This column appears in tonight’s Committed Indian. Help feed Sam of Second City Hockey by purchasing a copy for $3 outside the United Center. I’ll be in Section 326, Row 12, Seat 11 so you can come over and buy me a beer. GO ‘HAWKS!
Only 11 games remain in a season which a month ago seemed to be flying by at the speed of a Marian Hossa wrister. The Blackhawks were cruising, overcoming only minor hiccups and supplanting their spot at the top of the Western Conference.
The fans slipped into a comfort coma waiting for mid-April. Another game, another point or two. Ho-hum. Possible playoff matchups were being talked about in December.
Now, with the playoffs just over a fortnight away, we’re hoping these last 11 games take an eternity to complete.
The Blackhawks are mired in a slump we haven’t seen all season. Asking them to hold a lead is more difficult than asking Sidney Crosby to quit bitching. The recent injuries to Brent Seabrook and Kim Johnsson further weakened a defensive corps already reeling from the loss of Brian Campbell.
And there’s always that annoying goaltender debate.
Fact is, the Blackhawks don’t have the luxury of time on their side when it comes to getting healthy and resuming their dominating ways. Things need to be figured out – fast. They’re headed for the post-season, it’s just a matter of what condition they’ll enter.
Rather than dwelling on the current situation and analyzing the ‘what ifs,’ it’s time to look forward to first-round possibilities facing the Blackhawks. One of five teams will be heading to the United Center for Game 1 in roughly three weeks.
Detroit Red Wings (‘Hawks lead season series 3-2; play at UC on Apr. 11): I’m just going to get Scum out of the way right now, seeing as a majority of the Blackhawks fan base is prematurely leaving skid marks in their drawers at the thought of this happening.
The hockey world is begging for this matchup in hopes Blackhawks fans will get off their high horse after being Scum’s whipping boy for the past, well, long F-ing time. Roles have been reversed and I’m enjoying it just as much as the next guy. The difference between myself and most people I’ve talked to is that I’m just flat out not scared. I say bring ‘em on. We wanted them, knew the ‘Hawks would have to go through them, so here they are.
It’s not ideal facing Detroit in the first round, but what does it matter? First round or Conference Finals, the Blackhawks would have to beat them either way – and they can. Jimmy Howard has started 19 straight games and is all but assured to be The Guy for the Wings. They’re healthy and seem to be clicking on all cylinders. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg can still dominate on the offensive end, and Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Lindstrom man the blue line as well as any pair in the league.
The Blackhawks are the better team. The Wings would have all sorts of problems trying to contain the offensive firepower of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Troy Brouwer over the course of a seven-game series. Even with Campbell out, the Blackhawks will have the best overall defense of any playoff team. The Blackhawks would win this series in five games.
Los Angeles Kings (‘Hawks won season series 3-0-1): Despite the success and recent domination of L.A., the Kings scare me more over the course of a long playoff series than Scum does. Anze Kopitar is a beast and Jonathan Quick is having a nice season in goal with 38 wins and a 2.46 GAA to date.
The Kings possess two of the best young defensemen in the league in Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson. Dustin Brown, Ryan Smyth, Alexander Frolov and Wayne Simmonds are players no one would mind having on their side.
What’s going against Los Angeles is their extreme lack of playoff hockey. However, this team eerily reminds me of last year’s Blackhawks. They’re not as talented or playoff-ready simply based on style of play, but their youth and cohesiveness can make them a tough out come mid-April.
Colorado Avalanche (‘Hawks lead 2-0-1; play at Colorado on Apr. 9): All three games between the ‘Hawks and Avs have went to a shootout, with the ‘Hawks winning two of them. The propensity for these two teams to end regulation against each other tied could make this the longest playoff series based on number of minutes played in NHL history.
The Avs have tailed off a bit since starting the season on fire and currently sit in the seventh spot in the West – making them a more realistic playoff opponent than the Kings or Scum. Chicago native and former Blackhawk Craig Anderson has been a gigantic surprise with a .922 save percentage and 2.51 GAA.
Matt Duchene, 19, is almost assured to be a Calder Trophy finalist and Paul Stastny is a model of consistency. Though the ‘Hawks have had trouble closing out the Avs this season, they’ve shown they can get to Anderson and create scoring chances against their defense. The Blackhawks would wear out a team like Colorado over the course of a series.
Nashville Predators (‘Hawks won season series 4-2): The Preds are the most likely first-round opponent for the ‘Hawks, which scares me. Not because I’m afraid of them, but because I would struggle to stay awake. All six games this season were pure torture.
Watching Nashville play is about as exciting as watching grass grow. Yet, Barry Trotz’s trapping style of play has the Preds nearly guaranteed a playoff spot barring a collapse down the stretch.
Nashville doesn’t have a 50-point scorer, but Pekka Rinne has been solid in net to keep games low-scoring like Trotz likes them. It took the Blackhawks at least a period and a half to get the trap figured out before they were able to put the Preds behind them and score some goals. Twice, they didn’t figure it out at all and watched as Nashville lulled them to sleep.
I could see Nashville frustrating the ‘Hawks for a couple of games until they figured out just how much more talented they are than the Predators. Then, it’s over.
Calgary Flames (‘Hawks lead 3-0; play at UC on Apr. 4): Really? You mean Calgary can still make the playoffs? With the crap surrounding this team all season, you would think they’d be near the bottom of the conference.
The Blackhawks stunned the Flames at the UC by overcoming a five-goal, first-period deficit to win in overtime back in October, then they proceeded to pound Calgary 7-1 a month later. Add in another dominating 3-1 victory and the Blackhawks have the Flames number.
It’s shocking to think Calgary was thought to be a Stanley Cup contender before the season, and it’s especially shocking the ‘Hawks have played so well against the Flames after last season’s playoff battle. Now without Dion Phaneuf after trading their star defenseman to Toronto, the Flames are on the outside looking in and need to put together some wins if they want to snag the No. 8 seed.
The playoffs are right around the corner, folks. Hopefully the Blackhawks are as ready as we are.