Welcome to the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Chicagoans! And, for some, welcome to the world of professional ice hockey fandom.
If you’re jumping on the bandwagon for the first time, or if you’re one of the many fans still wearing a Byfuglien/Versteeg/Campbell/Niemi sweater from the Cup run two years ago, there are a few things you need to know before heading to your neighborhood tavern or the United Center.
1) Jonathan Toews is hurting.
His head hasn’t been right for a while now. The captain has been missing from action since Feb. 19, but was among the contenders for the Hart Trophy—that’s hockey-speak for most valuable player—before a concussion took him off the ice.
With 57 points (29 goals, 28 assists) in 59 games, Toews was having arguably his best season in the NHL. When healthy, he’s one of the best players on the planet, and the Blackhawks need him back on the ice. That being said, the Hawks have survived without him, compiling a record of 13-5-4. His absence may even have made the team better in the long run by promoting secondary players to more important roles and forcing other superstars—specifically Patrick Kane—to play like superstars.
Thanks to contributions from up and down the roster, the Hawks have wins over the Rangers, Predators, and Canucks, and twice they’ve beaten the Red Wings and Blues without Toews. While Kane, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp have been great since the trade deadline, the increased offensive contributions from defenseman Brent Seabrook (16 points since the All-Star Game) and Bryan Bickell (15 points since the ASG) have balanced the Hawks’ offensive attack.
Oh, and it’s pronounced “Taves” not “Toes.”
2. The children will lead us.
Among those that led the charge during the Hawks’ fine finish is one of the strongest groups of rookies in the Western Conference. Among the eight playoff teams in the West, only the Hawks and Predators have played rookies for more than 200 combined games—a nice reminder of the team’s organizational depth. What’s more, the Hawks have been led by a couple of fifth-round draft picks.
Center Marcus Kruger and forward Andrew Shaw have provided consistent energy and physical play—one of the team’s biggest shortfalls a year ago. You may know Shaw from his #shawfacts phenomenon on Twitter. And if you don’t, you should.
The youth movement means playoff beards on Madison Street may be a little patchy this year. Of the 12 forwards the Hawks will dress on any night in the playoffs, it’s likely only four will be older than 26: Patrick Sharp (30), Marian Hossa (33), Jamal Mayers (37), and Andrew Brunette (38).
And don’t forget the Hawks’ two best players—Toews and Kane—are only 23 years old, and they grow some of the worst playoff beards in the league.
3. Duncan Keith’s suspension was a good thing.
Keith became Public Enemy No. 1 in Vancouver after he gave Daniel Sedin a concussion in late March. He received a five-game suspension for the hit, but that might pay dividends in the postseason.
Keith was leading the NHL in average ice time when the league benched him. The former Norris Trophy (top defenseman in NHL-ese) winner got some R&R and the Hawks survived without Keith, as they did without Toews.
The addition of Johnny Oduya at the trade deadline was also a surprise blessing for the Hawks. Oduya and Seabrook played big minutes with Keith sidelined and fellow defensemen Nick Leddy chipped in five assists in the five games without Keith.
4. Give praise to Victor Stalberg.
And no, not for his good looks. Opposing teams will know where Kane, Hossa, Sharp, and (hopefully) Toews are on the ice, but Stalberg has emerged as a legitimate top-six forward (use this phrase to impress your friends at the bar) for the Hawks. He has blown away all his career bests this year with 21 goals and 21 assists (his previous bests were 12 of each last year), and has been timely as well as effective; six of his goals have been game-winners. He’s lightning quick up and down the ice, and has been a pleasant surprise in the second half of the season. He could be the star of the playoffs.
5. Pray for Corey Crawford.
Crawford has been a best friend for cardiologists all over Chicago this year. He looked like the starter of the future against the Canucks in last year’s playoffs, but at times this year he couldn’t even hold his starting job. In March, though, Crawford played well. He posted a 7-1-1 record with a much-improved 1.96 goals-against average, and a .914 save percentage. Even the casual hockey fan knows goaltenders can carry or kill a team in the playoffs. The Hawks need Crawford to stay hot.
6. Penalties could kill them.
To put it bluntly: The Hawks’ special teams units have stunk. They’ve been so bad on power plays that some wry observers have suggested they decline the penalties. Chicago ranks 24th in the NHL in power play efficiency, and has only nine power play goals in the second half of the season.
Meanwhile, the penalty-killing unit has been almost as bad, ranking in the bottom-third of the league. It’s an age-old hockey cliché that teams need to stay out of the penalty box and cash in on their own man advantages, but for the Hawks and their special teams deficiencies, it’s especially crucial.
Could the Blackhawks see a first-round exit? Certainly.
Can the Blackhawks make another run at a championship? Certainly.
They have elite talent and a core just two years removed from raising Lord Stanley’s Cup. Role players have filled in valiantly and raised their games with stars out of the lineup. The Hawks have had success against the NHL’s best despite their injuries, and they are getting hot at the right time.
Kane must be a superstar, Crawford must be the Crawford of March, and it would certainly help if Toews were healthy. The Hawks must also continue to get contributions from all four lines. When they won the Cup in 2010, 12 different players scored more than one goal in 22 postseason games. Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Keith and Seabrook will have to carry the load if Toews isn’t ready, and complementary players like Bickell, Kruger, Shaw, Oduya, and Leddy will be counted on to maintain their high levels of play.
The Madhouse on Madison will be loud as ever. The Hawks have the talent—even without Toews at full strength—to make a deep playoff run.
So go ahead: Act like you knew it all along.
|KEY BLACKHAWKS DATES FROM 2011/2012|
|Nov. 25: Toews notches 5 points in 6-5 win over Ducks.|
|Dec. 14: Kane nets ridiculous shootout goal vs. Wild.|
|Jan. 20: Hawks are top team in West after topping Panthers.|
|Feb. 15: Hawks Beat Rangers, end 9-Game losing streak.|
|Feb. 19: Toews plays last game before missing 22 straight with concussion.|
|Feb. 27: Hawks deal enforcer John Scott, trade for defenseman Oduya.|
|March 13: Crawford regains starting job, beginning 8-3 stretch to end season.|
|March 20: Hossa reaches 900 points with goal against Blue Jackets.|
|March 21: Keith suspended for hit on Daniel Sedin.|
|April 7: Hawks avoid 1st-round match-up with Predators.|
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TAB BAMFORD, the author of “100 Things Blackhawks Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die,” serves as a columnist for The Fourth Period Magazine and is the owner of CommittedIndians.com. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Taylor University. Follow him on Twitter @the1tab.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house; photo of Jonathan Toews courtesy Anna Enriquez/cc.