The Hawks’ defensemen have done a good job getting their shots past the Oilers forwards trying to block them, and the Hawks’ forwards have done a good job creating traffic and tips in those shot lanes.
The scouting report entering this Blackhawks-Oilers series foretold of a wide-open, track meet-style offensive showdown.
Both teams have speed, are loaded with elite offensive playmakers, like to push the pace in transition and struggle mightily on defense, so it made sense the games might look like 60 minutes of 3-on-3 overtime.
The rate of scoring has indeed lived up to the billing. Three consecutive games with 6-4, 6-3 and 4-3 scores isn’t quite 1980s hockey, but it’s the closest the 21st century ever gets to Wayne Gretzky’s era.
The way those goals have been scored has been decidedly less end-to-end and decidedly more scrappy than expected, though — partially due to the rust of four months off, partially due to the inescapably poor ice conditions at the end of each day.
We’ve seen numerous goals deflect off well-intentioned defenders, two goals scored after egregious goaltender misplays and — after Jonathan Toews’ 5-on-3 “goal” Wednesday — one goal off a skate after the stick whiffed entirely.
One could argue a lot of those goals are based off more luck than skill, and they wouldn’t be wrong.
But there are still tactics NHL teams can employ to increase the odds luck will favor them, such as by having players in and around the goal, creating havoc, searching for deflections and wacky bounces. The Hawks have done that brilliantly, if not exactly beautifully.
“We found a way to score some dirty goals,” Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton said after his team’s Game 3 win.
To that point, both the tying and winning goals were deflected shots from the point: Slater Koekkoek’s shot was intentionally tipped down and in by Matthew Highmore, Connor Murphy’s shot unintentionally hit Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear and then skimmed Toews’ knee before going in.
“It’s always part of your game plan,” Murphy said. “Especially [since] our forwards draw good attention when they’re entering the zone… They do a good of drawing wingers down to them, and it leaves a couple of open shots [for our defensemen].”
Through the first three games of the series, the Hawks’ defenseman corps aren’t shooting more often than usual, but they are doing a better job making those shots count.
Firstly, the Hawks are creating more open shooting lanes from the blue line: only 30.8% of shot attempts from Hawks defensemen have been blocked by opposing forwards, compared to 38.2% during the regular season.
And secondly, Hawks defensemen are being smarter and more accurate with their shots: 53.8% of their attempts have successfully made it through on goal, compared to 43.8% during the regular season.
That’s led to three goals scored by defensemen: two by Olli Maatta, one by Koekkoek. It’s also led to four goals from deflected shots by defensemen: Brandon Saad’s Game 1 tip of a Maatta shot, Dominik Kubalik’s Game 1 tip of a Duncan Keith shot and the two aforementioned late Game 3 goals.
All told, that means seven of the Hawks’ 13 goals so far this series have been created by their defensemen.
When they try to eliminate the Oilers in Friday’s Game 4, there’s no reason to deviate from that strategy — as ugly as it may be.
“We’ve talked about it all year, that we’ve got to find a way to score those types of goals,” Colliton said. “We know we’re good in transition and off the rush, and that’s not going to change, but sometimes things get really tight and we’ve got to find a different way to produce.”
“[Wednesday] was a perfect example — just found a way to get to the net, get sticks on pucks and get in the goalie’s eyes. That has to continue.”