We’re in the final month of regular season play in the NHL, and our beloved Chicago Blackhawks have been playing pretty darn well this season and are in pretty darn good shape standings-wise; currently 2nd in a tight race between the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche for the top spot in the Central Division. The Hawks have more than demonstrated they’re contenders in the post season, but as yet another fan hoping for a historic Stanley Cup repeat, I’ve kept my standards high for our boys in red, white, and black. While I have no doubt they’ll hold their own in the playoffs and then some, there are five things the Blackhawks need to accomplish in the month they have left in the regular season to improve their chances of making it back to the promised land of the Stanley Cup Finals.
#5 – Get the Defense More Effectively Involved in the Offense
Don’t get me wrong, all of the Hawks’ defensemen have helped generate offense and set up their fellow forwards on plenty of goals all season long. What I’m referring to here can be summed up by Lil’ Jon: Shots Shots Shot Shots Shots! One consistent trend I’ve noticed this season is opposing teams tend to play the Hawks defensively by clustering around and clogging the crease in an attempt to neutralize the the Blackhawks’ many potent forwards. To counter, the Hawks have tended to work the puck around the perimeter in an attempt to free up their forwards for the perfect feed across the blue paint. This strategy is fine, but how many times have you seen a Hawks blue-liner opt to make a pass when the puck finds him in the perfect shooting lane? Taking shots from the perimeter certainly has a lower success rate, but if the Hawks’ D are reluctant to take good shots on goal when they get them, this allows opposing teams to put more pressure on the Blackhawks’ forwards in the offensive end. By taking shots from the perimeter, opposing teams will be forced to play the Hawks’ defensemen, thereby freeing up the forwards around the crease, allowing them to operate more effectively. None of the Blackhawks’ blue-liners are exactly known as scoring dynamos, but they don’t need to be; they just need to be an offensive threat. The inception and perfection of a few more plays designed around a perimeter shot would go miles for the Blackhawks in the post season.
#4 – Figure Out the %#*& Lines!
The regular season is almost over and I, along with a sizeable chunk of Blackhawks Nation, still feel the Hawks aren’t playing at their full potential because only two out of four of the offensive lines are generating consistent offensive production. The Blackhawks rightfully didn’t break the bank trying to trade for a 2nd line center because their farm system is so promising. However, because they have opted to remain shallow at the center position (Teuvo Teravainen rumors aside) for the long-term good now is the time for contingency plans. By this, I mean the Hawks coaching staff drafting more plays to account for faceoff losses and putting personnel together on lines that will best complement each other’s talents so they can form synergy over this next month in preparation for the post season. I’ve advocated how import depth chart chemistry is, and lo and behold the first and fourth lines of the Blackhawks are humming because they’ve played with each other for the majority of the season. Coach Joel Quenneville needs to draft 2nd and 3rd lines that while may not be ideal in his eyes, will put players together that have the best chance of forming a rapport from now till the start of the playoffs. Players that feel comfortable in their role and with their line mates flourish, and there’s only a month left for them to find these roles and these line mates, so Coach Q, time to hunker down with your dry-erase board and a bullet to bite.
#3 – Beat Semyon Varlamov
Strictly looking at the record between the Blackhawks and the Avalanche, you’d think the Avs, currently 2-1-1 against the Hawks this season, have the Hawks’ number. I disagree. While the Avalanche are a talented squad and very similar to the Blackhawks in many respects, they have one difference maker who if taken away, eliminates any advantage the Avs have over the Hawks: Semyon Varlamov. Everyone knows Varlamov is having a great season, but his numbers are especially frightening against the Hawks: 124 saves in 3 starts. However, if you take away Varlamov, the Avalanche are a whole different animal. Case in point, the one game where Varlamov didn’t get the start in this season’s series, the Hawks annihilated the Avs 7-2. Given the very good chance the Avs and Hawks will cross paths in the post season, it’s imperative for the Blackhawks’ collective psyche to prove to themselves Varlamov is mortal after all. We’ve all seen how hot goaltenders tend to get under the Hawks’ skin, so that’s why just getting one victory against Varlamov before the regular season is over will do wonders for the Blackhawks’ confidence in the playoffs should it take them through Denver, which as I mentioned is highly probable. They may only have one more chance this season, but once the Hawks know they can Rocky Balboa Colorado’s Ivan Drago, the better the chance last year’s Stanley Cup Finals appearance has a sequel.
#2 – Get Some Momentum
In the wake of their most recent loss last week, the Blackhawks turned around and crushed the Columbus Blue Jackets (a playoff-caliber team this season) 6-1 to remind us of the sheer potency of their offensive firepower. More refreshing it could not have been. The Hawks went on to defeat the Buffalo Sabres a bit less decisively, but it nonetheless gave them back to back wins. 4.5 words: let’s keep it going! The Blackhawks certainly don’t have the easiest month ahead of them in terms of matchups, but putting together a notable string of consecutive victories, especially against some of the formidable opponents they’ll be playing, will play enormous dividends going into the post season. It’ll bolster team camaraderie, shake off any lingering bits of Olympic hangover, but more importantly it’ll inspire confidence, palpable and electric confidence throughout the franchise and City of Chicago. The Hawks need to drop the punch clock mentality and get fired up, and the best way to do this is going on one last tear during the regular season.
#1- Win the Central Division
Lastly, and most importantly, the Blackhawks need to win the Central Division, and this has nothing to do with bragging rights, pride, or even a better match-up in the first round of the playoffs, though all those aspects should certainly be motivators. The Hawks need to win the Central Division because this season specifically it’ll likely create an ideal situation for them in the post season. Should the Hawks win the Central Division race (which will likely end in a photo finish) it’ll almost certainly pit their two biggest rivals, the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche, against each other in the first round of the playoffs. Both these teams have proven to be extremely difficult for the Blackhawks to handle during the regular season, and it would be beyond optimal for these two cumbersome squads to cut their teeth on each other in the first round. The winner of this matchup wouldn’t matter, because (knock on wood) in the second round of the playoffs the Hawks would face either a post season novice Colorado team black and blued by St. Louis’ physical play, or a Blues team that’ll be under a whole lot of pressure after historically been eliminated in the second round of the playoffs for the past two years. Nothing is a given in the post season, but you certainly should take every available advantage.
These accomplishments the Blackhawks need to have under their belt going into the post season may seem daunting, but they are up against the odds in the equally daunting task of making franchise and NHL history by raising back-to-back Stanley Cups. The Hawks have the talent and the experience, but a little luck wouldn’t hurt. However luck favors the prepared, and during this last month of the regular season, preparations must begin by building the doors for opportunity to knock during the playoffs.
FOR THE DAGGER!