By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) — If you are thinking that the dominating Chicago Blackhawks have nothing to do but wait for April to get here so they can begin their Stanley Cup defense, think again.
While they have the best overall record in the NHL – by a single point over the Anaheim Ducks – they face an overwhelming portion of their schedule that is likely to be telling.
After taking three days off for the NHL’s newly negotiated Christmas break, the Blackhawks got back into action with an impressive 7-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.
That game was just the start of an intense schedule that will see them play 21 games in 43 days prior to the three-week Olympic break.
This schedule will be reminiscent of the situation that teams faced last year after the lockout came to a conclusion in mid-January. Once that happened, teams were forced to play nearly every other night.
That’s the situation again right now.
While the Blackhawks were ready for it against an Avalanche team that has become one of the league’s biggest surprises, it continues with games against the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings.
Those two teams may be the Blackhawks’ biggest challengers – along with Anaheim — in the loaded Western Conference.
The Blackhawks are going to face a slew of teams with size, speed, skill and nastiness. We’re not counting out San Jose or Vancouver, but those two teams are just a tad behind the top four.
If the Blackhawks are going to remain in the top spot by the time the Olympics start, they are going to have to continue to dominate their puck possession game, improve their penalty kill and get adequate goaltending.
The penalty kill has been troubling all season. They rank 28th in the league as opponents are scoring on 24.0 percent of their power play opportunities.
That’s not where Joel Quenneville wants the penalty killing to be, and the play while short-handed hangs over the team. While the Blackhawks would like to be top-five in power-play production and penalty killing like the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins, they are not playing that kind of game at this point.
Shockingly, it’s the power play that continues to produce. They are connecting on 24.3 percent of their man-advantage situations, and that ranks third in the league. That’s dramatically better than last year, when the Blackhawks were 19th on the power play during the regular season and their struggles continued in the playoffs.
Quenneville knows the penalty killing is a problem, but it is not a fatal flaw. The team simply has too many offensive weapons to allow an opponent’s power play goal (or two) to cause problems in a given game.
The Blackhawks have survived quite nicely despite the lower body injury suffered by Corey Crawford. Antti Raanta, who has been labeled as the team’s goaltender of the future, has been athletic and acrobatic in compiling a 9-1-2 record along with his 2.18 goals against average and .915 save percentage.
Those figures are superior to Crawford’s, but the Blackhawks know who needs to be between the pipes in the biggest games. Crawford proved his worth in the postseason last year.
He may not be thought of in the first rank of the game’s best netminders, but few goaltenders move on to the next game like Crawford. If he gives up four or five goals in one game – as he did in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final vs. Boston – it was behind him by the time he took his seat in the lockerroom.
He proved it by allowing three goals in the final two games as the Blackhawks hoisted the Stanley Cup.
Crawford has returned to practice and is just days away from playing again.
That’s important when you face a demanding schedule. Getting Crawford back will help the Blackhawks this sprint before the Olympic break.
If they survive this run, they can start thinking about the postseason when their stars get done playing Olympic hockey.
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.