Dec 23, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks goalie Antti Raanta (31) takes the ice against the New Jersey Devils before the game at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
Call me overly dramatic, but this upcoming weekend, we’re going to see what our beloved Chicago Blackhawks are really made of this season.
Okay, we all know the Blackhawks are doing mighty fine so far this year. Patrick Kane is in the midst of what many believe will be a career season, Duncan Keith is in the Norris Trophy conversation once again, and Antti Raanta’s Cinderella story as relief goalie continues to unfold, to name a few high points. Oh and by the way, the Hawks are only one point away from being the best team in the NHL standings-wise, again, after holding the claim for the majority of the season.
Plus, all things considered, the Blackhawks have given their fans very little cause for concern. Sure they’ve lost games this year, and some rather embarrassingly so, but fans have come to accept every season can’t be a point streak, and the Hawks haven’t really given critics a window after a loss as they’ve consistently blown the subsequent competition away following a defeat.
However, I’m a big subscriber to the notion that statistics and headlines don’t tell the full story. Maybe my standards are too high, but I still think the Hawks have a good deal to prove this season, and their biggest test of the year will occur this weekend when they take on the Colorado Avalanche at the Madhouse on Madison on Friday, followed by an away game against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday, and then after a day’s break they take on the Los Angeles Kings in Chicago the following Monday. Playing three games in four days is tough for any NHL team, and maybe the Hawks have done it before, i.e. the Circus Trip, with great results, but this particular upcoming itinerary will be a real measuring stick for the Hawks for several reasons.
First and foremost, the Blues, Avalanche, and Kings are Western Conference teams, good ones. Unlike the Circus Trip, which was mainly comprised of Western Conference teams that have been perpetually dwelling in the middle or lower tiers of the standings, the Kings are right behind the Blackhawks in the Western Conference at #3 and the Blues are right behind them. The Avalanche have fallen from grace a bit as of late, but there are still in the conversation at #7 in the West (PS – if they were in the Eastern Conference, they’d be sitting in the #3 slot). So suffice it to say, these games aren’t noteworthy because of their proximity on the schedule; there’s a very good chance the Hawks will square off against one, if not two, and maybe even all three of these teams in the post-season, which brings me to my next point.
With the exception of the Kings, the Blackhawks have not figured out how to beat these teams. Thus far this season, the Hawks are 0-1-1 against the Blues and 0-1 against the Avalanche. In their first two meetings the Blues (employing a 2010 Nashville Predators tactic) have used their superiority in size to harass and irritate the Hawks to prevent them from finding their rhythm, and the Avalanche came out blitzing offensively against a fatigued Corey Crawford while their goalie Semyon Varlamov made a ridiculous 36 saves to crawl under the skin of the Hawks’ forwards. And while the Hawks decisively handled the Kings in their last game, Los Angles certainly is no push over, and are replete with formidable net minders Martin Jones and Ben Scrivens sans their usual starter Johnathan Quick.
Needless to say, to come away from these next few days with six, or even four points will be a tall order for the Blackhawks, but if they are able to do so, it will yield tremendous, though not immediately tangible, benefits. You have to remember the Hawks are a team that has a history of thriving in the face of adversity. You can certainly cite the more illustrious examples such as Game 5 of the 2010 playoff series against the Nashville Predators or the 1-3 come from behind playoff series victory in 2013 against the Detroit Red Wings (pause for fist clench), but you really only need to look to this season. As I mentioned earlier, nearly every time the Hawks have lost a game this year, they’ve come back in top form against their next opponent and achieved decisive victories. If the Hawks come out of this weekend’s gauntlet victorious, they will reap the valuable rewards of increased team hardiness and resilience. Not to say the Hawks have these qualities in short supply to begin with, but when it comes to making in back to the Promised Land that is the Stanley Cup Finals, the more the better.
So how are the Hawks going to overcome the arduous challenges they face this weekend? Believe it or not, all they have to do to take a page out of their own book. The last time the Hawks played the Kings, they came out in full force and tallied three goals right off the bat in the 1st period. This threw the Kings off kilter and they were never able to recover their composure and went on to lose to the Hawks 3-1. There is no reason to think this strategy won’t prove effective against the Blues and Avalanche. Instead of adopting a chess match style of game play to feel the other team out for weaknesses (which they’ve done more than a few times), if the Hawks come blazing out of the gate and gain at least a two goal lead at the very start of the game, the Avs are too inexperienced and the Blues are too undisciplined to mount substantial comebacks.
As long as the Hawks can pin all three of these teams against the wall early, and keep them there, they’ll come out of this weekend with three W’s. I know it’s easier said than done, but this is an instance where the Blackhawks need to remind the rest of the NHL, and themselves, why they are the reigning Stanley Cup Champions.
FOR THE DAGGER!