By Chris Emma—
CHICAGO (CBS) — The lights went black and playoff-ready United Center exploded. The energy was through the roof ahead of a battle between two Central rivals fighting for playoff seeding.
Through the excitement of another night at the Madhouse on Madison prevailed an important truth. The Blackhawks and Blues knew the significance of Thursday’s tilt — not a whole lot — when compared to what’s ahead.
Next week, the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin, with the Blackhawks looking to repeat in hoisting the Stanley Cup and earning a fourth ring in seven seasons. The Blackhawks will open the postseason on the road, facing either the Blues or the Stars.
The Blackhawks-Blues meeting on Thursday, a 2-1 overtime win for St. Louis, felt like more of a preamble than anything else.
Truth be told, the Blackhawks don’t need home-ice advantage, the crutch-like falsehood of “momentum” or any hockey secrets on their side. The NHL’s defending champions need good health, a little puck luck and their elite-level roster rising to the occasion.
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman rebuilt this team in the offseason, following another dance around the salary cap, and then added on before the trade deadline with Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise, Tomas Fleischmann and Christian Ehrhoff. Coach Joel Quenneville pushes the buttons needed to mix, match and maximize his lines in search of a winning formula.
Of course, don’t discount the importance of Jonathan Toews, one of the greatest leaders in all of sports, whose example carries the Blackhawks through the daunting Stanley Cup pursuit.
The Blackhawks have the coach, The Captain, The Core and the supporting cast worthy of another parade for Chicago. So, what will it take?
1.) Crawford rises to the occasion
At long last, the silly narratives surrounding goalie Corey Crawford’s playoff performance was brutally murdered, killed in a Stanley Cup Final last year in which he often stood on his head—including a 2-0 shutout victory in the Game 6 clincher at the United Center. Of course, it should’ve been dead well before.
Crawford’s an outstanding playoff performer, just as he’s a terrific goaltender all year long. Had it not been for a few subpar performances in front of his net, Crawford would be a finalist for the Vezina Award as hockey’s best goaltender. Still, it’s worth noting Crawford had a 2.31 goals against average in the 2015 postseason run and a remarkable 1.84 GAA in the 2013 championship. This regular season, he boasts a 2.32 GAA and 92.6 save percentage in 57 games.
Sure, the Blackhawks have to do their part — specifically the defensemen — in ensuring Crawford’s crease is kept clean this postseason. But it’s always nice knowing the team has a clutch playoff performer in net. More of that this year would be wonderful.
2.) Kane shows his Hart
The Blackhawks have the best player in hockey on their roster. Nobody in the NHL has played anywhere near the level of Patrick Kane, so consistently dominant on the ice this season. Kane leads the league in points by a large margin and has made his teammates that much better, too.
Throughout his career, with seven consecutive playoff appearances, Kane has been a terrific performer. In the postseason, he has tallied 48 goals and 66 assists — 114 points in 116 games. Kane has scored game-winning goals, including one to win the Cup in 2010, and is the kind of playmaker who creates opportunities around the ice. Kane has gotten better and better each season of his career, and he’s now a full-fledged MVP player.
The Blackhawks need Kane at his Hart Trophy form, something that’s carried this team throughout the regular season and postseasons of the past. The Conn Smythe should be Kane’s for the taking if he matches that level of play.
3.) Defense wins championships
Before the Blackhawks were handed the Stanley Cup on home ice last season, the Conn Smythe was rightfully given to Duncan Keith, the two-time Norris Trophy winner and a man widely regarded as one of hockey’s best defensemen. Keith was all over the ice, often playing half the game or even more in ice time. Quenneville loves that steady defensive presence on the ice to ensure his puck-possession style of play can be mastered.
But Keith can’t do it all, believe it or not. The Blackhawks need Niklas Hjalmarsson to deliver on the blue line, for Brent Seabrook to bring some consistency to the postseason and for Trevor van Riemsdyk to show Quenneville he can be trusted on the ice.
Quenneville has and will work around the Blackhawks’ defensive deficiencies by double-shifting Keith and minimizing the ice time of those who he views as liabilities. But the defense as a whole has to bring the Blackhawks consistency in front of Crawford.
4.) Hero time
Each of the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup runs have found unlikely heroes along the way — surprising names that will be remembered for their clutch performances. Dustin Byfuglien rose to the occasion in 2010, Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland won Game 6 in Boston in 2013 and Scott Darling’s efforts in the first round of 2015 propelled the Blackhawks on to the Stanley Cup Final, where Antoine Vermette delivered.
Who will be the Blackhawks’ surprising hero this time around? Can it again be Bickell, who was called up to action Thursday, or will it be a Richard Panik or Andrew Desjardins? Chicago has depth in the lower lines that can make the difference in a championship setting.
So, let’s see who rises in the big moment.
5.) Will hockey’s randomness back the Blackhawks?
Remember Game 7 of the Western Conference Final in 2014? The Blackhawks had the Kings beat, yet the game went to overtime. Alec Martinez ripped a shot off the sweater of Nick Leddy and bounced Chicago, setting up Los Angeles for its Stanley Cup destiny. That’s an example of how puck luck has gone against Chicago — something that’s been rare in this dynasty run.
The Blackhawks more often than not are the beneficiary of the friendly bounces. After all, helps earn rings. Hockey’s inherent randomness is what makes the game so thrilling and nerve-wracking. Any shot can get that sudden deflection into the back of the net.
Winning it all takes a little luck, too, not just that elite roster.
Once again, the Blackhawks are built to win in the playoffs. Inconsistencies throughout the regular season will soon be forgotten when the Blackhawks take playoff ice, where they’ve long brought their best level of play.
At long last, the Stanley Cup pursuit will soon begin, and the Blackhawks have what it takes to win it again.