With the Olympic break over and only a month left in the NHL’s regular season we are heading into the most exciting time of year for hockey fans. Over the next month fans will be treated to hockey at its finest as desperate teams embroiled in tight playoff races battle with an intensity that has been sorely lacking through the first three-quarters of the season. As has been the case every year since the salary cap system was put into place both the Western and Eastern conferences are a logjam, and standings are shuffling on a nightly basis as often the pair of points earned from a victory is enough for a team to leapfrog two, three or four opponents.
As tight as the race is in the middle of the pack there are a few teams that have managed to separate themselves from the pack. In the few weeks leading up to the playoffs I will be doing a feature on the teams I deem to be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Now, to be fair, with the parity in the NHL these days any team that qualifies for the post-season has a decent shot at capturing glory. A hot goalie is all that is needed to tip the scales in a tight playoff series, and there is never a shortage of upsets in any given playoff year. That’s what makes playoff hockey so exciting. If the teams that look better on paper won all the time the sport would get very boring very quickly (basketball anyone?). Still when trying to pick favorites those paper comparisons are all the prognosticators have to work with. I, like my fellow pundits, have no crystal ball with which to pick the winners, so I will simply go with the teams with the best odds.
The first team I have decided to feature has enjoyed a quick turnaround over the past few seasons. Finishing in the basement of NHL standings has its advantages, most notably in the form of high draft picks. A few high picks that wind up living up to their potential can reverse a franchise’s fortune in a big hurry and that has been exactly what happened to the Chicago Blackhawks.
One of the original six franchises the Chicago Blackhawks have a proud history and have boasted such NHL legends as Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and Stan Mikita. However, long-suffering fans of the Hawks have been forced to endure a longer Stanley Cup drought than original six brethren the Toronto Maple Leafs. 1992's Stanley Cup finals run provided something for fans to cheer about, but that excitement was quickly snuffed out as Mario Lemieux's Pittsburgh Penguins swept the Hawks 4-0 in the finals, and Chicago has been unable to get back for another shot at the cup.
Not only have they not enjoyed much playoff success since 1992, many of those years the lowly Hawks failed to qualify for the postseason altogether. Attendance dwindled, and interest in the franchise waned with fans turning their attention to Michael Jordan's powerful Chicago Bulls, the Bears, the White Sox and even the Cubs who have endured a far longer drought than the Blackhawks.
However, unlike franchises like the New York Rangers and the aforementioned Toronto Maple Leafs, who in recent years have made a habit of mortgaging the future in an effort to bandage the present, the Blackhawks' management exercised patience, holding on to the high draft picks gained from their woeful finishes and building their team from the ground up. That philosophy paid off as today they boast some of the game's best young talent, including players like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook just to name a few.
Patrick Kane has quickly established himself as one of the slickest forwards in the game, and despite his relatively diminutive size he has been able to use his speed, stickhandling ability, vision and hockey sense to become a huge offensive threat.
Young captain Jonathan Toews has shown a poise and a maturity belying his tender years. Known for his incredible focus, determination, and his ability to deliver clutch performances in key moments, Toews has elicited favorable comparisons to NHL legends like Bryan Trottier, Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic. When Steve Yzerman named Jonathan Toews to the Canadian Olympic mens hockey squad more than a few eyebrows were raised around the country at his inclusion. Toews wasted no time in validating Yzerman's selection and went on to lead Team Canada in points, scoring a key goal in the gold medal game against Team USA and was named the tournament's top forward. Not bad for a 22 year old.
Behind Toews and Kane the Blackhawks have no shortage of secondary scoring with superstar Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd all capable of lighting the lamp on a regular basis.
On the blueline two more Team Canada Olympians lead the way. Duncan Keith leads the NHL in points from the back end, and partner Brent Seabrook has been an absolute rock on the defensive side of the puck, and is certainly no slouch when it comes to offensive creativity either. The Blackhawks' embarrassment of riches at the D position is clearly illustrated by the fact that $7+ million man Brian Campbell can't even crack the top pair on the team.
The only question mark for this powerful team is at the goaltending position - not exactly the position you want to have a question mark heading into the toughest tournament in professional sports. Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi have been inconsistent all season long, and watching the team play in front of them you get the sense that the players really don't have confidence that either goaltender is capable of turning in that clutch performance that will be so crucial come playoff time.
One of the biggest surprises on the recent trade deadline day was the Blackhawks failure to acquire a goaltender, and should the Hawks flame out early this post-season you can bet there will be plenty of second guessing from media, fans, players and management alike over the club's inability to swing a deal for a bona fide number one tender.
Despite the fact that the Hawks clearly have issues in goal they are still my pick to come out of the Western conference. With their blend of speed, skill, grit, confidence, leadership and youthful enthusiasm it is hard to imagine this team losing to anyone in the Western Conference in a 7 game series. However, they will need either Huet or Niemi to be at least steadily good if they are going to advance further than they did a season ago when they bowed out to the Detroit Red Wings in the semi-finals.