Should We Slap The Blackhawks’ 2013 Campaign With An Asterisk?

Long before the word “loss” crept into the Blackhawks’ vocabulary, there had already been a blemish in this astounding Chicago sports season.

As amazing as the “Miracle on Madison Street” has been, and as euphoric as it has made the city’s hockey fans, both the long-standing and the late-joining, the Blackhawks’ surge of successes has been missing something.

And it’s not a small thing. It’s half-a-league large.

Pretty much ignored, seldom mentioned, but undeniably absent in the much-deserved celebration of this foreshortened 2013 National Hockey League season, it is the elephant in the room. Or, if you will, the pachyderm on the ice.

Because of the near-ruinous lockout that threatened to make 2013 another missing NHL season (as happened before in 2005), what we have instead is a season with an unspoken asterisk: This year’s shrink-wrapped schedule is only 48 games, and already past the halfway mark.

And here’s the elephant. To date, and for the rest of the regular season and early playoff series, the Hawks will never face the much-improved Montreal Canadiens or Toronto Maple Leafs, or the tough Pittsburgh Penguins or Boston Bruins, or any of the other Eastern Conference teams.

East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet in this year’s NHL schedule. At least, not until the Stanley Cup Finals will any Eastern Conference team take the ice against a Western Conference squad.

It would be nice to know how the Blackhawks in this dream season would fare against the beasts in the east. Instead, the Hawks will face a steady diet of western foes. As much quick-turnaround travel as Chicago’s pucksters will do this season, their only eastern trips will be to Detroit, Nashville and Columbus.

And the league now is set to “westernize” the Hawks’ conference even more, moving the Winnipeg Jets into it and relocating the Red Wings into the Eastern Conference.

This (shudder) will not only dilute one of the league’s strongest rivalries, it will leave Chicago alone as the only team from the historic “Original Six” in the Western Conference. The other five, Boston, Detroit, Montreal, New York Rangers, and Toronto would all be in the Eastern Conference.

Not that there aren’t worthy foes besides Detroit in the west. Anaheim, thanks to its own impressive start, is not letting the Hawks completely out of sight this season. Phoenix knocked Chicago out of the playoffs last year. Colorado squashed the Hawks’ historic streak Friday. Vancouver has emerged as a worthy rival. And besides Chicago taking the title in 2010, Anaheim, Colorado, Dallas, Edmonton and Los Angeles have all won Stanley Cups. Four of the last six have been won by Western Conference teams.

But the Blackhawks have longer histories, of course, against “Original Six” teams. And it’s a history that calls for revenge. Chicago has lifetime losing records against all of them except the Rangers. The Hawks are particularly in arrears to the Canadiens (150 victories, 299 losses), whose 24 Stanley Cup titles make them the NHL equivalent of Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees. Five of those Cup finals, four in the 25 years of the “Original Six”, were against the Blackhawks. In their head-to-head matchups for the Stanley Cup, the Hawks are O-for-Montreal.

Unless Chicago makes it to the Stanley Cup, it won’t face off this season against any of those longtime rivals except the Red Wings.

Instead, due to the impossibility of evenly dividing 48 games among 15 Western Conference teams, the Blackhawks’ unbalanced 2013 schedule pits them against the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators five times each; four times against the Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche; and just three times each against the rest of the conference, including their closest pursuer, the Anaheim Ducks.

The NHL’s schedule this year, apparently prompted mostly by travel considerations — which make sense but are exaggerated by this year’s tightly squeezed schedule — goes counter to what the NBA does to accommodate traditional rivalries such as the Celtics v. Lakers and to showcase superstars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant in cities from coast to coast.

Hockey’s approach is also the opposite of Major League Baseball’s, which tries to spike interest by adding interleague regular season games. Thus, fans don’t have to wait and hope for a World Series to see Yankees v. Mets, Angels v. Dodgers or White Sox v. Cubs (dream?) matchups.

Of course, there could be one nice consolation prize for Chicago fans. Wouldn’t it be sweet if the Blackhawks could win the Stanley Cup this year by turning the tables on the Canadiens in their only head-to-head confrontation?

If that happens, consider the above complaint withdrawn.

Blemish forgiven. Elephant erased.

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