Chicago Blackhawks: 3 Keys To A No. 1 Seed

Jan 26, 2016; Raleigh, NC, USA; Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville reacts from behind the bench against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. The Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 5-0. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 26, 2016; Raleigh, NC, USA; Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville reacts from behind the bench against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. The Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 5-0. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports /

The All-Star break is over, so it’s back to work for our beloved Chicago Blackhawks. As of this post, the ‘Hawks are still atop the notorious Central Division with an NHL second-best 72 points, and with more games (54) under their belt than any other team in the league.

While there is still a decent amount of regular season left, things are only going to get more intense from here, and given the landscape of the Central Division, the ‘Hawks certainly have a vested interest in maintaining their current spot in the standings.

While it’s been proven time and again that where a team finishes in the regular season is far from a definite indicator how they’ll fare in the playoffs, should the ‘Hawks take a dip in the standings, there’s a good chance they’ll being opening the postseason against either the St. Louis Blues or Dallas Stars, and while I’m confident the ‘Hawks can beat either of these teams in the first round, considering these squads have something to prove in the postseason, they’ll be out for blood, especially Blackhawks blood.

What’s more, we all know how much of a toll an intense opening round can take on a team’s playoff longevity. As ‘Hawks fans, we need only look to the 2014 postseason to be reminded.

Thus, it is certainly all but imperative the Blackhawks maintain their current No. 1 slot in the Central Division, and make their path back to the Stanley Cup Final as easy as possible. While there is certainly a lot that can happen between now and the playoffs, there are three fundamental things the ‘Hawks need to accomplish to remain on top.

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Jan 15, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Chicago Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling (33) is congratulated by defenseman Brent Seabrook (7) after defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. The Blackhawks beat the Maple Leafs 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports /

No. 3 – Keep Faith in Scott Darling

While Corey Crawford is in the midst of a career year, the same can’t be said for the other side of the Blackhawks’ goaltending coin. After saving the ‘Hawks in the first round of the playoffs last year, backup goalie Scott Darling hasn’t exactly been turning heads this season. Call it a sophomore slump, but Darling’s noticeable clunkers this season are becoming a growing concern. As a backup, no one is expecting Darling to set the world on fire (at least not anymore), but his questionable dependability has the potential to take a serious toll on the ‘Hawks further down the road, a toll they have already suffered in the past.

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During the 2013-2014 season, the Blackhawks’ backup netminder situation was a debacle, and as a result, coach Joel Quenneville leaned heavily on Crow all regular season long. Crawford stood and delivered admirably, until the Western Conference Final, when he finally came unraveled under the strain.

Given Darling’s lackluster performances as of late, there is a dangerous possibility of Coach Q going down a similar road. So we all need to cross our fingers that Darling can right his ship long enough to keep Q-stache’s confidence and Crow well-rested.

chicago blackhawks
Jan 17, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks right wing Richard Panik (14) celebrates his goal with defenseman Erik Gustafsson (52) against the Montreal Canadiens during the first period at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports /

No. 2 – Find The Missing Piece Sooner Rather Than Later

We all know now that the old adage “defense wins championships” is more than just a Nike slogan. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, from a statistical standpoint, for a team to have a real shot at winning the Stanley Cup, it needs to have a top-10 defense. While right now from a statistical standpoint the ‘Hawks are playing pretty well defensively speaking, it’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say the stellar play of Crawford makes those defensive numbers a bit more of a paper tiger than meets the eye.

While the emergence of Erik Gustafsson has been a very nice development, the fact the ‘Hawks are still rolling a rotation Michal Rozsival and Rob Scuderi, players beyond borrowed time, is getting beyond the point of infuriating.

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All this amounts to a glaring weak spot on the ‘Hawks roster that smarter teams will be all too ready to exploit, and it’s a weak spot only Blackhawks’ GM Stan Bowman can fix, either in the trade market or in house.

While Bowman has been quite savvy making trades to keep the Blackhawks’ offensive fire power largely intact over the years, his record with blue-line maintenance is less glowing. While by nature the market for defensemen is tighter and D-men are not as easy to assimilate as forwards, Bowman’s two most recent defensive transactions that brought the likes of Kimmo Timonen and Trevor Daley to Chicago were all but absolute botches.

Bowman has been more active on the trading block this season than years past, so there is certainly a decent amount of speculation as to what he has up his sleeve with the trade deadline fast approaching. We can only hope Bowman has learned from his past mistakes and is able to find a suitable defenseman capable of patching the current hole in the Blackhawks’ blue line.

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Jan 6, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; A Chicago Blackhawks fan during a break in the action in the third period against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the United Center. Chicago won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /

No. 1 – Have Fun!

During the Blackhawks’ 12-game win streak, when asked during a postgame interview why they were experiencing so much success, Jonathan Toews remarked that they were “having fun.” It may come as a shock, but for team whose captain holds the moniker “Captain Serious,” the Blackhawks sometimes seem to take themselves a bit too seriously.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the 12-game win streak is the ‘Hawks found a way to sustain prolonged success, which is an absolutely crucial characteristic any team must have in order to make a deep playoff run.

However, this aspect of a team is not something that carries over from one season to the next. Until they strung together 12 consecutive wins, three out of the four Blackhawks’ forward lines were still struggling to find their synergy.

With newer players on the ‘Hawks still trying to carve out their ideal roles, it’s important for everyone on the team to keep an open mind and stay flexible. Line chemistry is not something that happens overnight, but it doesn’t happen at all if mindsets are too rigid.