Niklas Hjalmarsson

Expecting a bloodbath in Chicago tonight for Sabres-Blackhawks? Think again

With Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson coming back tonight from his two-game suspension for his hit from behind on Buffalo Sabres forward Jason Pominville, his return to the ice comes at a rather peculiar time as the Blackhawks face the Sabres once again tonight in Chicago. Revenge is on the mind of many fans and perhaps on the minds of some Sabres players (Patrick Kaleta most notably) but is there a reason to think that tonight’s game will go the way of “Slap Shot” and turn into a game-long brouhaha? Perhaps yes, but it won’t happen for the reasons you think it will.

The Sabres go into tonight’s game with Chicago struggling. Struggling to win, struggling to score goals, struggling in most facets of the game. They’re 1-3-1 to start the year, and the only win came opening night against Ottawa, 2-1 over the Senators. Since that game, they’ve been inconsistent as anything. Either their defense has let down goalie Ryan Miller the way it did against the Rangers in a 6-3 loss and the Blackhawks in a 4-3 loss, or the offense has disappeared the way it did losing in overtime to the Devils 1-0 or their loss to Montreal last night 2-1. It’s all part of the bumps in the road early in the season when trying to find your way, but the Sabres are looking for a spark to get them going. Enter Niklas Hjalmarsson.

Tonight, the Sabres get the match needed to light their fire in getting to have their “revenge” game against the Blackhawks so soon after Hjalmarsson’s hit on Jason Pominville that’s knocked him out of the lineup since then. With the teams being in opposite conferences, it’s rare that they get to play each other again so soon or even a second time at all. While the Sabres may look to settle the score with Hjalmarsson via fisticuffs, and the Blackhawks should be ready for this and expect something to happen, this is the exact kind of catalyst the Sabres need to get going.

After all, if the team can’t rally together to stand up for their fallen teammate and get back at the team that took him out and beat them on the scoreboard last weekend, where else do you go from there? The Sabres are already a grumpy team as last night’s loss got Lindy Ruff up in arms with the play of some of his forwards, most notably Tim Connolly.

Having a frustrated team come into this situation is the sort of thing that all-out brawls can be made of, but settling things out recklessly like that with no regard for the game isn’t going to help the Sabres overall. They’ll need to bottle those emotions and release them in the form of playing better hockey. Settle the score with Hjalmarsson early in the game (and by the books, no dirty hits) and then ride that emotional high to win the game.

For you fans with a ravenous blood lust and hoping for a line brawl and a tussle like you used to see in the 70s and 80s, you might want to look elsewhere for your testosterone rage tonight. That’s not to say you’re going to see a bad game tonight in Chicago, in fact you might see one of the best ones of the night there. Games where everyone is playing with a hot head and on the edge are great, just look at the playoffs. Expect that sort of intensity tonight from the Sabres, just don’t go expecting everyone and their brother to be putting on the foil.

Hitchcock believes Blues’ Allen is ‘locked up mentally’

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 08: Jake Allen #34 of the St. Louis Blues makes the third period save against the New York Islanders at the Barclays Center on December 8, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Things were already rough for the St. Louis Blues and their goalies (particularly still-pretty-newly crowned No. 1 Jake Allen) heading into Thursday, but the Washington Capitals really highlighted those issues in a 7-3 thrashing.

Blues fans and management must be wondering, then: what’s wrong with their goalies, especially with Allen? Head coach Ken Hitchcock seems resigned to allowing him to fight through it, if nothing else.

“There’s a lot going on right now. … He’s kind of locked up mentally and he’s going to have to fight through this,” Hitchock said, according to Lou Korac of NHL.com. “What we see at practice, we like. That’s why we put him in quite frankly.”

Alex Pietrangelo did the typical deflecting thing, nothing that this is a “team” and that there are “no individuals.”

Still, Hitchcock’s longer press conference makes you wonder how much trust there is in Allen and Carter Hutton.

From Hitch’s perspective, it sure sounds like he believes that the Blues are over-correcting to try to limit “goals, shots.” By trying to do too much, they might be putting themselves in bad positions. And that might stem from a lack of confidence in the guys in net, or in the team’s work in their own zone overall.

Let’s be honest. As much as we can play chicken-or-the-egg as far as a defense’s impact on a goalie, it’s tough to explain away save percentages under .900 in the modern NHL. At some point, your team needs more stops.

With the races for the lower spots in the Western Conference’s playoff picture seemingly tightening up, the Blues don’t have a ton of time to figure this out.

Capitals shine glaring light on Blues’ goalie woes

ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 23:  Jake Allen #34 of the St. Louis Blues makes a save during the first period against the San Jose Sharks in Game Five of the Western Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center on May 23, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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If you’re reaction to the headline “Something is off about the St. Louis Blues” was “Yeah, their goaltending,” then Thursday only emboldened that opinion.

It wasn’t just that the Washington Capitals bombarded the Blues by a score of 7-3. It’s that they really didn’t need to fire a whole lot of shots on goal to get to seven.

Here’s a harsh rule of thumb: when both of your goalies play in a game and each one barely makes more saves than goals allowed, that’s an awful night. Take a look at what Jake Allen and Carter Hutton went through:

Allen: six saves, four goals allowed in 25:11 time on ice
Hutton: five saves, three goals allowed in 35:49

Allen got pulled from the contest twice, by the way. He’s been pulled from four games since Dec. 30. Woof.

Even before these horrendous performances, the Blues goalies have been shaky. Hutton came into tonight with an ugly .898 save percentage; Allen wasn’t much better with a .900 mark.

Those are the type of numbers that would make Dallas Stars fans cringe, or at least experience some uncomfortable familiarity.

Now, is it all on Hutton and Allen? Much like with the Stars’ embattled goalies, much of the struggles probably come down to a team struggling in front of them.

Even so, if you assign more of the blame to Allen and Hutton, nights like this Capitals thrashing definitely strengthen your argument. Yikes.

Rangers overwhelm Leafs, make life pretty easy for Lundqvist in win

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 19:  Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers faces a shot in the warm-up prior to play against the Toronto Maple Leafs in an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on January 19, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Heading into Thursday, many were wondering how the New York Rangers will handle Henrik Lundqvist‘s struggles. Instead, the focus shifted to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ difficulties, perhaps specifically in dealing with Morgan Rielly‘s absence.

The Rangers handily won this one 5-2, at least giving Lundqvist the win. He wasn’t especially busy, stopping 23 out of 25 shots, so you can probably file his story under “To be continued.”

Lundqvist wasn’t oblivious to his team’s impressive overall play.

Really, it was all about the waves of attackers the Rangers can send at opponents and the trouble that caused for the Maple Leafs. It wasn’t the easiest night for Frank Corrado, in particular, who took a couple costly penalties.

The Rangers’ next two games come in a road contest vs. the Red Wings on Sunday and a home game against the Kings on Monday. Perhaps those matches will serve as a better barometer for where Lundqvist’s really at, as he passed tonight’s test … but it wasn’t a particularly difficult one.

So, is Mike Condon actually really good? He certainly was against Columbus

OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 8: Mike Condon #1 of the Ottawa Senators stands at the bench during a break in a game against the Edmonton Oilers at Canadian Tire Centre on January 8, 2017 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
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Considering their numbers heading in, many were perplexed when the Ottawa Senators essentially replaced Andrew Hammond with Mike Condon. Now many are perplexed by just how strong Condon’s often been for Ottawa.

Thursday might stand as the prime example that this guy could be better than many expected.

The Columbus Blue Jackets dominated much of the play, generating a 42-28 shots on goal advantage, but Ottawa ended up winning 2-0 tonight.

Condon already came into tonight with a solid save percentage (.915 before this shutout), and he’s now won four of his last five games. Three of his four career shutouts have come this season.

Ignoring his one relief appearance with Pittsburgh this season for the sake of simplicity, just consider his tough times with Montreal last season. He went 21-25-6 with a shaky .903 save percentage.

This marks just his 21st start and 23rd appearance of this season, so it’s not a guaranteee for future results. Still … it’s another example that goalies are as just about as unpredictable as they are crucial to a team’s fate.

More and more, it seems like Condon might just be a difference-maker, and in the positive sense this time around.