Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Game 4 Tonight

As I sit here in the business centre (yes, we're in Canada, it's a centre) preparing for tonight's broadcast, a few things come to mind:

First, great effort by the Hawks last night in securing the 5-4 victory in game 3. They battled hard, capitalized on powerplay opportunities, and deserved the victory. Ryan Johansen and Joe Morrow continue their hot play, with Johansen notching 3 assists, and Morrow chipping in a goal and an assist. Back-to-back multi-point nights for both of those players.

Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter each eclipsed the 30 point plateau for their postseason careers. Now both averaging more than 1.5 points per game in the playoffs over the past two seasons. They elevate their play when things get tighter in the postseason, and almost seem to thrive on having less time and space to make their decisions. Columbus and the Islanders have to be excited on the way their prized 2010 NHL draft selections are progressing.

Brad Ross has now served 2 games of his 3 game suspension for the charging major that sent Zach Franko to the sidelines in game number 1. Neither player has played since the hit occurred. My two cents on the hit are that in today's atmosphere of hockey, where concussions and head checks are at the center of the consciousness, a hit like the one Ross delivered is almost automatically a suspendable offense. I don't believe there was any additional ill-intent by Ross in the check, it was an attempt at a physical play in what is turning out to be a very physical series. Franko never saw the hit coming til the last second, and though the WHL doesn't have a rule in the books against blindside hits to the head like the NHL does, it is still a dangerous play that is looked at severely by the league. The positive that fans of the Winterhawks can take out of this is the fact that the Hawks just continued with the gameplan despite the fact they were missing a point per game player in the regular season, a player who had scored in all 4 games of the Everett series. I'm sure Ross will be looking to add to that total when game 5 rolls around on Friday night.

Game 4 tonight at Prospera Place. Keys to the game for me are faceoff play, neutral zone discipline, and compete level in the corners. The Hawks have dominated the circle in games 2 and 3, which has directly led to 5 of their 11 goals in the last two games. The Hawks are difficult enough to cover in normal play, if you don't mark up on them at the dot, it is almost like gifting goals to one of the most talented teams in the league. In game 3 the Rockets capitalized a few times off of neutral zone turnovers by the Winterhawks, either to gain scoring chances or draw penalties. The two teams have seen what the other likes to run in their controlled breakout system, and now the time is coming for adjustments to those systems. Don't be surprised if the Hawks throw a new wrinkle or two in their neutral zone play tonight to try to break through Kelowna's defense. And I'd expect Kelowna coach Ryan Huska to do the same.

This series has been a physical one, and the corner play and battling is taking its toll now on both teams' defense corps. Now the time has come for the players to show true toughness in the corners. Toughness doesn't mean fighting, or charging halfway across the ice to finish a check. Now the type of toughness these teams have to show is the ability to take a check to make a play. Or to have a good second effort in the corner if you lose an original battle. Last night's contest saw 3 separate checking from behind penalties, and players were occasionally going over the edge on both sides. So which team comes back tonight and is willing to go into the corners hard again, knowing they may be blasted into the unforgiving endwalls? Don't be surprised if a defenseman or two on both sides is hesitant to go back and retrieve the puck. If they bail, they may pay on the scoresheet. Grit and a willingness to take punishment will be key.

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