By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Take a look at the NHL’s Western Conference standings and you’ll see the same thing you have seen since the lockout ended and players returned to the ice.
The Chicago Blackhawks are in first place by a wide margin.
They lead the second-place Anaheim Ducks by 10 points and have locked up the top seed in the conference.
They have a four-point edge on the Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins for the league lead in points, and if they can close out the regular season the way they have played the majority of the year, they will be the President’s Trophy winners.
That may be ominous to Blackhawks fans of a certain age who remember a remarkable regular season in 1990-91 when they finished with the best record in the regular season and lost in the first round to the late, lamented Minnesota North Stars (see Dan McNeil for details).
But that kind of disaster is not on the horizon. While the record-setting 24-game streak without a regulation loss is a part of history, the Blackhawks are on another streak.
They have won six games in a row and they are 9-1-1 in their last 11 games. In some ways, this streak is more meaningful than the one that put them on the cover of Sports Illustrated and helped the general population realize that NHL players were back playing hockey this year.
It’s one thing to put together a hot streak during the course of a season, but when a team can do it twice in the same year, it removes the fluke factor.
The Blackhawks, if you haven’t noticed, play a different game than everyone else in the NHL. They don’t try to intimidate anyone with their physical game. They don’t take the body and they are not about leveling an opponent and then staring down in an attempt to intimidate.
Puck possession is what the Blackhawks are all about. The game of hockey has transformed dramatically over the last 40 years. Cycling the puck and maintaining possession were concepts that were introduced by the great Soviet Union teams of the past.
All NHL teams attempt to use those concepts, but the Blackhawks execute them better than everyone else. Earlier in the year, it seemed like Anaheim could give them a run for their money in the West, while Boston, Montreal and Pittsburgh could do the same in the East.
Now it looks like Pittsburgh is their only real rival for the hardware. Anaheim is making too many mistakes and it seems like the Ducks have looked in the mirror and realized they were playing at much too high a level.
Boston can’t hold late leads and Montreal has been giving up a deluge of goals.
The game that the Penguins play is very similar to the Blackhawks.
However, Chicago seems a bit stronger and deeper than Pittsburgh. The Penguins can fill up the net with relative eases, but their defense and goaltending may still be somewhat suspect.
They have not been vulnerable this year, but they were nightmarish in last year’s playoffs. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury couldn’t stop anything against Philadelphia last year and it’s doubtful he has forgotten about that.
A team that can maintain possession, make plays and create consistent scoring opportunities will be able to light him up.
That’s the Blackhawks. They play a different game than anyone else. The superstar presence is palpable with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith, but this team mimics their 2010 championship because of the depth. Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Bryan Bickell, Viktor Stalberg, Brent Seabrook and Nick Leddy all bring something special.
This is real depth that should make this team stronger as each best-of-seven series progresses.
Instead of being the likely favorites for the 2013 Stanley Cup, the Blackhawks are strong favorites.
The NHL has a similar “copy cat” mentality that the NFL has. NHL teams tend to play follow the leader and if the Blackhawks can win their second Stanley Cup in four years, the smarter general managers around the league will take note of how they did it.
The Blackhawks depend on their skill and intelligence, not their Neanderthal instincts.
That’s the way for the sport of hockey to go.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.