By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) Play the following while reading for the full experience.
March is upon us. Crisp, bright mornings are giving way to milder afternoons as we Chicagoans begins to thaw from another shortcoming by the Bears and the frozen sidewalk barf puddle that is the Bulls.
And what’s on our minds as we think warm thoughts? Baseball, of course. Do the White Sox have enough to steal an unsure American League Central? What passive undermining will the Chicago Sun-Times construct against the Cubs this year? Oh, how that spark of spring ignites the cockles of our hearts.
Yet while hope springs eternal and the “Next year is here” limp handshake is renewed, the perennial flower that has once again quietly bloomed is the Chicago Blackhawks, perfectly content to thrive in baseball’s shadow, too.
Again the Hawks entered a season in which it was just assumed there wasn’t enough in the tank to seriously contend. The salary cap is always the bane of this team’s existence, and major parts like Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad were sold off just like in the offseason hangovers of 2010 and 2013. And just like after those two Stanley Cup wins, the planned mood for 2015-’16 was one of trying to appreciate what happened rather than accepting a grim logistical future. Oh, and doubt that general manager Stan Bowman could — again — build a contender from a stripped racecar.
Meanwhile, the defending Stanley Cup champions, who play their first game of March at the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday night, enter the month tied with the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars with most points in the NHL’s Western Conference (but with fewer games played than those two). The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has the Blackhawks as the current odds-on favorite to win the 2016 Cup.
Kind of forgot about them, eh? They flew under the sports radar much of the winter.
This is what the Hawks do. They go through the motions for three-quarters of the season with respectable and also ho-hum play, with a hot streak mixed in. Patrick Kane does on-ice Patrick Kane things. If Corey Crawford isn’t wrongly bemoaned, he’s at least underappreciated. A rookie like Artemi Panarin steps up and seeks to win a Calder Trophy.
Then as the trade deadline approaches, Bowman somehow acquires players who make a great roster on paper even greater — this time around, it’s forwards Andrew Ladd, Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff — and we’re back to biding our time during the homestretch of the season when the Hawks can do their playoff thing. It’s once again rinsed and repeated. And it’s once more forgotten that we didn’t think the team would be in this position. Again.
Like the snow wouldn’t disappear and the trees wouldn’t leaf or something. Last fall seems so distant now, when we were oh so naive to assume both the Hawks and Donald Trump wouldn’t be crushing their respective environments and somehow getting stronger in doing so.
If it wasn’t clear at the trade deadline the Blackhawks are a bona fide championship favorite, that big-boy victory against the league-leading Washington Capitals on Sunday sure melted some frost off the windshield. It was a fun game of real-ass hockey and, more importantly, it was one in which the Hawks asserted themselves against a team that could have 100 points by the end of this week.
It’s time for the waiting game for playoff pairings to solidify, but it’s all formality between now and then. The Hawks have themselves in a place where only the half-emptiest of glasses could be worried (so callers to 670 The Score).
“I’ve written all season that even though the Hawks were not the team they were last year, there really hadn’t been a team that stepped into the gap that I thought for sure were a major threat,” Sam Fels wrote at The Committed Indian on both some underestimation of the Hawks (what an idiot) and the conference that didn’t want to take advantage. “The Stars are fun but totally flawed, the Blues have remained the Blues, the Kings had some questions and the Ducks couldn’t get out of their own way. Has any of that changed now?”
Nope. And neither has the scheduled presence of a title-contending Blackhawks team that seems to arrive on time every spring in this decade.
Maybe they win it all. Maybe weird hockey gets weird and they’re bounced early. Whatever happens, I can’t wait for this summer when we lament the gutted roster.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.