The presence of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin
on the Penguins’ roster and a pair of talkative Russian sharpshooters named Alexander – Ovechkin and Semin – has made Pittsburgh and Washington a game which gathers the attention of sports fans nationwide, especially after a thrilling seven-game series in the second round of the 2009 postseason.
While fans wait for the next high-drama contest with either of the Penguins’ two fiercest rivals, a Western Conference foe enters Mellon Arena at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday night with a team that if the Penguins looked in a proverbial mirror, they might just see a reflection of themselves.
“It’s kind of like this is our one time to see some of these kids and how they’re progressing and how they’re playing,” head coach Dan Bylsma said of the Chicago Blackhawks. “There will be a little bit more of a buzz to the game I think.”
The buzz surrounding the Penguins and Blackhawks facing off took a blow on Saturday morning when it was revealed that Crosby will miss the game with a sore groin. Crosby also sat out the Penguins’ 5-4 victory over Chicago on Feb. 27 of last year.
Chicago’s path to the top of the Western Conference is eerily similar to the one the Penguins have used to blaze through the Eastern Conference. The Blackhawks missed the playoffs nine of 10 years from 1997-98 thru 2007-08, yet a couple high draft picks, some shrewd offseason additions and a re-capturing of a city’s heart have made them one of the league’s marquee attractions once again.
they have a lot of skill. We should expect a real fast-paced game. They try to play a similar style to us. They try to go, go, go. They have a lot of speed. It should be a skillful and back-and-forth kind of game. - Sidney Crosby
“They have a lot of skill,” Crosby said. “We should expect a real fast-paced game. They try to play a similar style to us. They try to go, go, go. They have a lot of speed. It should be a skillful and back-and-forth kind of game.”
The Blackhawks are able to play at such a fast pace because of the presence of captain Jonathan Toews, 21, and right winger Patrick Kane, also 21, Chicago’s version of Crosby and Malkin. As is the case with the Penguins’ dynamic duo, Toews and Kane are complete players capable of passing, shooting and playing sound defense, in addition to being great leaders at such a young age.
For those reasons, and because of the aforementioned fact that they have totally revitalized hockey in the Windy City, making the United Center the place to be during the winter months, management gave them matching five-year contract extensions on Thursday afternoon.
“They are sort of the Crosby and Malkin over there,” said Craig Adams
, who spent 71 games with Chicago between 2007-09 before coming to Pittsburgh. “They have built their marketing campaign around them and they fueled their resurgence of their team. They are important to that city.”
Kane, the 2007-08 Calder Trophy winner, keeps fans at the edge of their seats with unreal stickhandling moves to complement his world-class speed and devastating wrist shot. The Blackhawks leading scorer with 26 points through 26 games also paces the squad with nine goals. He is one of the players Team USA will be counting on to scorer goals at the 2010 Olympic Games in February.
It is rare to find a young player so refined in all areas – including the defensive end – but the Blackhawks have one in their 21-year-old leader, Toews. Kane provides the electricity and Toews simply does all the little things – backchecks, kills penalties and scores often. He led Chicago with 34 goals last season.
Much like the Penguins have a third “franchise player” in netminder Marc-Andre Fleury
, Chicago has a third-wheel in the form of all-around defenseman Duncan Keith. In addition to improving his offensive numbers each of the past three seasons, Keith has also posted back-to-back plus/minus figures of plus-30 and plus-33. Only Dan Boyle of the San Jose Sharks logs more ice time than Keith’s 26:44 through Friday.
Along with the deals presented to Toews and Kane, Chicago management locked up their Norris Trophy candidate on Thursday for what appears to be the remainder of his career with an astounding 13-year contract.
“He can do it all,” Adams said. “You don’t get a contract like that if you can’t. He is a heck of a player. He can skate, he can shoot and he is great defensively with his stick. He plays big minutes.”
Keith’s deal allows Chicago to join a growing trend around the league of locking up young players to long-term deals.
“Those guys are the three main guys,” Brooks Oprik said. “Some other teams have tried to do it too, like Philadelphia, with the longer contracts. It is one of the new things with the CBA. I think so far it has worked well for the player and the team.”
“They had a couple big signings for their team,” Jordan Staal
said. “They have a lot of talent in that group. It’s going to be a great challenge.”
With their core secured Chicago has been able to add the necessary complementary pieces they hope leads to the team taking the next step and breaking the Stanley Cup Final barrier after last season reaching the Western Conference finals.
They’re definitely up-and-coming. Last year was a big year for them in their playoff run. They made a couple more signings this summer. - Jordan Staal
“They’re definitely up-and-coming,” Staal said. “Last year was a big year for them in their playoff run. They made a couple more signings this summer.”
No signing sent higher shock waves through the National Hockey League than the 12-year deal Chicago gave to Marian Hossa – yes, that Marian Hossa.
The dead horse that is the Hossa story does not need to be beat once more. To briefly summarize, Hossa came to the Penguins at the 2008 trading deadline; helped lead the team to within two wins of the 2008 Stanley Cup against the Detroit Red Wings; bolted Pittsburgh for Detroit less than three weeks later, saying Detroit gave him a better chance at a Cup; and finally ate those words in June when the Penguins game back from down three-games-to-two to dethrone the Red Wings for the 2009 Cup.
While the fans will be ready to continue their verbal taunting of Hossa, the Penguins’ players have moved on, especially since they got what they desired, personal dates with Lord Stanley.
“We probably forgot about that whole thing a long time ago,” Crosby said. “With what we went through last year during the playoffs I don’t think it can be talked about even close to as much as it was during the playoffs.”
“It will be a good chance to see him,” Orpik said. “I think it is just a chance to see a former teammate that you got along with and helped us get to the Stanley Cup Final (in 2008). There is no bitterness from my side.”
Watching Hossa perform during that magical run in 2008 when he scored 12 goals and 14 assists playing with Crosby and Pascal Dupuis
showed the Penguins what a difference maker the Slovak star can be.
“Hossa can play well on both sides of the rink,” Staal said. “He knows how to score goals. He’s got great speed. Him, along with the other players, you can’t give him time and space.”
The Penguins have surrounded their top talent with a group of abrasive forecheckers who offer a diversified complement of secondary scorers. Chicago features players of this ilk as well in wingers Kris Versteeg, Patrick Sharp and Dustin Byfuglien, each of whom has eight goals to go with their physical play.
“They have a lot of good depth,” said Jay McKee, who faced Chicago plenty of times while a member of the Blackhawks’ division rival, the St. Louis Blues.
“They have a good balance on their team. If you have all skilled guys you can get pushed around a bit but they have a good mixture of guys and that is why they are good.”
One final similarity between the Penguins and Blackhawks is the way both teams involve their highly-skilled blueliners into the offensive attack. Keith’s exploits have already been documented, but in addition the Penguins must keep their head on a swivel to keep tabs on Brian Campbell, a 52-point scorer last season who is more a fourth forward than he is your typical defenseman.
“The D get involved and the D are always part of the play,” Bylsma said. “They play a game that can give teams fits and they do it with a lot of skill. It’ll be interesting to see how we butt heads and how we get to our game, they get to they’re game, if they can put us back on our heels.”
All of which adds up to a great night of hockey for the fans Saturday night at Mellon Arena.
“It’s an exciting challenge,” Staal said. “It should be a good game.”