By JESSE ROGERS
If I could have one thing for Christmas, it would be the return of the “zone time” stat. I know, kind of boring, but I’m dying to know how much time the Hawks have spent in their own zone this season.
Up until a few years ago, the NHL kept track of such a thing just as they do shots, hits, blocked shots, etc. I have no idea why they got rid of it, but it would be useful to show exactly how dominant the Hawks have been.
Sunday night was another vivid example of how the Hawks continue to limit opponent’s chances while putting the pressure on the other team. It’s not just about the puck possession game the forwards play. The defense has been instrumental in this amazing domination.
When the Hawks were struggling on offense a little while ago, Patrick Sharp used the term “one and done” to describe how they were playing. In other words, the puck goes in the offensive zone, maybe there’s a shot or a scoring chance, and then it’s out again. There was no sustained pressure.
While the Hawks have had a handful of games defined by that, it aptly describes what the opposition has to go through on an almost nightly basis. Detroit got the puck in, but it came out soon after.
The top four defensemen had a great night, and have had a great season. If there is a surprise of the year it’s the pair of Niklas Hjamarlsson and Brian Campbell. They are a combined Plus-23 so far. That’s one better than the top pair of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Now like any stat, especially plus/minus, it is a little misleading. Seabrook and Keith play more minutes and play against the other team’s best players, but still, it is impressive what “Hammer” and “Soupy” have done on both ends of the ice. Campbell, for one, is playing his best hockey since arriving in Chicago.
Back to Sunday. On the other end of the ice, the Hawks sustained the pressure which adds up on a goaltender. By the time Dustin Byfuglien put in a weak goal, maybe Chris Osgood had become a bit weary. In any case, as has been stated ad nauseum, the amount of time in the offensive zone is, ironically, part of the reason for the Hawks’ great defense. It’s like keeping the ball away from Peyton Manning with a time-eating offense.
This brings me to goaltending, specifically Cristobal Huet. Looking back, it’s possible his early season struggles may have had to do with getting used to this style of play. Any goaltender will tell you it’s a double-edged sword not facing a lot of shots or pressure. It makes for an easy night on one hand, but when that pressure does come, a “cold” goalie might be vulnerable.
“I didn’t see the puck for the first 15 minutes,” Huet explaind. “That’s to tell you a little bit about what kind of team we are. I try to make some saves when the team really needs me. Sometimes it’s not easy because even though the scoring chances are there, we don’t have a lot of shots [against], so you have to make that key save, especially at the beginning, and the team feeds off of that.”
Translation: Even without facing a lot of shots, a goalie has to make that first one or two hard saves to keep things going in the right direction. Huet has certainly gotten better at it.
If defense wins championships, the Hawks are on the right path. After their third shutout in four games, the Hawks are back to giving up just two goals per game. It’s worth mentioning again. No team in the post-lockout, free wheeling era has given up two goals or less, per game, for an entire season. The Hawks are nearly halfway there.
The Hawks are the only team in the NHL with two goaltenders who have three or more shutouts. In fact, they’re the only team with goaltenders who have two or more shutouts. Not bad.
As you’d expect, Joel Quenneville is liking his line combinations to the point where, much to the delight of fans I’m sure, he doesn’t plan on juggling anytime soon. “I like our lines,” Quenneville said after the Detroit win. “Coming into this home stand here, our production was way down, [but] we’ve progressed here where we are comfortable and are not thinking of tinkering the lines. Things are ok.”
Ben Eager missed a second straight contest with an upper body injury presumed to be related to his past concussion problems. Quenneville praised Bryan Bickell for his two games playing in Eager’s place.
NHL Rankings are out courtesy of Espn.com. Pierre Lebrun has the Hawks back on top, up from sixth a week ago. Three shutouts during a four-game winning streak will do that. I’m still not convinced the Hawks are better than Pittsburgh in a playoff series though. We’ll see how they fare against New Jersey, who’s ranked second, on New Year’s Eve.