicy new contract, but how has that worked out so far?
Jen: Bryan Bickell was magical for the Blackhawks last season. He spent most of the season on the third line with Viktor Stalberg and Andrew Shaw. That line wreaked havoc upon teams all season. During the playoffs, Quenneville's line blender kicked in and Bickell spent a lot of time on the first line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Bickell sustained a fairly serious knee injury at the end of the Western Conference Finals but still managed to skate on one leg during the Stanley Cup Final with some particularly memorable results.
During the off-season, every time Bickell tweeted out a picture, he looked like the Bionic Man. He had a huge knee brace, a wrist brace and various other medical devices in every shot. I think many fans were prepared for him to have a bit of a slow start to the season because of those medical issues and he did start out a little rough. His new contract is comparable to that of P.A. Parenteau of the Colorado Avalanche and Chris Stewart of the St. Louis Blues so it appears to be a fair amount. Also, Bickell only made $600,000 in NHL salary while skating on the top line and winning the Stanley Cup so I think it all will work out in the end.
Bickell played in 22 games with 5 goals and 1 assist to start the season. On November 19th, Bickell went hard to the net in a game against the Colorado Avalanche and while trying to avoid contact with the goalie, crashed into the goal post with his leg sustaining an injury. He's been on LTIR and was activated in time to travel to Nashville. The word going around is that he is expected to play tonight. He will likely slot in on the third line with Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw.
Bickell is a big power forward with a wonderful wrist shot. He creates room for his linemates and is a hard hitter. The Quality of Competition he has skated against this season has increased some and before he was injured, he was seeing some ice time on the Power Play. I expect him to make good on his new paycheck and once he gets his game timing back after a month long break, look for him to make things happen on the third line.
Dirk: It looks like Patrick Kane may be having his best season yet offensively, and has a legitimate shot at the Art Ross Trophy this year. What's been the difference this season? Is it a team thing, or has his individual game moved to a higher level?
Jen: Even if I were not a Blackhawks fan, Patrick Kane would be one of my favorite players to watch in the NHL. His ability to score off of flashy moves is mind blowing. When the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010, Kane had a terrific season shooting 12.88% at even strength. Little did we all know that the following season he was plagued by a wrist injury that led to him shooting only 8.33% at even strength. Off season wrist surgery, a little time off because of the lock out and heading to Switzerland to play in Liiga (where he played with Stars forward Tyler Seguin, Sharks Captain Joe Thornton and Flames goalie Reto Berra) had him primed and ready to play when the lock out ended. Kane was back to shooting 11.46% at even strength last season and getting heavy ice time on the Power Play. That turned out pretty well for Kane and the team.
This season, his even strength shooting percentage is 12.66% and he has a strong presence on the Power Play again. Coach Joel Quenneville is known for chasing matchups during a game and this has worked to Kane's advantage this season. The depth available to the Blackhawks allows Kane to get more ice time against lines with less skill. Also, his defensive zone starts have dropped sharply so far this season with most of his starts coming in the offensive zone and neutral zone. All of this is due to the depth of talent the team has and enables Kane's use of his wicked wrist shot to contribute even more goals.
The other half of this answer has to do with Patrick Kane himself. He has been persecuted and later praised for the maturation process he has very publicly gone through. His defensive game has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few seasons. He is only 25 years old, which is still difficult to believe, but on the ice he is really just a big kid. He thrives on having fun and entertaining the fans. We know he has amazing skill, but when watching the games, you can just see the sheer joy he takes in playing. When Patrick Kane is having fun on the ice, well... good luck trying to stop him.
Thanks once again to Jen for the insight - make sure you head over to Second City Hockey before tonight's game and prepare yourself for the action...
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