Blackhawks Face Familiar Challenge After Game Three

Niklas Hjalmarsson couldn't keep this puck out of the net.

After falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime on Wednesday night, the Blackhawks will look back at a game in which both teams were as sloppy as they were lucky, and as physical as they were precise.

Patrick Kane scoring on a breakaway in Game 3

The good for Chicago is that Patrick Kane appears to have found his game. Before Game Three, we discussed the similarities between the Olympic tournament and the beginning of the Finals for Kane, and he responded just as we predicted with a big game on Wednesday night. Kane had an assist on Duncan Keith’s goal (while skating with Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp), and then scored a pretty goal on a nice lead pass from Jonathan Toews that led to a breakaway try early in the third.

Antti Niemi was good, but not great in Game Three. The deal-breaker came just 20 seconds after Kane gave the Hawks a 3-2 lead in the third period. Ville Leino, who played a spectacular game, put back a rebound that tied the game at three. The Flyers dominated the third period from there, outshooting the Blackhawks 15-4 in the period.

Leino and Danny Briere continue to make life miserable for the Blackhawks. In addition to the tying goal, Leino was credited with two hits and a game-high five takeaways. Briere continues to establish a strong case for the Conn Smythe, as he added a goal and assisted on the game-winning tally in overtime. He also won 75 percent of his faceoffs (9/12) in the game. Briere (24) now trails Jonathan Toews (27) by just three points for the overall postseason lead.

The familiar challenge for the Blackhawks, though, is a team adjusting to their depth in the middle of a series. The Flyers are attacking the Blackhawks with a similar mission as the Nashville Predators did, but the Flyers have more talent at nearly every position on their depth chart than the Preds. Nashville was, by far, the toughest series for Chicago in these playoffs, and the Finals are now a wide-open series after the Flyers cut the Hawks’ lead in half on Wednesday night.

Perhaps the most significant adjustment Peter Laviolette and his coaching staff have made is attacking the Blackhawks when they’re overcoaching themselves. Joel Quenneville has won nearly every matchup over the last two rounds, no matter if they were at home or on the road. Where Nashville was successful against the Hawks, and where Philadelphia is now finding a soft spot in the Hawks depth, is attacking when the Hawks go for a quick change.

The most obvious example of this was on the shift that won the game for the Flyers, but the Flyers have had success throughout the series by being aggressive when the Hawks skate for the bench. Most teams this year, including Vancouver and San Jose, became preoccupied with the Hawks’ depth and, when the Hawks changed, would follow suit and dump the puck to get a change of their own. That isn’t how to beat the Blackhawks.

Philadelphia is playing the Hawks kinetic benchwork perfectly, and won Game Three because of it. To beat the Hawks, the best approach is to carry the puck into the offensive zone and have all five skaters get aggressive on the attack. On the game-winning goal, the puck was carried into the zone, followed by a quick horizontal pass and a diagonal drive to Claude Giroux who tipped the shot home.

The Blackhawks must counter this approach by focusing on changing at appropriate times. It appeared that the bench called for the quick change in overime that led to a four-on-two to end the contest, and that will be noted when the team breaks down film on Thursday. The Hawks have to get the puck deep, or control it with their defensemen in the defensive zone, to get their forwards off the ice appropriately.

There will be more adjustments from both coaches before Friday night’s Game Four, and the chess match will continue on the ice.

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