The Chicago Blackhawks did not start the last week of the NHL season off right, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0. Adding to the problem were win by Dallas and Calgary, moving wach to just points away from grabbing the eighth seed from the ‘Hawks.
Plagued by mediocre defense and lack of depth in the regular season, repeating has looked like an almost impossible task for the defending Stanley Cup champions.
While there may be some forces working against the ‘Hawks, there are some that still are in their favor.
Here are five reasons the ‘Hawks have a chance to repeat their 2010 playoff run in 2011.
1. A Very Winnable First Round
The most likely case for the Blackhawks, if they make the playoffs, will be either playing the Detroit Red Wings or the Vancouver Canucks in the first round.
The ‘Hawks have a 3-1 record against the Red Wings with two more games left to play before the end of the season.
In all those games the ‘Hawks have looked extremely good against their rival, never losing by more than a goal. In order to face Detroit, the ‘Hawks would have to grab the 7th seed from Anaheim, but moving up the standings might not be the best thing to do.
Right now the ‘Hawks would play the Vancouver Canucks in the first round.
Given the history of these two teams playing, this would also not be a negative. For the past two years the ‘Hawks have dominated the Canucks, eliminating them from the playoffs both times they’ve seen them.
The ‘Hawks and Canucks split the season series, so a good playoff round should ensue if these two see each other in the first round.
A first round win could be the thing the ‘Hawks need to acquire some momentum in the playoffs.
2. An Improving Penalty Kill
For the better half of the season the ‘Hawks’ penalty kill has been less than stellar. It has hung around in the 20s all season long and still sits at 25th in the league.
But the ‘Hawks have seen improvements in their penalty kill. It hasn’t been much, but the improvement is there.
A team must take advantage of any break they receive. That means putting pressure on the opponents penalty kill unit.
On the other hand, if a team can make their opponent’s power play irrelevant, they are one step closer to winning the series.
With that in mind, it’s nice to see the Blackhawks’ penalty kill start showing signs of life. It couldn’t come at a more perfect time.
3. Patrick Sharp Returning by the End of the Season
There isn’t an exact date when Patrick Sharp will return from his lower body injury, but all signs tell us to feel optimistic that it will be before the playoffs, maybe even before the end of the season.
The sooner Sharp returns, the better it will be for the ‘Hawks. They have deeply missed him.
The first line hasn’t been as effective without him, leaving the team a whole a lot less potent on the offensive side. The ‘Hawks desperately need his scoring ability after getting blanked twice in less than two weeks
Dave Bolland doesn’t look to be coming back soon, though words are he is improving from his concussion suffered early March from a check.
A healthier ‘Hawks teams means a better ‘Hawks team.
4. Solid Goaltending
One ailment the Blackhawks don’t need to worrying about is their goaltending because they have the right kid in the net with Corey Crawford.
Crawford has surprised everyone this season, posting 31 wins. He’s been the saving grace, limiting the damage of a mediocre defense. He has no playoff experience, but Antti Niemi proved that lack of experience doesn’t mean you’re going to perform badly in the playoffs.
Crawford will have a tougher time in the playoffs because of the lackluster performance of the Blackhawks’ defense this season, but fans and players have confidence in the young net-minder.
He has shown that he can be both a game changer and a reliable goaltender.
5. Great Coaching
Coach Joel Quenneville has come under some fire this season, but in reality he has done very well with the players he has, except for a few lineup mistakes early on in the season. But with the revamp of last offseason, it’s easy to see how it took a little longer than normal to find the right lineup.
Despite some mishaps, Coach Q remains a much loved and respected coach around the league. The ‘Hawk players are very confident in their coach. Respect between coach and players is an overlooked attribute in the sports world.
All great teams have great coaches to lead them. The ‘Hawks might have found theirs.
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