While teams still jostle for position inside a playoff spot with less than 10 games to go, the Chicago Blackhawks can breathe easy. They clinched a playoff spot over a week ago, and with Friday’s win over Detroit, they will be the 2013 Central Division Champions. With a top 3 birth in the Western Conference looming, we take a look at the best-case-scenario matchups for the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
- #3: Dallas Stars
Although they have won four straight games, even after gutting their squad, the Dallas Stars would be a good chance for the Blackhawks to advance to the second round relatively unscathed, and offer a tune-up as the team is introduced to the playoff intensity. Before the trade deadline, they sent the likes of captain Brenden Morrow, Derek Roy, and Jaromir Jagr all elsewhere. The Stars have fought hard the last couple of years but have came up short of a playoff spot, and they have not been there since 2007-2008, where they made it all the way to the Conference Finals and lost to the eventual champion Red Wings. Jonathan Toews and company would have other ideas, as their last meeting against Dallas was a 8-1 thumping, capped off by a ridiculous spinneramma goal by Patrick Kane himself. The main dangers on the team are goaltender Kari Lethonen, and brothers Jamie and Jordy Benn, as well as energetic defenseman Trevor Daley. For the Blackhawks to win this series they would have to have the high standard of play from the third and fourth lines, as this is what Dallas uses to win games. They may not have a lot of star power (no pun intended) but they are a team that works hard, and this could spell trouble for a runaway winner like the Hawks. However, Coach Quenneville has been here many times before, and his staff would not let that happen.
Current Record: 20-17-3 (43 Pts)
Current Position in West: T-9th
Record against the Blackhawks: 0-1-1
Predicted Outcome Of Series: 4-1 Chicago Blackhawks
- #2: Detroit Red Wings
In most years, the Detroit Red Wings would not be a welcome sight to see for Blackhawks fans in the playoffs. But for Detroit, this is not most years. After losing 6-year captain and perfect human Nick Lindstrom, the Wings have struggled to find their way, and are on the playoff bubble, a place Motown never resides with >10 games left in the year. What should have been the Blackhawks biggest competition in the Central Division has turned in to a team that can’t seem to get it done in big divisional games, especially against the Blues and Blue Jackets, a series usually dominated in red. The Blackhawks shootout win Friday night at the United Center was the 6th consecutive victory against the Red Wings, and this spells trouble for the aging core led by Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and Johan Franzen. The Blackhawks excellent breakout and offensive zone penetration would quickly tire the Wings out, and put too much pressure on All-Star goalie Jimmy Howard. The Hawks swept the season series with two shootout victories, and a 7-1 massacre that came at the Joe. Even though it looks like the Blackhawks would win this series easily, the Red Wings have had success before, and would be more prepared to rise to the call of the Playoffs than a team such as Dallas. It would be a blood-filled affair, as this is the last time that both teams will be in the same conference, (partially) ending one of the greatest rivalries in hockey. It would bring the intensity that fans would see in a series against the hated Vancouver Canucks, which could be a later matchup. This could turn out to be a good reality check for the Hawks and it would show them the level they will have to play at for the rest of the season, if they want to have a shot at the Stanley Cup.
Current Record: 19-15-7 (45 Pts)
Current Position in West: 8th
Record Against the Blackhawks: 0-1-3
Predicted Series Outcome: 4-2 Chicago Blackhawks
- #1: Columbus Blue Jackets
After several years of sitting in the Western Conference basement, things are finally starting to look up for the Blue Jackets. After trading superstar Rick Nash away, the team already showed improvement, and could finally play a complete four-line game. With the addition of Marian Gaborik, this team is looking like the one that could finally end the long playoff drought in Ohio. They have a Vezina candidate between the pipes in Sergei Bobrovsky, forwards that can do some serious damage, and a defensive core that has players such as Jack Johnson still on the way up in their career. If the Blue Jackets are really this dangerous, why are they the best possible first round opponent? That is because the Chicago Blackhawks have their number. Big time. 11 out of 11 of the last meetings between the two clubs have ended in a Chicago victory. Although the Jackets’ youth is turning this former bottom-feeder into a future contender, it is a transformation that will take more than one year of playoff berths. This team has very little post-season experience, and could not skate with the Hawks for four straight games. It would be a hard-hitting series that would test the team’s grit and discipline, which will both be needed in later rounds. The Jackets, after coming off a big win against the St. Louis Blues on Friday, play six of their last seven games on the road, which would make them a very weary team heading into the Playoffs. Sneaking in to the post-season as an eighth seed is a damning accomplishment, because all of your success is put on hold, now that you have to face the best team in your conference. The Blue Jackets and their fans deserve a playoff berth. They deserve to have towels waving inside Nationwide Arena, and an atmosphere second to none in the households of Jackets faithful. The Columbus Blue Jackets will be a Stanley Cup contender soon, but now is not the year.The Blackhawks would most likely win the series, saving as much energy as they can for the semi-finals, getting to use both goalies between the pipes, and giving the lower lines some more playoff experience before they have to start relying on their big-time players to win games. It would also give the Blackhawks a little more time to prepare for the next series if they could win Round 1 in four or five games.
Current Record: 18-16-7 (43 Pts)
Current Position in West: T-9th
Record Against the Blackhawks: 0-2-1
Predicted Series Outcome: 4-0 Chicago Blackhawks
As the push to stay ‘top dog’ in the West draws near, the Blackhawks will play another big divisional game visiting St. Louis and the Blues on Sunday at 11:30 CT on NBC Sports Network, and TSN.
LETS GO HAWKS!!
Who do you want to see the Blackhawks face in the first round? Tell us on Twitter: @Blackhawk_Up, or Facebook: Blackhawk Up.