There was a time, not too long ago, when the Stanley Cup Playoffs were held in the same regard as the sasquatch. But ever since the Blackhawks put a “C” on the front of Jonathan Toews’ sweater, the postseason has become an annual event in Chicago.
After two straight first-round exits, the Blackhawks surged to the top of the Western Conference this year and will enjoy home ice advantage all the way through the playoffs. Because of the Hawks’ success, the bandwagon is once again accepting applications by the hundreds.
Before the first postseason puck drops, here are a few items of note for every bandwagon fan, whether your ride began with Mikita, Larmer, Roenick, Byfuglien or Saad.
1. Owning the crease
When the Hawks made their magical run to the Cup in 2010, coach Joel Quenneville trusted an unproven goalie named Antti Niemi. And he had to; with Cristobal Huet riding shotgun, Q had to go with Niemi as long as he could.
Since Niemi (and Huet) left town, there have been question marks between the pipes. Corey Crawford looked great against Vancouver two years ago, but shouldered the blame for the Hawks losing to Phoenix last spring. After not posting a shutout in 82 regular season games last year, most fans entered this year thinking the Hawks’ success or failure hinged on Crawford and Ray Emery.
Crawford and Emery have responded to combine for a magnificent season. The Hawks have been among the league leaders in shutouts all year, and could walk away with the Jennings Trophy (given to the team that allows the fewest goals). Where there were question marks in January, now there can be confidence that Q can roll with either guy, assuming Emery’s recent health concerns are minor.
2. Most Valuable Players?
Many fans and “experts” believe Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby will win the Hart Trophy this year as the league’s MVP. But there are plenty of players making a late-season push for the award, including Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and John Tavares of the New York Islanders.
But a case could be made for not one forward in Chicago, but two.
Patrick Kane has been among the top point-producers in the NHL all season, and lots of folks have had him on the short list for some time. Meanwhile, Jonathan Toews has been arguably the most complete forward in the game this year, and has crept into Kane’s rearview mirror on the stat sheet. Among the league leaders in takeaways, face-off wins and goals, Toews is certainly worthy of consideration in his own right.
Splitting votes might cost them the individual award, but having teammates among the discussion of the game’s best player speaks to the talent at the top of the Hawks’ roster.
3. Kneel before Saad
While Toews and Kane might split votes for the league’s MVP award, Brandon Saad has a great chance to see his name on an award Kane has already won. The Calder Trophy is given to the top rookie in the NHL each year, and Saad has certainly performed well enough to be considered the best first-year player in the league.
But what is most impressive about Saad is his ability to skate with some of the smartest players on the planet; he may not have finished puberty yet, but he’s already comfortably skating with Toews, Kane and Marian Hossa. Other players have struggled to keep up with the Jedi-like playmaking skills of those three in the past, but Saad has looked like a seasoned veteran all year.
4. Killing in the name of…
Last year, we talked about how miserable the Hawks’ special teams were, and how they might be the undoing of a good Hawks team. While the “power” play continues to be cause for kids to need earmuffs in the 300 level at the United Center, the penalty kill in Chicago has been great this year.
The Blackhawks have been dominant this year because they have been the best 5-on-5 team in hockey, and their penalty kill has been among the best in the league as well. If they start clicking with a man advantage, watch out.
5. Missing in action
The Blackhawks’ season has overextended the laudatory vocabulary of anyone speaking about them, and they’ve done it without a couple of the key players from their Cup victory of three years ago.
Patrick Sharp has spent the last six weeks dealing with a shoulder injury, but the emergence of Saad and the continued strong play of Toews, Kane and Hossa have helped the Hawks keep winning without one of their best scorers.
And even though the stat sheet indicates he’s played in most of the team’s games, Dave Bolland has been a ghost for much of the season. If he can return to form as the antagonizing, shut-down center that made him so effective in previous years, he’ll become another weapon for an already-deep Hawks team.
6. Who’s the hero?
On great teams, superstars play like superstars, but oftentimes game-winning goals come from unlikely sources. And this year the entire roster has provided plenty of dramatic highlights.
So far, 14 different players have been credited with a game-winning goal for the Hawks. While you would expect Hossa, Kane and Toews to be at the top of the list, other players have certainly stepped up when it’s mattered most; nearly half of the total goals scored by Michael Frolik, Marcus Kruger and Daniel Carcillo this year have been a deciding tally.
BOTTOM LINE: These Blackhawks are for real.
Will there be another parade in Chicago this summer? Perhaps.
Last year’s team hoped the injection of youth into the roster would provide a spark. This year’s team can now look at youngsters Kruger, Andrew Shaw and Nick Leddy as players with postseason experience.
Last year’s team had questions about their goaltending. While we can’t ignore last year’s lapses from Crawford, this year’s performance by both netminders should give Quenneville (and fans) the confidence that either guy can win a game when it matters.
Last year’s team was exposed when the top of the roster wasn’t 100 percent. With Toews dealing with a concussion and Hossa knocked out by Raffi Torres, they simply didn’t have enough fire power to beat a hot Phoenix team. This year’s roster has continued to win despite Hossa and Sharp missing time late in the regular season, proving its depth to be a key to their success.
The Madhouse on Madison is the best barn in hockey, and the echoing roar reaches a few extra decibels when the postseason begins. This year, with confident goalies, experienced depth and healthy superstars, the Hawks could have what it takes to make this another thrilling spring.