The NHL leading Chicago Blackhawks are on a mission. Disappointed with their early exit from the playoffs the last two years, the Blackhawks were a tired, unhealthy, and unfocused team. Call it a Stanley Cup hangover if you wish, the fact is that the Blackhawks of the past two seasons, only in part resembled the team that hoisted the city’s first Stanley Cup in nearly 50 years back in 2010. Several factors can be attributed to the resurgence in the play of the Chicago Blackhawks that has led to their recent record setting performance. High on top of the list however are these three things; depth, health, and goaltending.
One of the keys to the Blackhawks success in 2010 was their depth with Coach Joel Quenneville having the luxury of consistently rolling four lines and having the confidence in his 3rd and 4th lines to defend against the opposition’s top-lines. This allowed for players on his top two goal scoring lines in the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp to be fresh when called upon. The 2010 team was built to win and win that year. That off-season the organization lost key pieces of their roster depth in Dustin Byfuglien, Troy Brouwer , Kris Versteeg, and Andrew Ladd who have all gone on to teams playing on the first or second lines and pairings.
Fast forward to 2012 and the Hawks roster is again deep. Give GM Stan Bowman credit in acquiring talent that fit in their salary cap restrictions and developing talent from within the organization to provide that sorely lacking depth that had been a key to the Hawks Stanley Cup run. Once again, Coach Q has had the luxury of rolling four lines and the play of their young guns has not disappointed. Whether its Nick Leddy, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Viktor Stalberg, Michael Frolik, Bryan Bickell, or Marcus Kruger, all are making an impact including major contributions on the penalty kill which is third in the league currently at 88.8%
Contributing to the depth of their roster and success is the continued chemistry being developed between Swedish countrymen Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya. Seeing increased time on special teams has allowed the defensive anchors of first pairing Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith to log heavy minutes against the league’s top line players. The addition of Sheldon Brookbank and Michal Rozsival appear to be solid acquisitions for the club and are bolstering an already formidable Hawks defense.
Injuries are part of the game and the Blackhawks battled their fair share the last couple of seasons. Perhaps no team had a greater benefit from the lockout shortened season and its ensuing late start than the Hawks. With key star Marian Hossa and captain Jonathan Towes both coming off concussion inducing head injuries, the delay allowed the two to return to the ice completely worry free of any lingering concerns.
When former Blackhawk and current San Jose Shark GM, Doug Wilson, made a formidable salary offer to defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson in the summer of 2010, it forced the hand of Stan Bowman into making a matching offer but in so doing it meant that the Hawks would lose goaltender Antti Niemi as they were handcuffed with goaltending bust Cristobal Huet’s salary for another year. The fate of the position was put into the hands of Corey Crawford and many wondered if he was ready for the position and the responsibility it held. While performing more than adequately as the starting net-minder, it has been clear that Crawford has really elevated his game. Local reports indicate that a heavier focus on mental preparation and film study have been instrumental in Crawford’s increased performance as evidenced by his 1.53 GAA.
The shortened season takes a toll on all players, but goaltenders in particular and Coach Q has caught lightning in a bottle in veteran back-up Ray Emery. Emery is 9-0 filling in for Crawford who suffered a mild injury as well as providing the starter the with an occasional rest day. Going into the playoffs healthy and rested is going to be key for the Hawks continued success and Emery’s outstanding play is already paying dividends in that regard.
In addition to the issues already addressed, one other noticeable observation has taken place with this team during the long offseason. Once TMZ resident party boy, Patrick Kane has matured . . . significantly. It is clearly apparent that someone sat him down and whatever it was that was said, Kane has clearly taken to heart. His playmaking ability has returned to form but most importantly has been the development of his game on the defensive end of the ice. It was becoming clear to scouts and fans alike that Kane would eventually become trade bait if he didn’t develop into a two-way player and do it quickly. His commitment to defense has raised his offensive output to a whole new level and playing alongside linemates Dave Bolland and Sharp means that he has had and will continue to see numerous scoring chances.
Currently standing at 20-0-3, it’s hard to believe that the Hawks are at the midpoint, albeit of a shortened, season without a loss in regulation. While no one expects this to continue forever, one thing is sure, the Blackhawks are back and a force to be reckoned with come the post season.
photo by del Tufo.
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