By Steve Silverman –
(CBS) — The Chicago Blackhawks have been rolling.
They are making a shambles of the Stanley Cup hangover theory, which says that the team that won the last Stanley Cup will struggle the following year.
They sure are struggling. They are in first place in the dominant Western Conference and they also have a superior record to the Boston Bruins, the lead dog in the East, and the team they punished in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Blackhawks are the most talented team in hockey, and it may not even be a close race. They can be challenged by teams like Los Angeles, St. Louis, Anaheim, Boston and Pittsburgh, but in the end the Blackhawks are the better team.
They can also rise to the occasion. Chicago inexplicably lost three games in a row earlier this month. They responded with three consecutive wins and scored 19 goals in the process.
That’s the rate that the Edmonton Oilers scored at in the 1980s and the Guy Lafleur-led Montreal Canadiens lit the lamp in the 1970s.
Today’s teams are happy when they can score three goals game. The Blackhawks can double that when they are on their game.
But there are a couple of problems. We have talked about the back-up goaltender issue and now there’s the issue of the lower-leg injury suffered by Corey Crawford. He will likely be out through the end of December.
That would be a huge problem if the playoffs were around the corner. It seems they can survive without Crawford for a short, finite period because they bring more puck possession and offense to the game than everyone else.
But there is a problem looming. It’s called the Olympic Games.
There are many who rail against NHL participation in the Olympics because it breaks up the hockey season and ruins the momentum of teams like the Blackhawks. That’s not the key issue.
There are as many as 10 Blackhawks who have a reasonable chance to play Olympic hockey. That’s far more than any other team. That means the Blackhawks are at greater risk to suffering from fatigue, or serious injury than any of their competitors.
Start with the big names. Patrick Kane (USA), Jonathan Toews (Canada), Duncan Keith (Canada), Patrick Sharp (Canada) and Marian Hossa (Slovakia) should all be mainstays for their respective teams. There’s no way that Toews or Keith are going to shy away from contact and potential injury once they don the red maple leaf of Canada.
Hossa might not put himself in harm’s way, but it would not be a shocker to see him suffer a muscle pull or another annoying injury.
If a lesser Olympian had a chance to line up and smash Kane, that opportunity would be taken.
Crawford’s injury may take him out of the first rank of Canadian goalies, but Canadian general manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Mike Babcock would be fooling themselves if they think that Carey Price, Roberto Luongo and Mike Smith are better goalies than Crawford.
Niklas Hjalmarsson (Sweden) and Johnny Oduya (Sweden) figure to be mainstays on the blue line for their country, while Marcus Kruger (Sweden) figures to play a role as a penalty killer and in key face-off situations.
Brent Seabrook (Canada) is not a guarantee to make the Olympics, but he did play for Canada in the Vancouver games in 2010 and he is having a superb year with 22 points and a plus-19 rating.
All of these players will be at risk in mid-February when they gather in Sochi, Russia to play for Olympic glory.
Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville have to be concerned. The Kings, Penguins, Sharks, Ducks and Bruins may be well-represented, but those teams might have six or seven players to worry about – not 10.
It’s just the kind of thing that could throw the Blackhawks off course in the second half of the season.
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.