By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The Blackhawks have to get down to the serious business of winning.
If you haven’t noticed, they have been on a two-year hiatus after walking away with the Stanley Cup in 2010.
Back-to-back first-round defeats turned up the heat considerably under head coach Joel Quenneville’s posterior this season. His team responded with the best regular-season performance of any team in the league.
But the Stanley Cup playoffs are known for unpredictable results. The Los Angeles Kings rose from eighth place in the Western Conference to win the Stanley Cup last year.
Not only did the Kings get the upset, they did it in dominating fashion, winning the first three games of each of the four series they won.
During the 2010 playoffs, the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens were the seventh- and eighth-seeds in the Eastern Conference, yet those two teams met in the Eastern Conference Final.
Blackhawks fans will remember that the Flyers emerged in that series since Philadelphia was Chicago’s opponent in the Stanley Cup Finals.
But this year, it could be quite a bit different from the upset-fest that fans are used to seeing.
The Chicago Blackhawks are clearly the best team in the Western Conference and the Pittsburgh Penguins are the best in the East. It would surprise absolutely no one if the Blackhawks and Penguins met for the right to hoist the cup.
The Blackhawks will have challenges along the way, but they should be just fine in the first round.
The Minnesota Wild made an attempt to join the big boys in the league when they signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter as free agents last summer and made a big splash while doing it. Bringing in Parise from the New Jersey Devils and Suter from the Nashville Predators gave the Wild more strength, depth and scoring, but it did not work a miracle.
They barely edged out the Columbus Blue Jackets for the final playoff spot. If they win more than one game against Chicago, it would be a shocker.
However, it’s not too early to look ahead to the second round. If form holds in the playoffs this year with the No. 2 seed Anaheim Ducks beating the Detroit Red Wings and the No. 3 seed Vancouver Canucks taking down the San Jose Sharks, the Blackhawks would play the winner of the 4-5 matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings.
If the Kings manage to beat the Blues – as they did last year in the second round – the Blackhawks would have their first major challenge of the postseason.
The defending Stanley Cup champions are still a formidable team. They did not play consistently as they got off to an ordinary start – often referred to as the Stanley Cup hangover – but the Kings can score and they can also play a nasty brand of physical hockey.
The Kings are dangerous because they have a slew of players who have proven they can put the puck in the net in clutch situation. Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Dustin Brown make it difficult on any strong defensive team because there are so many scoring options.
Try to take away the talented Kopitar and Carter will take you apart with his quick release. Ignore Richards and he’ll fire the puck from any angle and either score or create juicy rebounds. Brown plays like a wrecking ball with his physical play creates opportunities.
The Kings can trigger their offense with their defense. Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin can all carry the puck out of their own zone and create.
However, it’s Jonathan Quick who could give the Kings their biggest edge. Quick won the Conn Smythe Trophy (1.41 goals against average, .946 save percentage) last year and he was stellar throughout all four rounds of the playoffs.
His numbers in 2013 were ordinary – 2.45 GAA, .902 save percentage, one shutout – but he has a postseason pedigree.
On the other hand, Corey Crawford comes into the playoffs after a stellar regular season – 1.94 GAA, .926 save percentage – but his shaky play in last year’s playoffs is the main reason the Blackhawks were eliminated in the first round by the Phoenix Coyotes.
Those soft overtime goals still bring back nightmares.
The Blackhawks are the best team in the West and should be on a collision course with the Penguins. But there will be challenges, and when they get to the second round, they could face a huge one.
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.