Question No. 1: Who is the most dangerous Central Division opponent for the Chicago Blackhawks this season, and why?
Although I see Dallas putting up a big fight against the ’Hawks once the Stars start getting healthy, I’m going to have to go with St. Louis. As much as I can’t stand the Blues and hate crediting them for anything, they seem to have the Blackhawks’ number after winning last year’s regular-season meetings 3-2 and knocking off Chicago in the first round of last year’s playoffs.
Although it’s a much different looking team, I believe it’s a mental thing that give the ’Hawks fits vs. the Blues.
After sweeping the Blackhawks in all five regular-season games last year, including a 6-1 Stadium Series blowout, the Minnesota Wild will be looking to continue that success when the two teams square off in four meetings this year.
In a major move to inject more team offense, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher brought in proven winner Bruce Boudreau as bench boss along with free agents Eric Staal and Chris Stewart. While star defenseman Ryan Suter leads the team with 10 points, 31-year-old Staal has found new life centering the top line, scoring 4 goals and 4 assists over the first 10 games.
Anchored by a deep, experienced blue line and Devan Dubnyk’s Vezina-quality goaltending, the Wild can consistently roll four dangerous lines. Erik Haula and Zach Parise should both be back from injuries for the first tilt against Chicago on January 15.
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Even though they’re going through a slump, Nashville is still the biggest threat to the ’Hawks. They are loaded with talent and are searching for that winning formula, similar to the one the ’Hawks just discovered.
Come playoff time, any tam will have a hard time taking four of seven from these guys.
St. Louis Blues. The Blues currently sit right behind the Chicago Blackhawks for second place in the Central Division standings. They are 7-4-2 for 16 points, and the ’Hawks are 9-3-1, with 19 points. The Blues also beat the ’Hawks 5-2 in their first meeting of the season.
St. Louis made it to the Western Conference finals last year, and I would expect them to make another playoff push this season. Coming that close to the Stanley Cup is only going to provide extra motivation for them. They are a very strong and solid team, and they have always posed a huge threat for the Chicago Blackhawks.
The ’Hawks and the Blues have met in the first round of the playoffs twice in the last four years, with each team coming out on top once. Interestingly, the last two years the ’Hawks won the Stanley Cup, 2013 and 2015, they were fortunate enough NOT to match up against the Blues.
With the teams’ close proximity to each other and recent playoff matchups, there is an extra rivalry there. These two teams don’t like each other. I, for one, would rather not see them in the playoffs. Perhaps a win against the Blues this coming Wednesday could get them a little closer to that goal.
Before the season began, I picked Nashville to win the Central Division. I’m not moving from that pick just yet despite a slow start in Honky Tonk, so I’ll also say the Preds are the biggest threat to the Blackhawks this regular season.
We saw a key tenant of how the Preds will try to play moving forward during the two early-season games between these teams. They want their forwards to drive the action but their defensemen to finish it off. This got Nashville one win against Chicago, and it easily could’ve gotten two.
The blue line in Nashville is among the league’s strongest. P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber make up a really formidable group, with most of them solid at-home defenders, but also most of them being guys who can effectively join a play on the offensive end.
I’d attribute their slow start (3-5-3) to playing just four of their first 11 games at home. But maybe the team is struggling adjusting to Mike Fisher as the new captain. And goaltender Pekka Rinne looking absolutely ordinary early is never a good sign.
Still, the Preds have played just 11 games. I think they’ll get things turned around in a big way and pose a major threat to Chicago down the road.
It was very tempting to list one of the usual culprits here: the St. Louis Blues, the Nashville Predators or the Minnesota Wild. And while, without a doubt, all three of these teams will pose challenges for the ‘Hawks at some point during the season, strictly talking about the here and now, all the aforementioned squads have hid respective rough patches while our boys in red, white and black have hit their first of hopefully many strides this campaign. The only thing that will get in their way is their own need for perfection.
It’s imperative for the ‘Hawks to not get in their own way and define their game for 2016-17. That means not selling the farm if a cow gives sour milk (coach Joel Quenneville, I’m looking in your direction). There will be bad games here and there, but it’s important to let this team play through the obstacles together and let them form their championship chemistry.
Before the season, I would have thought that it was Nashville, but the Predators’ start to the season has left me with some questions early on. The Blues, on the other hand, have come out as expected this season and look to continue to be a threat to Chicago.
Any team with Vladimir Tarasenko is going to be a threat. Wednesday night’s game will be a good barometer to see where this Blackhawks team has come since their opening-night loss.