Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A remarkable ending to a silver season: the 2010-11 Blackhawks season eulogy

The Silver Season might not have played out like desired. The cards were stacked against the team from the start. Yet they still made it to the playoffs, went out swinging, and at the end of the day, they remain the 2010 Stanley Cup champions.
 * * *

For the final four games of the first round of the playoffs, the men of four feathers gave their fans and their city great, glorious, shining hope.

The team had started their series against Vancouver the same way they played their season: inconsistently. The Canucks outplayed them, but despite struggling, the Blackhawks hung in there. The first game was an 0-2 loss; then a 1-goal loss.

Then game 3 happened: a 2-3 loss, but the Torres hit sparked the team. The Blackhawks realized they were letting themselves being pushed around. As Captain Jonathan Toews put it, giving another team too much credit. Letting them take liberties.

In games 4 and 5 - a vastly different and motivated team took the ice, and owned it, both in Chicago and Vancouver. The game 4 romp, a 7-2 blowout, was followed by a 5-0 shutout. To ice the cake, Chicago took a 4-3 overtime win home at the United Center before a frenzied fanbase, creating NHL history in the process. Yes, Vancouver might have played better hockey that night.

But this is hockey. You don't get points for form, or style, or any of that. You get points because you put the puck in the back of the net.

And so it was back to Vancouver for game 7. The Canucks got on the board first, early, and held the visitors off the scoresheet. The Blackhawks looked drained and were not playing their best, but they also held the Canucks further off the scoresheet -- primarily thanks to the mindblowing effort of their rookie goaltender, Corey Crawford. It was a tight nail-biter of a game that ran into overtime thanks to a highlight-reel tying goal poked in underneath Roberto Luongo by Jonathan Toews, who was sprawled on the ice in the dying moments of the third period.

After the game, Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo spoke respectfully of Toews' skill, stating: “The play he made on the tying goal, not a lot of guys in the league can do that. That's why he won the Conn Smythe, the MVP of the Olympics. It was a massive play by him short-handed, and that's why he's the leader of that team.”

But in the moments after the goal, you could just about hear the noise sucked out of Rogers Arena like a giant vacuum had switched on. As discussed yesterday, so much hung in the balance of this game for Vancouver. Reading blogs and Twitter and yes, even mainstream media posts pre-game, you would think that if the Canucks had lost, the people sitting in Rogers Arena last night would've crossed the street en masse and drowned themselves in False Creek.

There can be zero doubt that the Canucks fans' mindset at that moment was, "Oh, sh--"

The Blackhawks were riding off a 3-game winning streak that had brought them roaring back from an 0-3 deficit and near-sweep from the first round. They had not brought the necessary energy to the first three games, and they had paid the price. Motivated after the third loss, they turned around their fortunes in games 4, 5, and 6 - just the 8th time in NHL history a team down 0-3 in a series had come back to force a game 7.

If they could do that, then why not believe? Why not believe this team could, at the very least, win this series?

And despite the less-than-stellar play of the rest of the team, Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford nearly pulled out the win between the two of them.

Both teams came out gunning in overtime, although the Canucks were playing with a new edge to their desperation. Just over five minutes into overtime, Chris Campoli went to clear the puck from the Blackhawks end of the zone. Canuck Alex Burrows managed to swat it down, got a step ahead of Campoli, and with a flick, sent it flying towards Corey Crawford. The goalie's arm shot up, and he caught the edge of the puck, but it wasn't enough to deflect it away. Game over. Season over.

In a spectacular moment of poor sportsmanship, Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin was dismissive and disrespectful of Chicago's historical efforts, stating afterwards, “They had no business being in the series. We outplayed them badly for five games.” His brother and teammate, Daniel, stated a similar opinion, saying, "I don't think they had any business being in a seventh game."

This pair of statements came from a pair who were the highest-scoring combo in the regular season, and yet who were a combined -13 in the last 4 games of the series. The same guys who got outscored by the rookie goaltender on the other team in games 4 and 5. The guy who was on the doorstep for a final nail in the coffin in the final minutes of the game in regulation, and passed the puck to another player at a bad angle, because he apparently didn't trust himself to hit the net.

Perhaps you're right, Henrik. Perhaps the Blackhawks didn't deserve to be in this series. If the Blackhawks had played up to their potential all season long - if they hadn't been plagued by injury after injury all season long - if they hadn't been so frustratingly inconsistent for 82 games - you're right. They wouldn't have been in this series. They should have had home ice, been facing another opponent, and maybe they even would've been the ones hoisting the Presidents' Trophy.

But that's not how the season played out. The Blackhawks didn't do their best, and yet they still got 97 points. No matter what conference you get that many points in, it gets you a ride to the playoffs. In the end, it doesn't matter that it was Dallas' loss that salvaged the Blackhawks season; the Hawks still won enough to make it.

There's an old saying in sports: a champion finds ways to win, even when all odds say they shouldn't. 

And perhaps you're right, Daniel; maybe the Blackhawks shouldn't have managed to stretch this series to seven. But they did, because the Canucks couldn't finish it out any earlier, although they had three chances to do so. The Canucks have nobody except themselves to blame for being in that position (*insert choking noises here*) and they should not have belittled the Blackhawks efforts in taking them there. The Canucks were in the position of having their foot on the enemy's neck, and they couldn't seal the deal in game 4.

Or game 5.

Or game 6.

And to be completely frank, the rookie goalie who was originally supposed to just be the backup guy this season in Chicago outplayed the $10 million goalie manning the net in Vancouver, including being flat-out spectacular in the final game. Crawford finished the series with a .927 sv% and just 2.21 GAA. Luongo finished with a .917 sv% and 2.97 GAA (not to mention getting chased not just once but twice); Cory Schneider had .878 sv% and 3.09 GAA. It just goes to show you that the better players don't always win it all.

Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville gave emphatic, immediate feedback about his goalie after the loss, stating that Crawford's game was "one of the greatest goaltending performances in a clutch situation you're ever going to see."  

How impactful was the Blackhawks' performance, especially from its rookie goaltender? Corey Crawford and Chris Campoli trended worldwide on Twitter immediately after the game. (Anything Canucks-related was only trending in Vancouver and Canada; and briefly in Chicago.) Nearly 24 hours later, Corey Crawford was still a top-10 trending topic on Twitter in Chicago; and was still trending in Vancouver.

The Blackhawks outscored Vancouver 22-16 over the course of the series. Each team shut out the other once. Three of the games Vancouver won were by 1-goal margins (game 1 was a 2-0 win). Stats cannot tell the whole story of this series: the tension, the drama. Hollywood could not have scripted this any better - third time was finally the charm for the Canucks to get past the Blackhawks.

Stick taps to Ryan Kesler, who was gracious in the win, stating, "They were the Stanley Cup champions. It took a lot for us to defeat them. They have a lot of character on that team. We were up 3-0 against an 8th-seed, but that wasn't an 8th-seed team we were playing. They were injured for most of the year."

Not only were the Blackhawks injured most of the year, but they carried injuries into the post-season and picked a few new ones up in the past two weeks. It will be interesting to see the complete laundry list (or as complete as the team is willing to admit) after the team goes through final meetings and media discussions and locker cleanout day on Thursday. Was Sharp's knee fully healed? Was Bolland fully ready to come back? Who else was nursing injuries and playing over them in the tradition of hockey fortitude?

My eulogy for this season is going to be short, because it all can be summed up in a single word which has already been used ad nauseum this year: inconsistent. 

This season started with a heart-moving ceremony that 29 other teams in the league wish they could have started with: a Stanley Cup banner-raising ceremony. Fans and players alike who witnessed it will never forget it.

The season was stacked against them from the start: more games packed into the first two months than any other team, including three consecutive weeks with back-to-back home/away games. Between the team's roster turnover, the shortened summer, one of their top D men being taken out with an injury in pre-season games, and the brutal opening month, there were a lot of things that hurt the team early in the season.

Yet, to their credit, the team wasn't out there complaining about any of that. It was mentioned briefly, but they sucked it up and soldiered on as best they could, under the circumstances.

Then as the season rolled on, the team found out the reality of the "Stanley Cup hangover". They will all walk away from this year as a learning experience. Those who won the Cup will train differently in the future. Many of those who were new to the roster this year got their first real taste of the playoffs, and they'll be hungry to make it again next year.

After all this team suffered this season - trades, injuries, the tough schedule; everything working against them to make it challenging to build team chemistry again - it seemed stacked from the beginning that the team wouldn't make it to the playoffs. But the fans wanted to believe. Jonathan Toews wouldn't stop believing, either; calling the concept "ridiculous". So for the Sedins to dismiss the Blackhawks efforts as having "no business" being in the first round or in a Game 7 was not only condescending and unsportsmanlike, but a slight against all the Blackhawks achieved despite adversity. Perhaps they were still smarting about Toews being correct about the Canucks being "exposed" as a "beatable" team.

While it is always disappointing to see your team lose in the first round, it is difficult to complain too much about how the Blackhawks went out. On April 10th, everybody though their season was done. New life was breathed in. The angst of the first three games of the playoffs has already faded, replaced by the glory and the joy and the hope that went along with games 4 through 7.

For this year, I have been at most of the home games; and I've gone to road games in Minneapolis, Nashville, Vancouver, and St. Louis. I got to witness some great hockey, some good hockey, and some bad hockey. But the game that will define this year for me is game 6 in this series. The Blackhawks weren't necessarily the better team on the ice, but they found it within them to win. Crawford was spectacular (as he would also be in game 7). And it was witnessing another truly historical moment for the team. 

The majority of this team should and will be back. The big guns, the core D, they're already sewn up - Hossa, Kane, Toews, Seabrook, Keith, etc. There's guys who were new to the team who made a difference this year and who fit in perfectly, who we should hope to see re-signed: Johnson, Campoli, Frolik.

And then there's the guys who are RFAs or UFAs, and the question of who will stay, and who will go. Troy Brouwer was a hit machine, but was as inconsistent as the rest of the team about other things he needed to be doing (e.g., getting to the net; scoring). Tomas Kopecky, who had a career year in points, but is also a bit infamous for his skills, as well. Did guys like Viktor Stalberg, brought to the team via trade, earn another roster spot for next year?

Rookies like Ben Smith and Nick Leddy have earned their spot for next year. Marcus Kruger will probably be in Chicago instead of Rockford. And speaking of Rockford, there are certainly players there who might earn their position on the club as well; I wouldn't expect to see Kevin Hayes spending too much time with the IceHogs, for example.

This season ended in disappointment; but the fans were already braced for it. Next season, the team will be better prepared. Perhaps more importantly, they will have had the summer to heal and to rest. The players who won the Cup last year should take the time to have a vacation far, far away from hockey - go someplace exotic and interesting, and do something that completely removes them from what this year has been. Take a trek across Nepal, take a tour of Tibet, go sailing around the Galapagos; just go empty the brain out, hit the reset button on the psyche, refill the batteries, and then come back ready to deal with the new season.

As much as it's appreciated seeing Troy Brouwer and Duncan Keith admit they've all  made it hard on themselves as a team, the same thing can't happen again next year. All the building blocks are in place; with a tweak here and there, and the addition of the right player or two, and next year will be another season to be proud of, with a deeper playoff run than this year.

In the meantime, good luck on your Cup run, Vancouver. You have been a remarkable team this year, and yes, the team that was better in the playoffs did eventually win it: in seven games, in overtime, in the grandest of storybook fashions. And perhaps, with that win, you will have finally buried your demons about this team...

... and perhaps not. For Vancouver has immortalized the Chicago-Vancouver rivalry outside their stadium with a statue of a man holding aloft a towel on a hockey stick, a sign of mock surrender, an indelible memory of a pivotal moment in the Blackhawks-Canucks rivalry that seems to define it to this day. 

Chicago's 2010-2011 season, and year with the Stanley Cup, ended last night in Vancouver. The Blackhawks went out bloody, but unbowed.

We look forward to seeing you again in October.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

You have to #3lieve - Blackhawks vs Canucks preview

"You know what? You've just got to go out there
and try to control the things you can control,
deal with things, and stay mentally strong."
- Jonathan Toews, during the 2010 Stanley Cup run

Tonight in Vancouver, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Vancouver Canucks face off in what is certainly the most epic of this year's round one games. There is so much history hanging over both these teams, and the teams have become one of the strongest and most vibrant rivalries in the NHL today, fueled especially by the Hawks knocking the Canucks out of the playoffs for the past two years.

It seems almost fated, then, that these two teams should meet up in the first round this year. Surprisingly, after Chicago's triumph last year, it is Vancouver who entered the series as the favorite, hoisting their freshly-earned Presidents' Trophy. Chicago struggled their way through their season, collecting 97 points (still more than three teams who made the playoffs in the East), and getting in to the playoffs by the grace of the hockey gods.

The teams were 2-2 against each other in the regular season, including a 7-1 Chicago romp of a win in the Canucks barn in November to open up their season series.

It's interesting to note that the Canucks had looked at the Blackhawks of a model of who they needed to be this year in order to succeed. After all, if you can't beat 'em... become them? Roberto Luongo gave up his captaincy and refocused on his goaltending, which paid off as he and backup Cory Schneider picked up the William Jennings for the team with the fewest goals scored against them. Players like Ryan Kesler learned to be more focused and take less penalties, although the Canucks still finished this year with the 7th-most penalties in the league. (Take notes, this'll come up again later.) And the Canucks in general did what it took to earn team and league records and firsts.

To underscore the heated rivalry, the Canucks engaged in a campaign on Twitter with the hashtag "3venge", with the idea being "third time's the charm", and a bit of revenge on their long-hated rivals. But to peruse through the Twitter entries tagged with "3venge" is to see not only team support, but to also witness the volume of anxiety, hatred, anger, and resentment that Vancouver fans have stored up against Chicago.

Pressure is strong on the Canucks. Forty years - an entire team's history - is a long time to go without a championship, especially after a stellar season like this one. There is a lot of pressure on both Canadian teams to win the Stanley Cup - to bring it "home" to Canada - but nowhere more so than Vancouver.

So coming into the playoffs, it's really not surprising that the Canucks started strongly. Perhaps it was more startling to see how badly the Blackhawks played in the first two games, getting badly outworked and outplayed, before finding their feet in the third game. Despite game one looking like an AHL team playing against a playoff team, Vancouver only won it 2-0; and the next two wins were just 1-goal margins.

After the third, a frustrating loss at home in the United Center, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews was interviewed, and he said, "Everybody wants to look at the stats all year, and talk about what they do well, and how good of a team they are. And that’s what’s frustrating because we’re not exposing them for what they really are. I think a lot of people outside this locker room are giving them too much credit and maybe we are as well.’’

When asked what, exactly, the Canucks were, Toews replied, "A beatable team."

Sports writers snickered behind their recorders, and it gained more than a few chuckles on various hockey programs. How silly of Toews to suggest such a concept. Didn't the Blackhawks realize that they were dealing with an unstoppable Canadian juggernaut?

But after taking those three loses to open the playoffs, Chicago repeated that November performance last Tuesday, roaring before a wild home crowd to a 7-2 win followed by a 5-0 win a few nights later on Vancouver ice. Chicago outplayed Vancouver both nights, but especially in game 4. The Blackhawks were not about to go quietly.

The biggest story was that the Blackhawks chased Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo from the ice not just once but twice in two games. The $10M goalie has his Kryptonite, and its name is the Blackhawks.

The Canucks took a page from the Philadelphia Flyers book and named Luongo as their starter for game 6, but it was Cory Schneider who took the pipes on Sunday. It was actually a pretty smart move: by declaring Luongo the starter and going along with that decoy, it was an attempt to give Vancouver an edge. The team further attempted to protect their goalie by saying there was "no room for him on the bench" and Luongo sat out as backup off-ice. (No room? Funny, every other team fits all their players on the bench.)

And for most of the game, Schneider played as he has all year: very solid, despite a few bobbled attempts to play the puck. Unfortunately for him, while working against a penalty shot by Michael Frolik, he cramped up, which meant Roberto Luongo had to come in to the game. While the Canucks regrouped and resurged, coming back on Sunday in Chicago to force overtime, Chicago responded by winning the game, tying up the series 3-3 and forcing a historic game 7.

Jonathan Toews would never say that he meant that Vancouver was anything but a beatable team when he said they weren't "exposing them for what they really are". But we saw the same Canucks in games 4 and 5 that we saw for the last two years: a team that when backed into the corner began taking a lot of penalties.

Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis spoke up yesterday about the number of penalties took, but instead of admitting that maybe his team had some issues, he tried to point fingers and say that the refs were calling the games in favor of the Blackhawks in order to draw out the series. He completely failed to mention that during the regular season, he own team was the 7th-most-penalized in the league while the Blackhawks were the 2nd-least penalized. He made it sound as if the penalty shot awarded to the Hawks was some grave injustice, instead of the direct result of his own player tripping up Michael Frolik on his way to the net. He wailed about the injustice of a non-injury, unpenalized puck-possession hit on Kevin Bieska, while his own player, Raffi Torres, had dealt Blackhawk Brent Seabrook a concussion while checking Seabrook, who didn't even have puck possession at the time. And despite his lawyer-precise listing of the statistics, he failed to mention that all the goals in game 6 were scored on even strength and that despite having more PPOs, Chicago certainly isn't taking very good advantage of them.

But the failed ref calls go both ways. Vancouver fans can claim conspiracy, but there have been plenty of penalty-worthy infractions throughout the series that the Canucks have gotten away with. Over the course of a series, these things tend to even out.

Simply another tactic to draw heat and attention away from the team.

The Chicago Blackhawks haven't had their best year. Until Duncan Keith spoke up a few days ago, talking frankly about his season, nobody was admitting to any kind of "Cup hangover", although certainly their play on the ice reflected it. But finally, in the playoffs, in game 4, and 5, and 6, when it mattered, the team has begun showing what it is capable of all year.

Gone for the Blackhawks is the pressure of the regular season. It's not to say it's entirely disappeared; but the team is living on grace right now. Their entry into the playoffs was a gift. The odds were against them. But, like the champions they still are, they have risen to the occassion - and most importantly, they have been having fun again.

The core players keep talking about how much "fun" they are having in the playoffs. The newest additions to the team have contributed some of the biggest plays - notably, Frolik scoring on the penalty shot he was awarded, and Rockford callup Ben Smith coming up huge in overtime for game 6. You can see the joy and delight in both their faces in the newest "History will be made" commercial.

Most importantly, Chicago has played with the hearts of champions. When the odds were completely out of their favor, they responded with a huge win. And another. And a third.

Coming into tonight's important game 7, it really is anybody's game. It boils down tonight to one game, one win.

Statistics go out the window tonight. Nothing ever matters except what happens between the first puck drop and the final goal horn.

The Canucks have plenty in their favor. Home ice, home crowd. If they can settle their minds down, and play a solid - and here's the important part - clean game, they might even have the edge. If Luongo can come up big the way he has in major games like the Olympics, they might win.

But on the other side of the ice, the Blackhawks have a lot going for them, too. They're playing like the Stanley Cup champions that they are. They have the experience of winning last year's Cup. They have drive, desire, skill. Toews has had a great deal of good fortune in this building: he got drafted here, he won a gold medal here, he's closed out series against the Canucks before here. He's overdue to come up big, as are most of Chicago's stars. Until tonight, it's been all about the grinders; tonight it has to be as much about the stars, the core.

In response to the "3venge" tag, Blackhawks fan "@Hawknut suggested "#3lieve", and the Blackhawks fans have embraced it. Unlike the chip-on-the-shoulder mentality of "3venge", the driving force behind "3lieve" is that the Hawks fans believe in their team. They believe they can be champions for a second year running.

The players believe too.

Tonight should be a game for the ages. As Toews said today, "We have to empty (our) tanks. Nothing to save it for."

It's a sentiment that is true for both sides of the ice. Whoever wins, advances. If it's the Blackhawks, they will write a new and highly interesting chapter as they go into round 2 against the San Jose Sharks and the Blackhawks' goaltender from last year, Antti Niemi. If it is Vancouver, they will go into round 2 against the Nashville Predators, who achieved the second round for the first time in their team history.

If the Blackhawks win, the fans will forgive the roller-coaster season that got them here.

If the Canucks win, the series may not end with a parade down Granville Street in June, but the team may finally may have faced some of its demons in the eye. Their fans will feel vindicated. If the Canucks win, the fans will forgive them going 3-3 when they were already up 3-0 because the team will finally have gotten past the Hawks.

If the Blackhawks lose, it will be disappointing, to be sure - to get this close again, and to not win. But only 16 days ago, as game 82's final horn sounded, the team and its fanbase thought the season was already dead and buried. The team has given its fans not only the gift of a resounding rebound to finish out this series, but the team has shown that next year, with the targets off their backs and a new sense of purpose, this team should be something amazing. For Chicago, either way, it is a win for this club, although obviously, to win tonight would be the far larger triumph.

If the Canucks lose, they may never be able to crawl out from the weight of the "choker" label that will be nailed against them for the depth and scale that the loss would mean.

Either way, for just one team, whoever wins tonight in Rogers Place, there will be glory and redemption and triumph.

But only one team can come out the winner.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Blackhawks drop first game 0-2 to Vancouver

The Blackhawks dropped game 1 of their first-round series to Vancouver last night, 0-2, at Rogers Arena. Why, it's practically a tradition to lose to their rivals in the first game; this makes the third year straight they've done so - only to win out over the Canucks as the series unfolded.

Although newcomers to the fandom might think the hatred was born in the past two playoff seasons, the Chicago-Vancouver rivalry stretches back at least three decades.

The most famous incident between the two teams happened during a 1982 playoff game between the Blackhawks and the Canucks, when Roger Neilson coached for Vancouver. Coach Neilson felt his team was being unfairly overpenalized, and he finally took one of the white trainer towels, and lofted it high on a hockey stick, as if waving a white flag. Three players followed suit, and were ejected from the game. For the next game, many fans brought towels with them to wave, creating a playoff tradition of "Towel Power" that continues through the league through today. Vancouver, incidentially, went on to win that series, and marked their first appearance in a Stanley Cup Finals that year.

Now it is 29 years later, and the Canucks hope to repeat that famous season -- at least, the "beat the Blackhawks" and the "make it to the Final round" part.

Last night, the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs opened across the league, and the Chicago Blackhawks took the ice vs the Vancouver Canucks in Rogers Arena. As President's Trophy winners, the Canucks will hold home ice for however long they can continue to progress through the playoffs. Chicago, last year's defending champions, held onto an 8th-place standing, and despite wearing the mantle, are considered long-shot underdogs.

The Canucks came out in the first period and did what they needed to do: set a tone of physicality and dominance. They studied what made Chicago the better team last year, and learned from it, which showed in their play throughout the season. Buoyed by the emotions and energy of a home opener for the latest playoff round, Vancouver showed why they have had so much success this year.

Chicago, on the other hand, unfortunately showed exactly why they have spent this season on a roller coaster of inconsistency. Coach Quenneville began hitting the random number generator early, seeking to out-work the Canuck lines.

The numbers from last night at first glance seem what might've been a close game: 0-2 win; SOG nearly even at 32-33; relatively few penalties; FOW wins nearly even 48-52%.

It's the event summary sheet where you begin to see the holes: the Blackhawks out-hit 47-21. The Hawks having just 4 takeaways to the Canucks 13 (although amazingly, Vancouver gave away more, 7, than the Hawks, 3). The Hawks also struggled more with hitting the net - 19 missed and 11 shots got blocked; versus Canucks 12 missed and 18 blocked. Despite being outworked, out-hit and outplayed, Chicago was the more dominant in the second two periods - but ultimately, it didn't make much difference, as they couldn't score, and Vancouver had already put two on the board in the first.

Corey Crawford deserves more attention than he's been getting, especially when it comes to Calder consideration. Without his solid season in net, the Blackhawks wouldn't even be here. And last night, although Patrick Sharp got one of the stars of the game, it was Crawford who held his team in the game with a .939 sv% and 31 saves. There's a reason that Chicago fans have taken to calling Crawford "Crawesome".

Starting Friday, and going forward through this series, the Blackhawks have to amplify their game. Last night, they looked like a team that was out for a regular season game, while the Canucks brought playoff-level pressure to the first period. The game was a far cry from the NYR-WSH and PIT-TBL matchups earlier in the evening, especially considering the venue it was played in.

People can continue to talk about lingering "chemistry" issues from when the Blackhawks had to restructure half their team after they hoisted Lord Stanley's Cup. Gone were the grinders and energy men - players like Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager. Gone, too, is Roberto Luongo's nemesis from last season, Dustin Byfuglien.

There's been a few different matras repeated in Chicago this year, and the most common refrains are that the "core" guys have got to step up; and that the new guys have had to find their roles. Unfortunately, the core of stars on the Blackhawks roster have been hit with one injury after another, and even the healthy ones haven't found a consistent game.

Jonathan Toews has continued to lead the team as its MVP this year. At times, he has practically picked up the team and thrown them on his shoulders, it seems; but even he has bad games - and he can't do it all alone. Patrick Sharp was one of the top scorers in the league but has had a rough second half, then lost half a dozen games to injury. Patrick Kane also missed nine games and put up numbers on par with his 2008-09 season. Tomas Kopecky, not considered core and not gifted with the same level of natural talent as the men he's frequently shared lines with (Hossa, Sharp, Kane, Toews) has nonetheless had a dominant career year, with 15G and 27A. Marian Hossa blitzed out of the gates at the season opener, lost 17 games to injuries, and finished the season with lower numbers than hoped.

And perhaps most importantly, Chicago's defensive core has struggled to find its game this year, while putting up staggering TOI. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are the only two players to have appeared in every single regular-season game this year, with ironman Keith leading the league's D-men with an average 26:53 TOI/game, including an average 2:59 on the PP, and 74 more total minutes played than the next closest D-man, Jay Bouwmeester. Seabrook racked up an average 24:23/game and 2:39 average on PPs. Niklas Hjalmarsson, re-signed last summer to a new 4-year contract, has averaged only 18:28/game; and Brian Campbell, who missed 17 games with injuries, has racked up 22:58. Perhaps the most telling figures is that team newcomer Chris Campoli, acquired at the trade deadline, is seeing an average 1:39 more per game than Hjalmarsson; and rookie Nick Leddy, who only played 46 games this season but has been a more consistent performer than some of the core,

Much discussion has been spent on the constantly-evolving chemistry on the Blackhawks as the team has sought to settle down and find its groove this year. The team is carrying six rookies going into the playoffs: Bryan Bickell (LW) and Jake Dowell (C), Leddy, and late-season call-ups Marcus Kruger (C) and Ben Smith (RW).

It should be a matter of concern to the team that Ben Smith, fresh out of his first year in the AHL, looks more solid out on the ice right now than some of the players the Blackhawks have had on the roster all year. Smith tallied 19G, 12A with an impressive 17% SH% en route to collecting "Rookie of the Year" honors in Rockford. Smith looks confident on the ice and has been playing relatively well.

There are three callups to the Blackhawks that could possibly see ice time during these playoffs: Jeff Taffe (C), Rob Klinkhammer (LW), and Garnet Exelby (D). Taffe had 30G, 37A, +10 with just 22 PIM on a Rockford team that was largely mediocre this year. Klinkhammer had 17G, 29A, +14; and Exelby, who served as the IceHogs team captain, spent 7 years in the NHL, and is known for his aggressive play and bodychecking. Brian Connelly (D) was also called up today - Connelly was an AHL All Star this year. With Kopecky potentially out of the lineup on Friday with an injury sustained last night, and Ryan Johnson getting a knee-on-knee hit from one of the Canucks, perhaps we'll see Taffe in to fill in that need up the middle.

Going into Friday's game, the outlook for Chicago is pretty straightforward:
1. Remember it's playoffs season; time to amp up your game.

2. The regular season got wiped clean on Sunday night and the team was granted a second life. Find that chemistry that kept peeking out all season, and grab onto it. The Blackhawks still have the potential to be great this year.

3. It's ok to carry the puck in, and not dump-n-chase or make too many passes en route to the net.

4. Get bodies around Luongo, period. Far too much shooting all season long has gone on from the top of the circles; time to change that.

5. Use the body. Plenty of big boys on this team. The Canucks call-ups aren't playing like AHLers; they're playing like NHLers. If you're wearing that sweater, you're an NHLer... start playing like it.

6.Keep it simple, keep it clean, but do whatever you can to frustrate the Canucks. The one bright spot out of Wednesday's game that was despite Coach Q's RNG and what was barely a good game, the Sedin twins and Kesler were both kept off the score sheet.

There's still six games left. Anything's possible.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The second season: a phoenix rises in Chicago

Chicago Blackhawks vs Vancouver Canucks
Rogers Arena, November 20, 2010

Sunday afternoon at the United Center was a crushing ending to a roller-coaster season. 

The Chicago Blackhawks entered the morning's game vs. longtime rival the Detroit Red Wings with a 4-1 series edge, and coming off an extremely strong win at the Joe on Friday night. After leaving points on the table all season long, it was extraordinary that the defending Stanley Cup champions would come down to this : just one point away from not even getting into the post season to defend their title.

Missing the playoffs would seem ridiculous. It would have been a double-whammy for the record books, in fact: Chicago would have joined a handful of other teams to not have returned to the playoffs after a Cup win; and, at 97 points, would have been the highest point total in NHL history for a team to have earned and still missed the playoffs.

Four hundred miles away in Minnesota, another team waited the results more eagerly than anyone in the league: the Dallas Stars. With a Chicago loss in regulation, the Stars could still make it into the playoffs due to tiebreakers, if they could win against the Wild that night. Under last year's tiebreaker rules, the Blackhawks would have already had their berth secure; under this season's, it came down to the final games, on the final day of the season.

The United Center was packed, as it always is for this Original Six rivalry. The fans rocked the barn, with traditional chants of "Detroit sucks!" eventually giving way in the second period to "Let's go, Hawks!" 

Back and forth, the teams battled it out on the ice, scoreless until early in the second period, when Michael Frolik put the Blackhawks on the board. Detroit tied it up. Then Detroit pulled ahead, totaling three unanswered goals. Chicago scored again. Detroit made it 2-4. Chicago scored again, but they couldn't make a tying goal in the final nine minutes to at least push the game into overtime and get the badly needed point to stay ahead of Dallas.

It was anticipated that Dallas would win against the Wild that night, so for players and fans alike, it was believed that was the end of the season. From top of the mountain to not getting back in the door to the show just ten months later. 

But, as it turns out, Minnesota had other ideas.

The Wild had a rough end to their season, falling out from potential playoff contenders to 12th in the West. Everybody in the league expected Dallas to steamroll the Wild as they moved in for the kill to clinch the 8th spot over Chicago.

But the Wild has a long history with Dallas: specifically, the Dallas Stars used to be the Minnesota North Stars, before being moved to Texas in 1993. Although the NHL kept their promise that Minnesota would get a franchise again, there was a little payback waiting to be had.

Not to mention that one should never underestimate that teams who are already out of the playoff picture traditionally like to try to take out other teams on the way out the door. St. Louis had attempted to derail Chicago just a few days earlier in Chicago. 

Still, everybody was already writing off the Wild. As it turns out, the Stars must've thought it would've been an easier battle as well, because they were caught flat, and the Wild got on the board first. Although the teams' scoring went back and forth, Minnesota and Dallas started the third tied at 3. Seven minutes into the period, Antti Miettinen scored what would eventually become the game-winning goal. The Wild's defense locked down; Jose Theodore slammed the door; and across the continent, hockey fans watched in disbelief as the Wild won, 5-3.

Minnesota got a bit snarky with their website as well, proudly acknowledging what they'd achieved by announcing "By the way Chicago... you're welcome" on their front page.

Over on Facebook, the Wild's official page was flooded with messages of thanks from a grateful fan base. For the past two days in Chicago, there's been more sightings of Wild T-shirts, jerseys and hats in the city than you would have ever guessed existed here. 

The Coyotes will not be the only phoenix in the playoffs this season. 

Rising from the still-warm ashes of their season, both the Blackhawks players and coaching staff alike expressed relief, excitement, giddiness. The team was granted new life, and a chance to defend what is still theirs: the Stanley Cup. 

It is often discussed in Chicago hockey circles that "the road to the Stanley Cup goes through Detroit." Ascending to the playoffs annually over the past twenty years, Detroit has been a perennial favorite in betting circles, holding multiple Cups. 

As it turns out, now somebody else's road to the Cup goes through Chicago: Vancouver. 

If Chicago had gotten even a single point out of their final game, they would not have faced off against the Canucks; they would have started the playoffs against a team such as San Jose or Anaheim. But it was not fated to be. For the past two years, Chicago has taken out Vancouver in the second round of the playoffs.

But this year, the teams have reversed their fortunes a bit. Vancouver figured out what worked in Chicago's favor for the past two years, and applied that to their team. Roberto Luongo made the best decision to step down from the Captaincy of the team and focus instead on his goaltending. What little turnover the Canucks had was carefully recruited to fill holes. And despite a season riddled with injuries and a lineup studded with call-ups, the team bought into a system and made it work for them, all the way to the top of the league standings, picking up the President's Trophy, the William Jennings, and another Art Ross along the way. 

Vancouver stands where Chicago did a year ago: weighted down by the expectations of a city that has waited 40 years for a championship, with a team buoyed by such a good year that they bear the label "team of destiny". Everything about this team suggests that there is more than enough hope and reason to believe that yes, the Canucks can finally do it all this year. The pressure is heavy, and Canada's best hopes hang on Vancouver, not Montréal, to bring the Cup back across the border this season.

It takes little imagination to believe that Vancouver must have sighed a collective breath of relief when Chicago lost on Sunday morning, and the Canucks wouldn't have to face their dreaded rival at all ... and an equally sharp breath later in the evening, when Chicago clinched the 8th spot and became their first round opponent.

But it is only fitting that Vancouver should have to face Chicago. The Blackhawks have been their nemesis for too long.

As for Chicago, they have nothing to lose at this point. As of 2 p.m. CDT on Sunday afternoon, they thought they had already lost it all. All the team turnover, all the pain, all the struggles, all the injuries, all the inconsistencies, all the points left in games had taken their toll. 

In a split second, hope disappeared and the season was believed to be over.

As the Blackhawks stood, stunned and dejected after the final horn of their game, the target that had been on their back all season fell away, to be placed instead on the back of the Vancouver Canucks, owners of the best record in the NHL this season.

But later that night, the Wild gave Chicago a gift nay, practically their blessings. 

And in that moment, last year's champions became the underdogs, and the Canucks became the ones to beat.

New life, new energy for Chicago. No longer any of the baggage the team had carried for eight months. A page turned; a new chapter to be written.

The Blackhawks enter the second season a new team. Gone are the 82 games of the regular season. The slate is wiped clean. You want to talk statistics? Those are gone, too, good for nothing but discussing the possibilities. Nothing matters now except the seven-game stretch ahead: who can win four of them first; who can outbattle the other and know the triumph of going on to the next round.

In 24 hours, it all begins.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Can the Blackhawks earn their playoff berth?

United Center, 3/26/11

One year ago today, Chicago reached the 50-win mark for the first time in club history, before going on to win the Stanley Cup.

As the final five days of the 2010-2011 regular season unfold, every point, every game is more important than perhaps any other season in recent history. This year's playoff positioning is so tight that it will come down to the last games in both conferences for not only seeing who gets into the playoffs, but how home ice will be determined.

The Eastern Conference standings jockey daily, with the top four teams all still in contention for first place. Five teams still can earn home ice advantage. Three teams - Sabres, Rangers, Carolina - are battling to find which will be the odd man out.

In the Western Conference, things are even more complicated. Vancouver, as the President's Trophy winners, are the only team with home ice advantage guaranteed throughout the playoffs. San Jose and Detroit dance back and forth between second and third. And no less than seven teams are in competition for the five unsecured playoff berths. This is even more unusual, as the Western teams usually have most of their playoff spots determined while the Eastern teams are the ones racing to the wire.

The team with the toughest road ahead of them is the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. They have three games left, but they're all against division rivals - tonight's game is against St. Louis, and the remaining two are versus Detroit. For Wednesday night's game, Chicago currently leads their series 3-2, but as any analyst will tell you, stats all go out the window when the puck drops. St. Louis has never been a team to give up battling once they've been eliminated from the post-season; just a few days ago, they posted a startling 10-3 win over Detroit, for example. Detroit has, for the first time in years, looked tired in the home stretch before the playoffs, occassionally struggling for wins, with 8 of their 21 games since February 20th being determined by OT or SO. And while Chicago has gone 3-1 vs the Red Wings this year - the only loss being the night of the Blackhawks' home opener - they were all high-speed, hard-fought battles between long-standing division rivals, so expect no less of the final two games.

After losing in overtime to the Canadiens last night, the Blackhawks have no room for error. They first must win against the Blues tonight to eliminate the Calgary Flames from contention. Then they must win out the regular season to secure their playoff berth - which, depending on how other teams finish out, could secure them a berth anywhere from 4th/home ice down to 8th.

The Blackhawks have been in "must win" mode since March 1st, but have gone 7-5-4 in that time frame.

The other team trailing the Hawks by just two points is the Dallas Stars, who practically have a "gimme" schedule to round out their season - two tilts against the imploding Avalanche, and their final game is versus the Wild. But even the Stars shouldn't assume they're going to win out; they've gone 0-2 versus the Avs this season. Granted, both of that games were both back in November, before a series of late-season trades for the Avs that gave away a lot of the top talent on the team. Colorado has been a whole lot of unremarkable since the All-Star break, plummeting out of playoff positioning by going a staggering 4-23-2 in their past 29 games. One can hardly expect Colorado to do Chicago any favors by giving a late-season rally so as to not close out their season in total shame this year, but you never know. The Wild haven't been much better - 4-10-2 since March 1st also dropped them out of playoff contention. Either way, the Blackhawks have to assume that the Stars will win out, and they must also win out in order to keep dreams of defending Lord Stanley's Cup alive.

There are at least five losses which the Blackhawks can look back upon this season and know that points were left on the table through sloppy or poor play (games vs EDM, NJD, CGY, DAL, and FLA) - up to 10 valuable points which would already have them firmly seeded into the top four for the WC. But regret will not change those games' outcomes; and the team's inconsistency has cost them dearly, leaving it to the final days of the regular season to determine their fate.

Tonight is a crucial night for the Western standings, but for no team more so than the Blackhawks. Can Chicago do what Pittsburgh, Vancouver, and Detroit have done -- despite the key injuries that are hampering them this late in the season, reach down deep into their inner reserves and find the fire and drive and desire to get wins out of their last three games?

Rookie goaltender and Calder Trophy candidate Corey Crawford has been doing everything within his power to keep his team in games and give them every opportunity to win. Now the forward lines need to return the favor, and score.

Can the Blackhawks find the necessary fire within themselves this year to win out the season and make the playoffs this year? Tonight will be an important marker as to whether Chicago is ready to defend their Cup.