1. Chicago's neck-and-neck with St. Louis for the division right now. What do you think will be the key for the Blackhawks in the division race down the stretch? Do you see them coming out on top?
The St. Louis Blues are a far better team this season than they were last season. They currently have three games in hand on the Blackhawks and are one point behind in the standings. The Blackhawks will have a little more rest than the Blues as the season winds up so this may be a benefit to Chicago. The Blues have a weaker strength of schedule in terms of possession teams than the Blackhawks do for the rest of the season though.
Who takes the top spot in the division is a tossup right now, but I believe it will be a close race to the end of the season between the Blackhawks and Blues. The Blues PDO is at 101.2, which is a bit inflated. Their shooting percentage is inflated as they are currently second in the league behind only Anaheim Ducks, so I would expect some regression from them in that regard.
To get themselves in good position for the playoffs, the Blackhawks will need to tighten up their play. For the last month, things have been a bit sloppy. The team looked great against the Ducks and the Boston Bruins recently, but has been playing below their own standards otherwise. The call up of center Brandon Pirri will give Coach Joel Quenneville more options to use in his line blender as well.
2. Hypothetical situation: Calgary beats the Blackhawks tonight (hey, look, we can dream a little). What would they do?
In order to beat the Blackhawks tonight, the Flames will need to hinder the defensemen’s ability to make the stretch passes. The Blackhawks have used this tactic to great success over the past several seasons. Even if there is a defenseman in the neutral zone or at his own blue line, when the Blackhawks have easy zone entries their opponents are left to deal with one of the most high powered offensive attacks in the league. Another thing for the Flames to capitalize on would be the sloppiness of the passing that the Blackhawks have been showing recently. When the cute passes work, they are the stuff of highlight reels but all too often recently, they have not been working particularly well. Staying out of the penalty box would serve the Flames well as the Blackhawks have the 5th ranked Power Play in the league. Finally, Reto Berra will need to be on top of his game obviously.
3. The Blackhawks have the most overtime losses in the NHL with 12. What's been the biggest factor there?
The Blackhawks struggles in overtime are a complete mystery. Much like their problems on the power play last season, it would seem this high powered offense is only allowed to have so much success each season. Part of it is probably overly-conservative defensive play in order to avoid giving up a breakaway. That is the exact opposite of the team’s normal method. Perhaps the focus on the defensive aspect takes enough effort away from the offensive schemes that they just aren’t aggressive enough to make it happen. Like I said, it’s a bit mind boggling at this point.
Fun note: Reto Berra has never won in regulation, but he has never lost in overtime or the shootout, and the Blackhawks lose in overtime all the time. I think we all know what needs to happen here.
4. Seems the Hawks blogosphere has been a little worried about newly re-signed Bryan Bickell. What's going on there? Has his injury been a big problem or are there other issues?
I have paid the situation with Bryan Bickell great attention over the past several weeks. I wrote an in depth analysis of his career numbers in order to address the outcry over how his season has been going. People on Twitter are probably ready to block me over this issue because I’ve been a little worked up about it. As for what’s going on with Bickell, he injured one of his knees at the end of the Western Conference Final last season and spent the summer trying to heal. On November 19th, he was driving the net and when he tried to avoid the goaltender, slid into the goal post injuring his other knee. Bickell has been skating with two knee braces and recently went down to one, but admitted that the braces hinder his skating.
A big part of Bickell’s game is his physicality at least as far as the coaching staff sees it. They want "more" from him and have benched him a few times and scratched him for the last game against the Winnipeg Jets. One of the big stories has been that he doesn’t have the confidence he did before. At this point, it seems like he is getting his confidence back and then gets in trouble for one bad shift. His possession numbers have been excellent since he was benched against the San Jose Sharks. His goal production is on course to match his rates from previous seasons but his assist rate is down. All in all, I think he will continue to be in the doghouse for a while and when the Olympics distract everyone, the focus will shift to the push for the playoffs where Bickell has seen terrific success.
5. You've been a strong proponent of "fancy stats" on SCH and I, for one, am a big fan of seeing them incorporated into daily posts and discussions. How's the reception been with that kind of thing? Do you find fans are becoming more accustomed to seeing more advanced metrics used for player and team evaluation?
I’m very excited about the potential for advanced or expanded stats in hockey. Corsi, Fenwick and other methods of measurements lead to a greater understanding of the game we all love. There are so many people much smarter than I doing terrific work in these areas. I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about advanced stats for the past year by reading as many articles written by smart people as I can. I follow those same smart people on Twitter and frankly just reading the discussions about stats being applied to games or players is very helpful to understanding them.
It seems like each NHL team is getting a person or two who decide to take up the stats cause for the team on social media. This is great because the more people are talking about it, the more people will be learning. I’ve had a very positive reaction to the advanced stats focus I’ve used not only on Twitter but also in articles that I’ve written for Second City Hockey. Luckily for me, I know some terrifically smart hockey people who have been very supportive of this process in social media settings and we are all continuing to learn together. The great thing is that I get questions every day on Twitter and in the discussion on the site about advanced stats. I see that as a growing desire among fans to become conversant and knowledgeable with regard to advanced stats, which is really quite wonderful.
You can read some more of Jen's Stats Made Simple posts at SCH: Part 1, Corsi & Fenwick and Part 2, Score Close & Score Effects. Be sure to follow her on Twitter at @bhawksfanjen and check out Second City Hockey for more coverage ahead of the game tonight. You can also check out Jen's questions for me.