By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Nineteen games and still a “0” in the loss column.
All of which is exciting for fans and media, but it means nothing when it comes to guaranteeing the Chicago Blackhawks a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals.
No matter how long the Blackhawks can keep their streak going, they are still going to have to prove it this spring in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But when you can reel off a 16-0-3 skein at the start of the season following two first-round playoff defeats in 2011 and 2012, it says to the rest of the NHL that you are a significant player.
When the playoffs come around and the matchups are determined, the Blackhawks will be the team that nobody wants to play.
Never mind the hot No. 8 seed or the late-rushing No. 6 seed, the Blackhawks are playing with the kind of single-minded focus and talent that should put them in an excellent position to win their second Stanley Cup in four years.
They take their cues from captain Jonathan Toews and head coach Joel Quenneville. After each victory, you can see Toews high-fiving each of his teammates as they begin their walk back into the lineup.
It’s an act that congratulates each player for the job that was just completed. It also says that there’s another game coming up shortly, so let’s get ready.
Captain Serious, indeed.
Then there’s Quenneville. The last two playoff seasons have been painful. The joy of 2010 lives on the history books, but it’s time to accomplish something new. Quenneville seems to understand this and that another first-round loss would not be good for his long-term employment.
The playoffs will start in late April and the Blackhawks will face challenges. There are two teams in the West that appear poised to push them hard and could take them out of the picture if they don’t play their best game. Those teams are the Anaheim Ducks and Vancouver Canucks.
If they can survive the Western Conference playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins or Boston Bruins will look the Blackhawks in the eyes and push back hard. Chicago may have enough to beat either team, but it won’t be easy.
Here’s a thumbnail look at the four teams that appear to be the biggest threats to the Blackhawks:
Anaheim Ducks – A year ago, the Ducks finished 13th in the Western Conference and never got a whiff of a playoff spot at any point in the season. It didn’t seem like it would be much better for the Ducks this year, but they shot out of the gate and they have been nearly as strong as the Blackhawks this season.
Anaheim has received stellar goaltending from a 31-year-old rookie named Viktor Fasth. He’s 8-1-0, with a 2.01 goals against average and a .924 save percentage. On the front line, ancient warriors Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu appear to be at the top of their games again, while core players Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan can dominate.
Getzlaf and Perry will be free agents in the offseason and it’s all but certain the Ducks won’t be able to keep both of them. The Ducks will play with an edge through the end of the season. They are bigger and more physical than the Blackhawks and will be a tough team to stop.
Vancouver Canucks – The team everyone loves to hate is not going away. They are fueled by heartbreak, having lost to the last three Stanley Cup champions – Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles – in the last three postseasons.
As much as you despise Alex Burrows, Mason Raymond and Kevin Bieksa along with the Sedins (Henrik and Daniel) and their punch-me faces, they will require any opponent’s best effort to knock them out.
Chicago appears deeper and tougher than Vancouver. It may take seven games, but the Blackhawks should find a way.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Sidney Crosby is healthy and skating in top form (28 points) this year, and that’s bad news for any team that has to face the Penguins in the postseason. When Crosby was struggling with concussion symptoms the past two seasons, Evgeni Malkin stood up in his place. He won the league’s scoring title and MVP last year.
While Malkin is currently sidelined with concussion symptoms of his own, the Pens have Kris Letang, James Neal and Chris Kunitz dominating on the offensive end. If former Stanley Cup-winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury plays decently and doesn’t resemble the sieve he was in last year’s playoffs – 4.63 GAA and .834 save percentage – the Penguins may be the gold standard in the East.
Boston Bruins – The Bruins may be the Blackhawks’ mirror image in the East. Stung by a first-round loss the year after winning the 2011 Stanley Cup, the Bruins are off to a stellar 11-2-2 start of their own. Not quite 19 games without a regulation loss, but not bad either.
Chicago offers Toews, the Bruins have Patrice Bergeron. Advantage, Chicago. The Blackhawks have Duncan Keith, Boston offers Zdeno Chara. Advantage: Boston
Both teams roll four lines and both have gotten wonderful goaltending so far, but much has to be proven in that area in the postseason. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery appear to be ready for Chicago and so does Tuukka Rask in Boston, but the goaltenders must prove it in the playoffs.
The Original Six Boston-Chicago Stanley Cup Finals would be ideal for the hockey purist. The dominoes still have to fall the right way, but this looks like it is on course and would create a championship to remember.
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.