There’s no doubt that last year’s Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks squad was a special one. Not only did they capture the most coveted trophy in all of sports, but provided us with some of the most colorful characters and treated us to some of the greatest sports moments in Chicago’s history.
This season has been a different story. Despite ranking near the top of the league in key categories, like goal differential and on their power play, the 2010-2011 regular season was a steady for playoff position — and a constant reminder to fans that this is not last year’s team.
Gone are the fan favorites of yesterday. Fans this year have had to toil with the likes of Fernando Pisani and Viktor Stalberg in their stead. Having to endure guys like them on the cash-strapped Blackhawks this season has left many a fan at the United Center with a level of frustration only a Cub fan can relate to.
It’s been that type of season for the Hawks. One riddled with inconsistency and injury. One that only saw Chicago prepare mentally for some, not all, of their games, then lose to the likes of Edmonton and Florida. One that, for the first time since the “rebirth” had Hawks fans more excited for the future than the present.
Yet here we stand. Who cares if it took an improbable win by the Minnesota Wild over the Dallas Stars to sneak Chicago into the postseason? After all, anything can happen in the playoffs. Just look at last year’s Philadelphia Flyers.
But even with that in mind, many are approaching with the playoffs with little to no expectations for these Blackhawks. It’s pretty clear that you’d be reaching if you said this team was destined for postseason glory. But that’s what happens when you switch this out:
However, there still remains that one glimmer of hope, that small chance that the Chicago Blackhawks can shock the world with another deep run into the playoffs.
They certainly have the top line talent to do so. With all of the turnover and concern after last summer’s roster turnover, there still remains the fact that Chicago ices four world class forwards on their top lines. Jonathan Toews vaulted into the Hart Trophy discussion with a torrid second half. Patrick Sharp was the MVP of the All Star Game and led the Hawks in goals. Patrick Kane reached both the 100-goal and 300-point marks. When healthy, Marian Hossa was electric, even when he was stuck playing with Tomas Kopecky in the middle.
There’s also the matter of that rather large sum of money wrapped up in the blue line. The Hawks invested into their defense for a reason, and, as inconsistent as they’ve been, the Hawks boast as much talent on the blue line as any team in the NHL. It will fall on Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to set the tone for this group, which is easier said than done this season for the defending Norris Trophy winner and his linemate.
There’s also that guy Chicago has between the pipes, in Corey Crawford. For the second consecutive year, the Hawks have turned to a rookie and have not been disappointed. A sure Calder candidate, Crawford won 33 games in his first full season with the Hawks after spending a few years stewing in Rockford, with the Ice Hogs. Since supplanting Marty Turco as the team’s starting goaltender, Crawford has been one of the only guys in Joel Quenneville‘s group to show up on a consistent basis.
Ultimately, the Hawks’ postseason fortunes will come down to the performance of their role players. Last year’s group was so successful, partly due to the fact that “role” players, like Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg stepped up at key moments for the Hawks. After watching Sunday’s debacle against Detroit, is there anyone on this Blackhawks team that can do that?
The returns of Dave Bolland and Troy Brouwer would be tremendous for the Hawks, especially given Bolland’s ability to shut down top tier forwards. But their return, and performance, in the opening series is no guarantee, though they did make the trip to Vancouver with the team.
Outside of those two, who can step up in crunch time? Michael Frolik pops up from time to time, as he did in scoring on Sunday. Tomas Kopecky and his hands of stone manage a goal now and then. But overall, the bottom lines for Chicago are riddled with inconsistency and inexperience. There’s guys like Bryan Bickell, who doesn’t throw his weight around as he should and doesn’t show up to games on a regular basis. Viktor Stalberg was directly responsible for a Tomas Holmstrom goal against the Red Wings on Sunday.
On Sunday night, the Chicago Blackhawks were given new life. As many chances as they had to earn their own playoff berth, it took a lucky break to get them into the playoffs. And while they may be a touch undeserving of an appearance in the postseason, it’s hard to imagine Captain Toews and co. letting a chance like this slip away.
On Wednesday, they’ll kick off their third consecutive playoff run in Vancouver, against the Canucks. The same Canucks they’ve defeated the last two years in the postseason. It’s going to an uphill battle all the way through, but if the proper pieces come together, the Blackhawks could seize the opportunity to make, at least, a thrilling run deep into the playoffs.