NHL Playoff Preview: Chicago Blackhawks

NHL Playoff Preview Chicago Blackhawks
After winning the Stanley Cup last season, Chicago Blackhawks fans everywhere had one constant thought in the back of their minds coming into this season: repeat and become a dynasty. Dynasty is not an easy term to throw around these days. No team has repeated as Stanley Cup champions over the past 16 years, but Chicago has all the reason in the world to believe they could be the first to buck this trend and become the first legitimate dynasty in the NHL in a very long time. Hawks nation have only gotten better from a season ago with the emergence of more young stars to go alongside the already established and experienced ones on the team in 25-year-old Patrick Kane and 25-year-old Captain Jonathan Toews.

Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago Blackhawks
(5th in Western Conference, 3rd in Central Division)

Preseason Expectations:Preseason expectations could not have been higher for the Blackhawks coming into this season and it was for good reason- after winning two Stanley Cups in four years, the team understands what is at stake this season and have the talent and maturity to pull it off. Last year, even though it was a shortened season, the Hawks started hot off the bat and did something most championship teams in the history of the NHL could never do- they stayed hot the entire year. Most championship teams can point to a moment or situation that happened in the middle of a season that forced the team to become battle tested and fight through adversity, a point where they took the final step toward becoming a championship team. For the Hawks last season, they never really had a moment like that. They started hot, stayed hot and- to simply put it- just kept winning. The Hawks played 24 games in a row to start the year without having a single loss in regulation and ended up with only seven regular season losses through the entire season. This season, however, the same cannot be said.

How they got here:
The Blackhawks this year have fought through injuries, line mash-ups and a whole month that saw the team struggling for answers. It is, perhaps, because of these trials and tribulations that the Hawks have become so dangerous. Due to the various injuries during the season, head coach Joel Quenneville was able to mix and match all sorts of different line combinations to best identify who played best with certain linemates. This information could come to be useful in the playoffs if Quenneville needed to make changes to a line on the fly. These injuries and this jumbling of lines also saw the rise of young players like forwards 21-year-old Brandon Saad and 22-year-old Andrew Shaw, 22-year-old defenseman Nick Leddy, and goaltender 24-year-old Antti Raanta. These young players this season got to see big-time minutes in big-time games and that is extremely valuable to a team in the playoffs. In the month of January, the Hawks dropped nine games in 14 contests, but to the Blackhawks defense, six of them were in extra time as they earned a point in each of those losses. The Hawks ended up 3rd in the Central Division this year, a far cry from the projected number one slot.

Key Players:
RW Brandon Saad, C Jonathan Toews, RW Patrick Kane, D Duncan Keith

As previously mentioned, the Chicago Blackhawks were virtually the number one team in everybody’s Western Conference power rankings coming into this year and for good reason: They are loaded with players that can change a game at a moment’s notice. These players will be key this postseason for the Blackhawks if they want to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. Saad is a talented winger on the Hawks and he will surely be leaned upon to perform in the playoffs should the injury bug continue. Toews and Kane were hurt to finish the year, but will both be ready to play by the time the playoffs begin. The time missed could mean that both of the young stars are well rested and a hundred percent before the playoffs or it could mean that they both get off to a slow or sluggish start to the playoffs. If it ends up being sluggish, their road to repeat could end well short, as they face off against a very strong and physical team in the St. Louis Blues in the first round. If the time off proves to be a restful one, then expect Kane and Toews to outperform everyone on the ice as they are now savvy veterans and two-time Stanley Cup Champions. No one can mention key players for the Blackhawks this season without forgetting to mention the leading candidate to win the Norris Trophy, defenseman Duncan Keith. Keith has an insane amount of assists this season (55) in a year that has a slew of great defenseman making their case for the Norris Trophy. To be the leading candidate for a trophy in a position that is as deep as it is this season is something Keith can really hang his hat on. However, Keith- like the rest of the squad- has his eyes on a bigger prize.

Major Moves:
The injuries sustained throughout the season forced young players to grow up quick. One player that blossomed in this time was winger Brandon Saad. Saad racked up 19 goals this season for the Hawks as he shifted up and down the lines, mixing up and playing with a whole slew of different teammates. However, recently Saad was a healthy scratch in a big game against the St. Louis Blues and that was a definite wakeup call for a young key player that will need to be big in the playoffs for the Hawks if they want to win, especially if Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews cannot perform at their best.

Who they will face in the first round:
The Blackhawks will first face the St. Louis Blues in this season’s playoff opener in a series that will surely be close. The Blues won the season series 3-2, but two of those wins came via the shootout and the Blackhawks ended up taking the final two matchups against the Blues. Also, in the final two games of the season series, the Blackhawks manhandled the Blues offensively outscoring St. Louis 8-2 in those games. Chicago may have been fortunate to catch St. Louis in this round, as the Blues have recent lost a lot of players to injury and are entering the playoffs on a long losing streak.

How they will fare:
The Blues are now limping into this playoff series having recently lost five in a row and now have seven injured starters after this weekend. This bodes very badly for the Blues, facing a team as young and as talented as the Blackhawks. If Toews and Kane are at 100 percent, there will be no stopping the Hawks in this opening series as the recent trend of lighting the lamp will surely continue against the Blues. St. Louis goaltender Ryan Miller has posted a whopping 4.04 GAA and a .856 save percentage during the skid, a far cry from his normally steady play. On the other hand, the Chicago Blackhawks are a team that has most of their players just beginning to hit their prime, a shocking commentary on a team that has won two Cups in four years. The constant barrage of talented line after talented line will prove to be far too much for the injury-laden and badly streaking Blues that will undoubtedly end their season on a low note after such a highly successful season.

Prediction:
Blackhawks win series 4-1

Conn Smythe Prediction:
The Conn Smythe will likely go to one of two players. The tandem of Kane and Toews- if they are playing at 100 percent- will surely be the ones to take it. However, if they remain injured or struggle early one, there has been one different and consistent beacon of light coming out of Chicago this season: winger Patrick Sharp. Sharp has played in every single game for the Chicago Blackhawks this season and is averaging almost a point a game. At age 32, most players begin to start seeing a decline in their performance, but for Sharp, the well is not tapped just yet. Sharp has posted 79 points this season- the most of his career in a single season. If Sharp can keep up this consistency into the playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks will most definitely point to the performance of Sharp as the reason why they are hoisting the Stanley Cup for the third time in five seasons.

Commentary by Ryne Vyles

Sources:
The Hockey News
Sun Times
Sports Illustrated

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