The Chicago Blackhawks will not win the Stanley Cup this year. Or so says just about every one posting their predictions on Twitter and at http://bracketchallenge.nhl.
It's not hard to see why so few people think Chicago won't repeat -- other than their 12 game winning streak way back in January, they have not been a dominant hockey team this season. Despite seemingly winning the trade deadline by acquiring Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise, and Tomas Fleischmann, they failed to beat a playoff-qualifying team in their final 8 tries. In fact, the last playoff team the Hawks beat was Detroit, and they're not even in the same Conference. The last Western Conference playoff team Chicago beat was just before Valentine's Day when they managed to get past Anaheim, and even that required overtime.
So I'm not here to tell you the Hawks are going to repeat. Based on their recent play, there are many other teams that seem to be peaking at the right time, including Anaheim, LA, and most notably St. Louis, which finished 14-4 in its final 18 games, including twice beating the Hawks (though both games went to OT). The Hawks were actually below .500 in March, going 5-6-2.
The defense has not been great, Duncan Keith will miss game one due to a suspension, and it seems that the only guys who can score lately are Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin. I'm not going to dig deep into the advanced stats here but I'll tell you that they don't paint a flattering picture of the Hawks either, particularly defensively. The team certainly looks vulnerable to a first round loss.
But just having your team in the playoffs is exciting -- every fan can believe their team has a path to ultimate victory. Upsets always happen, top seeds can get knocked out, and Playoff Hockey brings out a game altogether different from regular season hockey. So what do the Hawks have that could prove most of the experts wrong?
For one, just look at the lineup. With a fully healthy lineup, as the Hawks will have starting tonight, it seems almost unfair when you look at their lines on paper: Ladd-Toews-Hossa, Panarin-Anismov-Kane, Mashinter-Teravainen-
In addition, the team is fully healthy for the first time in a while, including perhaps the two most key guys who have been out -- Corey Crawford and Marcus Kruger. With Kruger back, the Hawks have allowed just one power play goal over their final 8 games, and Crawford established himself as a Vezina candidate this year (who could have believed that was possible?) It just feels as if the Hawks have not been able to play their game for the past 6 weeks. Many key guys have missed significant playing time recently (Hossa, Crawford, Kruger, Shaw, Keith) but head coach Joel Quenneville will have the full complement of players available to him as the series starts.
If there is one difference maker who gives me a reason to think the Hawks can pull off a repeat, it's not any player. It's Quenneville. It may be wishful thinking, but it's not all that hard to imagine that the mediocre play we have seen recently has been more due to Quenneville refusing to show all his cards to the Hawks' likely playoff opponents.
It just feels like the Hawks have just not been their true selves for quite a while. And they probably have not been. During the time since the trades, the players acquired needed to be brought up to speed and learn their new team's style. Various line combos and defense pairings have had to be tried either due to injuries or just to experiment and see what they have.
In my mind, it seems as if the Hawks have been like a marching band scrambling to make a formation. It could look like disorganized chaos, like they're just running around with no clear direction, and as if no one knows what they're supposed to be doing. And then in an instant, it all comes together, you see the pattern, and you wonder how the hell did they do that?
Yeah, I'm an optimist. I'm not an idiot though. I’m not a fan of making predictions because I don’t think it proves anything, even if you get it right. Too many things can happen to turn a playoff series, and all we know is that the Hawks are going to face a tough path to even get back to the Final, let alone win the Stanley Cup. If the team we've seen more or less the past 3 months is who the Hawks are, then sure, it'll be an early summer. But if my “marching band” analogy works out, don’t be surprised if there’s a parade to go with it.
Filed under: Stanley Cup