Counting down to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks are currently hovering between 1st and 2nd place in the West. Depending on their performance and that of their presumed opponents between now and season’s end, the Blackhawks will likely face Detroit, Colorado, LA or Nashville. What are their chances?
Having clinched a berth in consecutive years for the first time since 1997, and likely to win their first Division title since 1993, perhaps even their first Conference title since 1973, the Hawks and their followers should feel pretty good about themselves.
Judging by the tone of the Hawkey media and the blogosphere, Blackhawk Nation feels anything but ecstatic. Writers and fans spin scenarios drenched with doubt. Even those who say ‘bring it on’, like the iconoclast Mike Kiley of Blackhawks Confidential at the Chicago Tribune, have a hint of fatalism in their swagger.
The Hawks players themselves reflect the muddled atmosphere and sentiment surrounding the team.
As Patrick Sharp expressed a few days ago, with his usual elegance: “It’s always nice to feel like you’re going to postseason play, but we have to find our game pretty quickly. We can’t go into postseason playing like that.”
Adam Burish was more direct after the Columbus loss: “There were some Chicago fans behind our bench who were screaming at us saying, ‘You guys stink.’ When you hear your own fans saying that, it’s embarrassing. You don’t feel good about it.”
The situation overview does not promote optimism.
The defense corps is truncated, with Campbell gone possibly for the duration; Johnsson out for an undetermined period; Sopel suffering through innumerable contusions; and Seabrook coming back after his second concussion of the year. That said, Dustin Byfuglien, Jordan Hendry and Nick Boynton deserve credit for their work so far.
The forwards waver between hermetic/opportunistic two-way play (as in their recent wins over LA and Phoenix) and every man for himself (as in the humiliation in Columbus).
The goaltending controversy appears to have been settled by default. Antti ‘Nemo’ Niemi has been anointed, the first recipient of the impromptu ‘Hawk of the game’ award: a wrestling championship belt bought by Brent Seabrook.
The award may appear only occasionally if the recent trend continues. As of this writing, the Blackhawks are on track to go .500 in their last nine games.
Will they make it past Round One? The possibilities are varied.
Rather than attempt to make statistical comparisons, these snapshots focus on the aspects that could be determining, or so-called ‘series changing’, factors.
The playoffs have been described by Denis Savard, as being where “the best players cancel each other out; so your supporting cast has to make the difference.” The basic assumption here is that Savard is correct.
The following scenarios are ‘best guesses’, based on watching all the teams below on a regular basis.
Their play in the last few weeks of the season, however, can be a critical indicator: last year, all the first round winners, except for Detroit, won at least 6 of their last ten games.
HAWKS VS. DETROIT
The Hawks lead the season series, but the Wings are back and rolling along. The finale will give us a more precise picture of where these rivals are at.
Forwards: Chicago’s Top 6 (Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Bolland, Brouwer) match up well against the Wings (Franzen, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Holmstrom, Bertuzzi, Filppula). Versteeg, Madden and Ladd may be as good as Cleary, Helm and Williams. How effective are Eager, Kopecky and Burish or Fraser as opposed to Draper, Miller, Abdelkader and Eaves? Does Brad May become a factor? Which of Bickell, Beach, Aliu and Dowell does Chicago call up? Do the Wings, as usual, have a young surprise in waiting?
Defense: Keith/Seabrook, Byfuglien/Hjalmarsson, Boynton/Hendry versus Lidstrom/Rafalski, Kronwall/Stuart, Lilja/Ericsson. Lebda, Meech and the very nasty Tollefsen are in reserve. The Hawks have to hope Johnsson comes back, and Sopel heals up; there isn’t much in the pipeline. Will we see young puck mover Shawn Lalonde as the Campbell substitute he is reportedly being groomed to be?
Goaltending: Niemi versus Howard. Never a dull moment.
Competitive Edge: Wings’ experience, their team discipline, and their healthy roster. If they split the opening games with the Hawks, watch out.
Keys to the series: Does Hossa trump Franzen? Does Lidstrom counter Kane?
Probable result: Wings in six.
HAWKS VS. NASHVILLE
The Predators have given Chicago trouble all year. Even if the Hawks have won more games, they’ve been by the narrowest of scores. Barry Trotz’s guys play a suffocating style, and against the Hawks, it works.
Forwards: Check, check and more check. The Preds’ relentless pressure creates turnovers. Hornqvist, Erat, Arnott, Dumont, Sullivan, Legwand, Tootoo and Ward may not dazzle, but they know how to hurt the Hawks on the scoresheet with timely, if infrequent, goals.
Defense: Weber and Suter are arguably the antidote to Keith and Seabrook. Hamhuis, Klein, Bouillon, Franson and Grebeshkov may not be fantasy hockey picks, but they follow the Nashville pattern of defensive reliability; Weber and Grebeshkov have PP cannons.
Goaltending: Finland versus Finland. Take your pick of Pekka and Antti.
Competitive Edge: Nashville’s persistence and special teams allow them to steal a game in Chicago.
Keys to the series: Does Weber counter Kane? Can the Hawks beat the Preds at their own game?
Probable result: Predators in seven.
HAWKS VS. COLORADO
Craig Anderson and the young Avalanche have also proven to be difficult foes for the Blackhawks. Again, Hawks lead the season series by virtue of shootout wins. Though Milan Hejduk and Adam Foote lived the glory days in Colorado, this is uncharted waters for most of the men from Denver.
Forwards: Chicago’s depth and experience may be too much for the Avs’ speedy talent. Duchene, Stastny, Mueller, Galiardi and O’Reilly are exciting, but Toews, Hossa, Kane, Sharp and Brouwer have the edge.
Defense: Even with the injuries to the Hawk blueline, Chicago hangs in. The Avalanche play a system game but don’t have the standout players that make the difference.
Goaltending: Ex-Hawk Anderson has something to prove. He’s carried the Avs, but he’s played so many games and stopped so many pucks the cracks may begin to show.
Competitive Edge: Chicago’s firepower, depth and experience.
Key to the series: Is Anderson vulnerable?
Probable result: Hawks in six.
HAWKS VS. LOS ANGELES
This year, Chicago has beaten LA both at home and on the road. The Kings are a rising tide; similar to where the Hawks were a year ago. The question is how the team responds to being in the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Forwards: Kopitar, Brown, Frolov, Justin Williams, ex-Hawk Michal Handzuš and the evergreen Ryan Smyth make for a strong front line; but probably not strong enough against Chicago.
Defense: Behind the ultra-talented Drew Doughty, the Kings’ blueline is effective. They haven’t shown so far this season, however, that they can bottle up the Blackhawks’ multi-layered attack.
Goaltending: Jonathan Quick is impressive. How does he hold up in the post season?
Competitive Edge: Again, Hawks’ depth and experience; plus the ability to win decisively in LA.
Key to the series: How physical will the Kings be?
Probable result: Hawks in six.
The Red Wings and the Predators appear to have the best chance of beating the Blackhawks in Round One.
But will they even meet in the quarterfinals? The playoff picture is far from clear, as positions are not settled, and may not be until the last day of the season.
We have seen this year that there is no clear favorite in the West.
Every team has at least one evident weakness that can be exploited. Whether citing Jimmy Howard’s playoff inexperience, Nashville’s lack of scoring punch, Colorado’s reliance on Craig Anderson, or the Kings’ presumed nervousness—along with a variety of supposed reasons why the Blackhawks will sink or swim—the x-factors make it tough for the forecasters looking at Chicago.
No one can say, with certainty, who will win Round One in the Western Conference. The unexpected is to be expected. Last year, the top seeds in East and West were toppled by the eighth.
As of today, Vegas odds makers still had the Blackhawks as a 4-1 Stanley Cup favorite—along with the Washington Capitals.
About the Author: David Morris' hockey writing has been featured at KuklasKorner.com and Chicago Sports Then & Now. He is also the North American correspondent for leading Swiss hockey site, Planete Hockey.