It's question and answer time for the Chicago Blackhawks.
The question is: How will they slow down the line of Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Jori Lehtera in tonight's must-win Game 5?
The answer will determine whether the defending champs live to fight another day.
The Tarasenko line has been the difference in a series that St. Louis leads 3-1. It was at its absolute best on Tuesday, accounting for three goals and six points in the 4–3 Blues win, including a pair of jaw-dropping strikes from the man they call The Tank.
The unit has combined for five goals and 11 points in the series, but even when it's not scoring it's dominating possession and keeping the Hawks pinned down in their own zone.
It's a matchup that highlights the loss of defenseman Johnny Oduya over the summer. His former partner, Niklas Hjalmarsson, is still one of the best in the game and has taken on the bulk of the minutes against the Tarasenko line. But he's something less than he was last year and so he's been getting drummed in the process, spending most of his time chasing the play. Duncan Keith and Trevor van Riemsdyk are doing slightly better, but they're still getting the worst of the matchup.
And because they're struggling to hold the line, Chicago's offense can't get out of the blocks. Top-six forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Andrew Ladd and Artemi Panarin have combined for 64 shots in the series, but have scored just one goal—that, by Panarin, was an empty netter.
You'd expect that group to rise to meet the challenge tonight, just as they have so many times during the past seven years. Defending champs rarely go this quietly. But in order to get them moving in the right direction, the Hawks first have to stall The Tank.
They couldn't do it in Chicago, where they had the benefit of last change. Now in St. Louis, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock will have control of the matchups. That might be one challenge too many for the Hawks.
• One lineup change has been confirmed for the Hawks tonight. David Rundblad is drawing in on the third D pair. Michal Rozsival is out.
Rundblad was a first-round selection of the Blues in 2009, who later was swapped to the Senators for Ottawa's first pick in the 2010 draft. The player selected by the Blues with that pick: Vladimir Tarasenko.
And now you know...the rest of the story.
• Of all the first-round series, it's the Detroit–Tampa Bay tilt that's featured the most special teams play. Through the first four games, the Bolts have put the Wings on the man-advantage a league-high 21 times. Detroit's returned the favor with 19 power plays for Tampa Bay.
No surprise then the the series has turned on special teams as well.
The Bolts are up three games to one, with a chance to clinch tonight at home, because they've made better use of their opportunities at both ends of the ice. They've scored four goals on the power play, including three in a 3–2 win on Tuesday night, while holding the Wings to a single strike with the man advantage.
For the Wings then, their survival hinges on their special teams.
“It’s not like they’re not having an impact on the series from their play,” Blashill said, “but we need more production from multiple people, including them.”
• The New York Rangers are the only team in NHL history to rebound from a 3-1 series deficit two years in a row. If they hope to avoid having to make it three, they need to address their special teams problems as well.
The Blueshirts have just one power play goal on 12 chances through their first three games against the Penguins, and that one came on a 5-on-3 opportunity back in Game 1. They've also coughed up four goals to Pittsburgh on 13 man-advantages.
It's no surprise the Pens are finishing, not with the talent they have at their disposal. But it's their PK that has the Rangers in a knot. They're slowing the Blueshirts down in the neutral zone, and forcing New York to dump the puck rather than carry it in on the attack. Then it's a matter of winning more than their share of the 50/50 puck battles and sending the Rangers scurrying back into their own end.
Clearly there are execution issues. The Rangers are guilty of being too cute, passing on chances to shoot in favor of trying one too many passes. But it all starts with possession. And that means outworking the Pens down low.
“Execution is a big part of this, but there is also will and there is also compete level that goes along with execution," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "Those puck battles, whether it be 5-on-5, 5-on-4, 4-on-5, that you need to get to first.”
• Not to take anything away from Frederik Andersen, but the story of Anaheim's Game 3 win over the Predators wasn't his 27-save shutout. It was the penalty kill and how it sucked the life out of Nashville's attack.
The Preds had five chances with the extra man and generated nothing close to a high-end scoring chance. The Ducks did a masterful job of holding their blue line, preventing Nashville from making the clean zone entries that came so easily in Games 1 and 2. And when they did get the puck deep, they couldn't get any kind of presence in front of Andersen. It was one and done, over and over.
The Ducks would love to repeat that effort, but less frequently in tonight's Game 4. That won't be easy. Anaheim spent 500:18 on the PK during the regular season, second only to Arizona. No one expects them to post a clean sheet, but digging deep and playing a more disciplined brand of hockey could be the key to regaining control of this series.