Originally posted on The Sports Bank  |  Last updated 10/1/11

Brandon Pirri had an incredible game for the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night, scoring twice and making some tremendous plays to keep things, but the Hawks couldn’t overcome a couple of weak goals given up by Ray Emery, and they fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 at the United Center. Emery did make 15 saves on 18 shots, and Pens’ keeper Brent Johnson had a tremendous game, stopping 35 shots in a winning effort.

It’s an adage as old as sports that the outcome of a preseason game doesn’t really matter, and that absolutely held true in this instance. Yes, the Penguins did win the game Friday, but the Blackhawks outplayed them in nearly every area, and there were plenty of positive signs for the team going forward. In a game that featured most of the starters for both clubs, the Hawks arguably looked better than they have at any point during the preseason, and that is a tremendous accomplishment considering that they were short-handed in this one. Viktor Stalberg is out for around three weeks with a leg injury, and Ben Smith is out indefinitely following the headshot that he took from Detroit’s Brendan Smith on Wednesday night. Dave Bolland is also suffering from some back issues, and he wasn’t in the lineup on Friday either.

Since there were so many positives in this one, it would make sense to get the few negatives out of the way early. The biggest one among those was the play of Ray Emery, who was making his final push to be Corey Crawford’s backup in this one. He allowed three goals on only 18 shots, and there were times that he looked rough in goal. Two of the three goals can be fairly pinned on him, including one that Matt Cooke scored from center ice when Emery tried to do his best Marty Turco impression (he must not have worn his Degree deodorant in this one) and played the puck well past the face-off circles. The other goal came when he was unable to extend his left leg far enough to cover the near post on a punch-in goal scored by Joe Vitale.

Emery, who is coming off of hip issues that severely limited him last season, had some good moments in this one, but those goals were highly questionable, and he didn’t exactly make a stellar final impression. Neither he or Alexander Salak has really established themselves as a bona-fide favorite in the fight to backup Crawford, and it will be interesting when the final decision is announced shortly to see which one of them will get to show off the team’s latest in baseball cap fashion.

The other negative that came out of this game was the team’s passing at even strength. The power play was great (more on that in a moment), but when the team was at even strength, they just couldn’t decide when to pull the trigger on a shot. One notable example occurred in the second period when Andrew Brunette and Jonathan Toews were in the middle of a rush toward the Penguin net. Brunette got a tremendous burst coming up the wing, and when he got to the face-off circle, he made the decision to dish to Toews down low. Unfortunately for him, Toews was already past the goal, and the puck went harmlessly past the net. In that situation, with the defender giving you some room, you have to fire that puck if you’re Brunette. This occurred multiple times at various times during the game, and it showed simply that the Hawks need to be more aggressive when it comes to actually getting the puck on net.

On the positive side of the ledger, we might as well start with the Hawks power play. Whereas the team looked out of sorts at times at even strength, they were dialed in on the power play. Even though they only scored once on their six opportunities on the man-advantage, their passing looked crisp and both power play units had some truly spectacular chances. In one instance in the first period, the Hawks pulled off a thing of beauty when each of the five players on the ice touched the puck within a seven second span, with Toews, Brunette, and Patrick Kane doing most of the dishing. They didn’t score on that play, but it showed that this team’s power play unit has the potential to be easily among the top-five in the game.

Even with their passing woes on this night, one thing that stood out above all others was how well the Hawks were getting to the front of the net. The power play was one area where that happened, with Toews and Brandon Pirri both focusing their energies on causing a ruckus near the blue paint. Rostislav Olesz also had a great game in that area, playing physical there and in corner battles as well. Bryan Bickell also got to the front of the net quite a bit, and has really seemed to step it up in the previous two games after Joel Quenneville called him out a bit in the media earlier this week.

The Hawks will now move on to their contest with the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Sunday afternoon, where they will look to end their nine-game road preseason losing streak. It will also provide the rookies one more opportunity to make an impression on the team’s staff, and it will be interesting to see how hard the team pushes itself considering that the season opener is now less than a week away.

With that, here are Friday’s Three Stars:

Third Star: Brandon Saad 

Saad has now played in every preseason game for the Hawks, and a lot has been made (including on this site) about how effective he is with the puck and people have gushed at length about how much of an offensive force he is. What was most noticeable about Saad tonight, and this does include another nice offensive effort, was how aggressive he was in the neutral zone.

Often times, rookies tend to play tentatively on the defensive side of the puck, petrified of making a mistake and not wanting to get crucified by the fans, but Saad didn’t show any of that reluctance tonight. He went after the puck hard in the neutral zone, and he really impacted the Penguins’ offensive rushes in a negative way when he was on the ice. Granted, the amount of poke checking and scrapping for the puck could end up costing him some slashing penalties for breaking sticks, but if he is going to play that kind of tenacious defense, there is no way that he can’t be considered one of the team’s top two-way players.

Second Star: Rostislav Olesz 

“Rusty”, as teammates and fans have taken to calling him, showed again that he is eager to prove his worth after coming over from Florida in the off-season on Friday night. He was a major contributor both offensively and defensively, and he showed some surprisingly good hands as well. He showed a propensity for protecting the puck in the corners, and he fired some very precise passes off of those battles, including one to Pirri’s stick that led to the Hawks’ first goal.

First Star: Brandon Pirri 

Sometimes we like to be a bit out of the box when it comes to picking the First Star, but Pirri clearly was the best player on the ice for Chicago on Friday. He scored two goals, and it is highly likely that he has locked down a roster spot in the wake of Smith and Stalberg’s injuries. He is more than capable of winning draws, playing solid defense, and putting pressure on the opposing team by rushing the puck with precision and speed. The 2009 second round pick has really come into his own, and he is part of a great young group of players that is beginning to filter through the team’s system.

Outside of Saad, you also have guys like Dylan Olsen who are close to making the roster, and there are several other notable players who could see action in the next few years, including Ludvig Rensfeldt, Jimmy Hayes, and many others. This speak to the vision of Stan Bowman, and the fruits of his ability to look ahead will be tangible very soon.

 

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