At roughly the midpoint of this relatively long season, the Chicago Blackhawks were riding high despite a string of overtime/shootout losses; they managed to stay at or near the top of the league, the Western Conference, and most importantly for playoff purposes, the fiercely competitive Central Division.
Then came the Olympic Break, where we saw several of our favorite players head to Sochi to battle for the gold, with Blackhawks Captain (and Team Canada Assistant Captain) Jonathan Toews leading the charge to defend the gold medal. Even though American hockey fans felt the sting of disappointment as Team USA walked away empty handed, after having won the silver medal in the previous Games, we could at least find some comfort in the fact that our Olympians returned healthy. Many other NHL teams were not so lucky.
Fans probably expected, and perhaps not unreasonably so, that the medal euphoria from our Canadians and Swedes combined with the R&R enjoyed by many of the non-Olympians would lead to a string of wins for the Blackhawks in the push to the postseason.
And yet, they have struggled – not just against the stronger teams, but even against teams like the Nashville Predators, a team currently ranked 24th with a record of 29-29-10.
The Blackhawks themselves have slipped down to 7th in the league, 5th in the Western Conference, and 3rd in the Central Division. While that is cause for at least some concern, we should also fight the urge to allow our hands anywhere near the panic button. Here are just a few reasons why the chance for a repeat Stanley Cup victory are far from over, and why fans should stay mentally tough along with the players:
- MAINTENANCE NOW, DOMINANCE LATER – Yes, home ice is great and all, but the top priority is making it to the playoffs in the first place. That is something the Blackhawks should not have too many problems doing, absent some epic meltdown or like catastrophe that would cause the team to lose its 12-point lead over the 4th-place Minnesota Wild in the Central Division. Besides, the Blackhawks do not seem to have problems winning the Cup at an away game, having won in 2010 and 2013 outside of Chicago.
- A HEALTHY CORE – As mentioned above, the Olympians came back relatively unscathed, dodging the kind of season-ending injuries that befell a few players from other NHL teams. Yes, Marian Hossa was out for a while with an upper-body injury, but boy what a comeback he made in Sunday’s game against the Red Wings! Brandon Saad left that very game late in the second period with an upper-body injury, but Coach Quenneville did not seem to think it is too serious when asked about it after the game.
- GETTING BY WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM OUR FINN – Teuvo Teräväinen has already been discussed quite a bit on this blog (here, here, and here), but the point bears repeating: even though he may not part Lake Michigan and lead the team straight to the Cup single-handed, there’s no doubting that his talent, skill, speed, and youthful vigor – not to mention filling the long-vacant 2C spot – could be the breath of fresh air that the team needs to march to the post-season promised land.
- UNDERDOG VS. TARGET – The Blackhawks have had the bulls eye on their backs all season long as the defending Stanley Cup champions. Some may say it is far harder to defend than it is to win in the first place, because of the added pressure and expectations. As long as the boys can fight through frustration and disappointment – remember this is largely the same team that rallied against the Red Wings last year after dropping three straight games to eventually prevail in Game 7 OT – they can find a way to win. The rest of the league may have started to count on a different champion this year; while it may not be accurate to say the Blackhawks are an “underdog” like the Los Angeles Kings were in 2012, there is still an advantage to being underestimated. The element of surprise can be very powerful, as the Boston Bruins will painfully remember from Game 6 last year.
- PERPETUAL BRIDESMAIDS – Fact: the St. Louis Blues have never won a Cup. Yes, there is a first time for everything, but that does not mean the first time will be this year. Chicago fans have a lot of names for that team, but one of the G-rated ones that can be posted here: Choke Artists. If the playoffs started today, the Blues would face the Dallas Stars in the first round. Even though the Blues currently lead the series against the Stars 2-1 with 2 games yet to be played between the teams, the Stars won the most recent game. Granted, they had some extra motivation to honor teammate Rich Peverley, who collapsed in the previous game and will be out the rest of the season, but the lesson remains: the Blues are a beatable team. Whether it is the Stars or the Blackhawks themselves that take them out of the run to the Finals, history more often than not repeats itself. And that’s a very good thing for Chicago fans to keep in mind.
We may grumble a lot about the team’s lack of consistency, and that’s fair – no one is saying that we can’t be critical of the team at times. What Blackhawks fans need to do now, however, is toughen up mentally, just as the players themselves will need to do down the stretch, and focus on the positive while eliminating the negative. As long as we stand united at the United Center and elsewhere, the Blackhawks can and will bring the Cup back to Chicago.