By Jay Zawaski-
(CBS) With the Chicago Bears’ 33-28 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, their season is over. Now, Chicago fans can shift their focus to the most dominant team in town, the Chicago Blackhawks.
If you’d been all NFL until Sunday, let me catch you up on the defending champs’ season so far.
– League’s highest point total: The Blackhawks are tied with the Anaheim Ducks for the NHL lead with 61 points. Their record is 27-7-7, and the Hawks hold the second highest goal differential in the league, with a +42. Only St. Louis (+45) boasts a higher differential.
– The Power Play: Remember the Blackhawks’ terrible powerplay? Well, it’s fixed. It’s third overall in the league, and tops in the far superior Western Conference.
– The Penalty Kill: Remember the Blackhawks dominant penalty kill? Well, it’s broken. At least it was broken. It’s been better lately, but still has a ways to go. Currently, the Hawks have the third worst penalty kill in the league, and the worst in the far superior Western Conference.
– The Goalies: Where do I begin this one? The Blackhawks’ goaltending situation has probably been the story of the year. Corey Crawford had been Corey Crawford until Nikolai Khabibulin, who was signed this summer, sucked, then suffered an injury. The Hawks then leaned on Crawford until he injured his “lower body” in a game against Florida. Crawford should be back this week, but rookie goaltender Antti Raanta has been fantastic filling in his stead. He has a 9-1-3 record, with a 2.38 goals against and a .906 save percentage. It will be interesting to see what the Hawks do with Raanta when Crawford returns. Will they split time on the big club, or will Raanta be sent to Rockford to maintain his playing time? If Raanta is sent down, newly acquired veteran goalie Jason LaBarbera will fill the Khabibulin role of old, washed-up backup.
– The Patricks, Kane and Sharp: Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp have been the best Blackhawks for nearly a month. Kane is currently riding a 14-game scoring streak, in which he’s accumulated eight goals and 17 assists. His 53 points put him behind only Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby (58) in the league’s scoring race.
Sharp has been nearly as hot as Kane. He has seven points in his last three games, including a hat trick and four-point night vs Colorado last week. Monday, Patrick Sharp was named the NHL’s 1st Star of the Week. His +18 is good for second on the Blackhawks, and fourth in the NHL.
– Duncan Keith: Duncan Keith is having his best season since 2010. Many see him as the favorite to win the Norris Trophy. His 35 assists rank third in the NHL behind San Jose’s Joe Thornton (38) and Crosby (36). His +15 rating is tied for seventh in the league, and fourth on the Blackhawks behind Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa ( both +19) and Sharp (+18).
– The 4th Line: For the large majority of the season, the Blackhawks’ fourth line has consisted of wingers Brandon Bollig and Ben Smith, and center Markus Kruger. Head coach Joel Quenneville has used the line in key situations all year. They often take the shift after a goal scored for or against, and have been used in the second overall shift of the game on several occasions. They’ve shown the ability to not only keep the puck in the offensive zone and away from the opponent, but to create offense. As a trio, Bollig (8), Smith (12) and Kruger (16) have combined for 36 points.
– Kris Versteeg: Oh yeah…Kris Versteeg is back. The Hawks acquired the winger last month in a trade that sent winger Jimmy Hayes and defenseman Dylan Olsen to the Florida Panthers. Versteeg has been skating on the second line with Michal Handzus and Kane, and has racked up 15 points in his 22 games since re-joining the Hawks.
– Kyle Beach: The Kyle Beach era officially ended December 6, when the Hawks traded the winger to the New York Rangers for something called Brandon Mashinter. The Rangers immediately sent Beach to Hartford of the AHL, where he’s racked up an impressive one assist in nine games.
– The New Rivals: When the Detroit Red Wings packed up and left for the Eastern Conference this summer, the Hawks had a number of new teams in their division, and a couple of potential fresh rivalries. While the St. Louis Blues remain public enemy No. 1, the Dallas Stars, and especially winger Antoine Roussel, have stepped to the forefront as the next potential Hawks rival. Roussel has shown a penchant for taking liberties with the Blackhawks’ star players, all while scoring big goals. He’s been a thorn in the side of the Hawks this season. Luckily, the rest of the Stars seem to be dozing during their games against Chicago.
The Colorado Avalanche have also stepped up, but in a different way. Under new head coach Patrick Roy (yes, that Patrick Roy), the Avs have taken the next step in their development. They’re third in the Central Division behind the Blackhawks and Blues, and have given the Hawks all they can handle. Their combination of youth, speed and quality goaltending will keep them in the hunt all season long.
– The Pending Sochi Olympic Games: The Hawks have a number of players who could be part of their respective Olympic teams when the Sochi games roll around in February.
For Team USA, Kane is an absolute lock. Brandon Saad has a chance, and should make the team, but could be a victim of being buried on the Hawks’ third line behind a number of NHL superstars.
Canada should, and will, feature a number of Blackhawks. Jonathan Toews and Keith are shoo-ins. Sharp has been on a tear, which has to be sending a message to Team Canada that he wants and deserves to be on the roster. Seabrook has an outside chance. His +19 looks great on paper, and he has a great reputation around the league. Crawford looked like he could have made the roster as well, but goaltending struggles coupled with injury will likely keep him off the squad.
Marian Hossa will play for Slovakia, while Niklas Hjalmarsson will likely play for Sweden. Johnny Oduya (SWE), Kruger (SWE), Handzus (SVK), and Michal Rozsival (CZE) have outside chances for their respective teams.
The Hawks are among the best teams in the league this season. If you’re not already on board, jump on now. Business is about to pick up.
For more Blackhawks coverage, follow Jay on Twitter @JayZawaski670.