CHICAGO | Getting out of their frigid, snow-swarmed home Tuesday night did not provide a climatic upgrade for the Blackhawks.
Their first destination tonight: Detroit. Then Minnesota on Thursday. Frostbite and soggy boots, anyone?
But there’s light at the end of the Arctic tunnel. After their final pre-Winter Olympics home game Sunday against Winnipeg, the Hawks will again get cold, then progressively warmer, at least weather-wise. They’ll journey to Calgary, then maritime-moderated Vancouver. And finally the jackpot in succession against San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Phoenix.
The sunshine-and-palm-trees backdrop will provide for pleasant extra-curricular activities, but also for warming the mind to look ahead to spring and the postseason. The players and coaching staff will have a last chance to personally scout potential Western Conference playoff opponents, to take mental notes that could be helpful in April, May and maybe beyond.
“You’re always watching how you fare against them and how they’re playing, and then zone in on it when it comes playoff time, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said Tuesday.
“You’ve been in this league to know what kind of opponents they are over there,” winger Kris Versteeg said during Tuesday's practice. “You know the players, their strengths and weaknesses. They know yours as well. In the end, it’s always nice to get to meet them one more time just to have that sense of comfort with the team on the other side.”
The Ducks were four ahead of the Hawks for NHL points supremacy going into Tuesday night’s late game in Anaheim. San Jose was second to Anaheim in the Pacific Division, four points ahead of Los Angeles. Minnesota, Vancouver and Phoenix are all in contention for lower-rung playoff berths.
The Hawks were impressive most of the game, other than enduring some third-period yips, in beating the Ducks 4-2 Friday at the United Center to put the brakes on some of their foes’ runaway mid-season momentum.
“I don’t think that was a surprise,” goalie Corey Crawford said of the Ducks’ success. “They were really good last year. They’ve just been building up each year. Everyone knew what kind of talent they had.”
The boys on the fourth line have to always pay close attention to opponents due to their checking and defensive emphasis while on the ice.
“Anytime you play a team, you keep a mental note of the guys you played against, whether it be what happened in a game, faceoffs, tendencies, power play, penalty kill,” said winger Ben Smith. “Playing in other teams’ rinks, you get a little more experience there, feel a little bit more comfortable. Make sure you do your homework before and put it away.”
Playoffs mean tighter games and more physical play. Smith linemate Brandon Bollig, who shares the team’s top pugilistic reputation with second-line center Andrew Shaw, rates the Kings as the most physical playoff opponent. The Hawks beat the Kings in six games in the Western Conference Finals last June, and were able to negate a lot of their physicality.
“If we were to be matched up against a team like LA,” said Bollig, “everyone saw their series last year against the Blues, how tough it was and how many hits there were. It would be something I’d personally be looking forward to.”