Will Blackhawks’ Windy City Method blow by bruising foes?
Chicago’s hybrid game of skill and size a step up from brawn of most recent champions Kings, Bruins
Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks reacts after a goal by teammate Bryan Bickell #29 of the Chicago Blackhawks (not in photo) as goaltender Jonathan Quick #32 of the Los Angeles Kings looks on in the first period of Game Four.
Photograph by: Harry How, Getty Images
LOS ANGELES — The Chicago Blackhawks, according to popular opinion, are hockey’s last hope.
Now that the Boston Bruins are bullying the evidently feckless Pittsburgh Penguins out of the East playoffs the same way they elbowed the skilled but soft Vancouver Canucks into the ditch in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, it is up to the Blackhawks to save NHL hockey from itself.
No, not really.
But you can make the argument, and plenty of people are.
The Blackhawks’ high-end skill, speed and ridiculous depth are carrying them past the beat-up Los Angeles Kings — they lead the Western Conference final 3-1, with a probable closeout Game 5 in Chicago on Saturday — and in a league that tends to try to mimic whatever successful formula seems to be working, the theory is that the Windy City Method could help halt the descent of professional hockey into the darkness.
The reasoning is as follows, and it’s all right as far as it goes: the Bruins won the 2011 Cup, the Kings took it last year using similar strategy, and the two might well have been facing one another in this year’s finals if the Kings hadn’t had a bunch of stars maimed* by their doppelgangers, the St. Louis Blues, in the first round.
(* — to be revealed only after elimination.)
Which means that the current trend is unmistakably toward bigger, meaner, defence-oriented clubs that forecheck and grind, roll four lines, negate the other team’s skilled players, and try to cycle and spend time in the offensive end waiting to pounce on a breakdown in coverage.
It’s worked for Claude Julien’s Bruins and Darryl Sutter’s Kings, and the Blues under Ken Hitchcock are well on their way to joining the queue. Ditto Todd McLellan’s San Jose Sharks, who have greatly modified their style.
The less successful teams — say the Edmonton Oilers, for argument’s sake, but should-be-better teams like Washington, too — have had it driven home over and over that talent is only half the story.
Sutter contends that in the bigger picture, there is nothing new in any of this. Successful teams have always followed the basic tenets of the Bruins-Kings championship clubs.
And the 2008 Red Wings and 2010 Blackhawks were no pushovers, either. The Wings couldn’t have beaten those Penguins, or vice versa a year later, and the Hawks couldn’t have beaten the Flyers, without a goodly measure of grit.
But granted: the Bruins and Kings have taken it to another level.
“The last two teams that won the Stanley Cup play great team games, get contributions from everybody in the lineup," Sutter said the other day. "You have to be able to play a 200-foot game, you have to be very disciplined in all three zones, you have to stay out of the penalty box — you can play a physical game without taking penalties. That has an impact on the other team’s top players and on your ability to defend."
A 200-foot game? That’s a MIke Babcock-ism.
The idea that these concepts are somehow new, or threatening to the future of hockey, is humorous. The only addition to the formula is size, though that’s no minor addition, given that the rinks aren’t getting any bigger.
“I think there's a lot of talk made about size, you know, big teams and all that. Quite honest, it's a bunch of bull,” Sutter said this week. “I think everybody's team average is 6'1" and about 204. That's what our team is, that's what their team is. Some guys are just under it, some just over it.”
Well, he may be close on the macro numbers, but it’s undeniable that open ice is scarce now, and the best teams are the ones that clog up what little of it there is.
"It’s a four-line game with lots of physical play,” is how Hitchcock put it in conversation with ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun a couple of days ago. “The harder you check, the more scoring chances you’re going to get.
"But it doesn’t happen unless you have defencemen who can move the puck, that allows you to get on the forecheck. Both Los Angeles and Boston have great defence who can head-man the puck and get them out of trouble."
“You gotta be able to transition,” Detroit GM Ken Holland said during the Wings’ series with the Blackhawks, who employ the stretch pass better than any team in the game.
“You gotta defend, but part of transition is having great defencemen, defencemen with the ability to get the puck and — instead of just going up the wall and chipping it to safety — quickly get the puck into the hands of the forwards, so you can head off in the other direction.
“Those are the types of teams you want to build. We’d like to get bigger in some areas, but I still believe the elite puck-moving defenceman is as valuable as any player in the game.”
Enter the Blackhawks. On a white horse.
The Penguins, alas, are on the way to proving that even the very best skill and panache don’t get it done against a well-coached team that’s committed to pushing the opposition’s top players out of the game through irritation or intimidation, or just hard-nosed defence. (And, goaltending woes aside, one look at the Pittsburgh blue line and it’s frankly hard to believe the Pens got this far.)
Joel Quenneville’s Hawks, though, are a different breed. A hybrid, one step up from the Red Wings, who surprise opponents with a general toughness that belies their physical appearance.
These Blackhawks have the most of the most: better top-end talent, better scoring depth, better speed throughout the lineup. Size, too, in forwards like the aptly-nicknamed Hoss, Marian Hossa, and Jonathan Toews and playoff stud Bryan Bickell, and a deep blue line that was comfortably able to compensate for the loss to suspension of their best defenceman, Duncan Keith, in Game 4 Thursday.
They are so good, in fact, that they only need goalie Corey Crawford to be average and not give up too many softies. He gave one up Thursday to Dustin Penner, and the Hawks survived it.
So if Chicago happens to win it all this year, will the game be rescued from its cynical tendencies?
Sure. All teams need to do is draft a lot of high-end players, let them develop for five years, fill in with canny acquisitions, have four terrific lines and five high-end defencemen, and keep them all together in a salary cap system.
Good luck with that.
If there’s any truth to the idea that hockey is headed in a negative direction, it’s only because the team that’s got it all is too damned hard to build. Getting there the other way is slightly more attainable.
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