The Blackhawks look to tame the Blue Jackets offense while keeping their own on high octane. A dedicated defensive effort for a full 60 would be a pivotal factor to accomplish this feat.
And don't look now but the Hawks have the best power play conversion rate in the NHL. Technically they are tied with the Sabres but have 4 more goals albeit in just as many more games.
The penalty kill is another story as it has plummeted to the bottom third of the league after incrementally rising up the charts from middle third to top third over the last few weeks.
Game 21, February 25:
Blackhawks @ Blue Jackets
Blackhawks, 10-6-4, 24 Pts (4th)
Blue Jackets, 8-7-5, 21 Pts (5th)
Blackhawks, 21-63, 33.3% (1st)
Blue Jackets, 10-50, 20.0% (18th)
Blackhawks, 49-64, 76.6% (21st)
Blue Jackets, 33-46, 71.7% (27th)
The Jackets top line of Jack Roslovic centering Patrik Laine and Cam Atkinson proved again why they are a three-headed monster needing to be contained or else pay for it on the scoreboard.
The Hawks should add Oliver Bjorkstrand to that watch list as well. Bjorkstrand is becoming a Hawk killer with his oddly quiet yet pesky forecheck and knack for scoring backbreaking goals.
For the Hawks lineup, expect it to remain at 12F/6D tonight with two possible tweaks to consider: Malcolm Subban in for Kevin Lankinen and Reese Johnson in for Matthew Highmore.
If the Hawks decide to go back to 11F/7D, Nicolas Beaudin could draw in again on the blueline while Highmore gets scratched. Another option could be having Wyatt Kalynuk make his debut.
The Gold Standard
Is Brandon Hagel the gold standard now for the Blackhawks forward prospects who project to be role players at the NHL level?
Although all rookies who have appeared in Chicago's lineup this season have demonstrated a high compete level, Hagel's compete level is through the roof and by a fairly sizable margin.
Hagel's endless motor is discernible in all zones and from the time he jumps over the boards to the time he exits for a rest. His relentlessness is also a thorn in the side of the opponent.
While he was an offensive juggernaut in juniors and has been snake bitten on his NHL scoring chances until the last game, scoring goals really isn't Hagel's calling card in the pros.
Hagel will eventually find his offensive groove but more so as a secondary scorer. Once he hits his water level, being a 3rd liner capable of 15 goals (30-35 points) isn't out of the question.
However, what Hagel delivers in spades that will cement his job security in the NHL is the ability to convert his energetic play into results that matter at both ends of the rink.
Those results include hunting down pucks, forcing turnovers, killing the other team's offensive zone momentum, extending the Hawks offensive zone time, and scoring opportune goals.
There is a prevailing perspective, though, that role players are a dime a dozen. Generally, that is true. Yet, Hagel is cut from a different cloth making him more of a rarity than a commonality.
His tireless hustle, blazing speed, and magnetism for the puck are a lethal combination. Couple that with being defensively responsible and Hagel truly becomes a unique gem.
Let's compare Hagel to some recent role players who have worn the Blackhawks sweater: Ryan Hartman, Vincent Hinostroza, Tanner Kero, Joakim Nordstrom, Dennis Rasmussen, and Ben Smith.
Of the current forwards on the Hawks roster, Highmore and Johnson likely top out as "dime a dozen" players. Same with first year Rockford players Mitch Fossier, Chris Wilkie, and Chad Yetman.
This collection of former and current Hawks is part of an ongoing carousel of whoever is serviceable at the moment yet expendable in the long run until someone else newer and better comes along.
In other words, the aforementioned players may struggle to make it in the NHL as a starter or continue to toil in that "just a guy" category on whatever team they are on presently.
Hagel is showing that he isn't "just a guy" and is instead putting on display every shift why he has staying power to impact a game regardless of whether or not he dents the scoresheet.
As the gold standard, other prospects in the system are going to be measured up against Hagel to determine if they have what it takes to not be a "dime a dozen" player in the pros.
AHL prospects who could be in the Hagel mold are Andrei Altybarmakian, Evan Barratt, MacKenzie Entwistle, and Tim Soderlund. Landon Slaggert fits the bill as an NCAA hopeful.
Altybarmakian and Soderlund have the same frenetic energy as Hagel playing like their hair is on fire. What they need to do is harness that spirit and vigor into productive results.
Barratt and Slaggert play with an aggressive and almost reckless abandon reminiscent of Hagel. They also have offensive pedigrees that make them valuable plug-ins up and down the lineup.
As for Entwistle, he does all the little things that help a team win that coaches simply love. Like Hagel, Entwistle also takes care of his end first then joins the rush with offensive flair.
See you on the boards!