Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Full Strength Blackhawks Surge Towards Playoffs

Last night was the first game in over a month that the Blackhawks played a game at full strength. Last night was also the first game they've played after they became the first NHL team this year to clinch a playoff spot. So what better timing then for the best team in the NHL to start positioning itself for a deep run into the postseason? Getting Marian Hossa back, who actually returned before last night's game, as well as Patrick Sharp, gives the Hawks their full depth chart. Yes, the same depth chart that went over half the season before losing in regulation. A roster with a healthy Sharp and Hossa together hasn't lost in regulation all season. Barring any drastic injuries, this bodes well for the team moving forward.

I guess it'd be a misnomer to say that the Hawks are full strength as Dave Bolland has been out. But as the second line center is not expected to be out long, the Hawks look primed to get the team ready for a deep run into the playoffs. Since Hossa and Sharp went down, the Hawks have struggled (or maybe their version of struggling). Their remarkable depth took a hit as two of their best two way forwards were missing from the lineup. You can see the impact in a weak effort on the power play as of late and the team's struggles in the third period as well. Players like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were logging minutes usually reserved for defensemen like Duncan Keith. Now, though, the team can flatten out, sort out where to fit everyone on each line, and finish the season strong.

That's really what matters most. As we've seen not just in the NHL but really all sports, the way a team is playing as they end the season can be a huge indicator of how they might fare in the postseason. We've seen it with the Ravens and Giants in the NFL, the Giants in MLB last year, several different programs in this past NCAA Tournament, and especially with the Los Angeles Kings in the NHL last year. Hockey, maybe more than any sport, can use momentum as a major source of success. In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a team that is playing well can head into any 7 game series and feel they have a chance to win. Perhaps that's why you see so many upsets in the NHL postseason.

That's why it was crucial for the Hawks to get fully healthy. It will allow the team to mesh again and start playing consistently superior hockey heading into the postseason. The Hawks don't want to get caught stumbling towards the finish line only to have a pesky team like St. Louis take them out in the first round. Given the relative ups and downs of the Hawks over the past month, a grind it out win with a full strength squad (minus Bolland) against a good Minnesota team last night was crucial.

Handzus brings needed depth and size
If Bolland is, for some reason, out for any extended period of time, the Hawks addressed depth at center anyways with the acquisition of Michal Handzus. The big veteran center gives the Hawks even more experience up front and presents both a big target on special teams and in front of the net, and brings some needed skill on the face off. He's supplanted Andrew Shaw as the third line center, bumping Shaw down to the fourth line while Marcus Kruger fills in for the injured Bolland on the second line. If Bolland comes back, having another quality center on the roster is always a plus. Handzus is the type of player who won't complain about minutes and will be able to contribute off the bench if need be. Add that pickup to the list of shrewd moves made by GM Stan Bowman, who's reputation in and of itself has improved. Previously lambasted for gutting the 2010 Stanley Cup team (even though the contracts that necessitated the move were not his and his hand was forced), he's rebounded to field the best team in hockey right now. Perhaps his smartest move was to leave the team be the previous couple offseasons and rely on his excellent coach and talented team to come back together, instead of trading away key pieces in a knee jerk reaction to both outside and inside criticism.

There are some interesting storylines heading into the home stretch of the season, though. Chief among them is just what Joel Quenneville plans to do about the goaltending situation. Granted, it is a good one to have, being forced to pick between two good goalies. But does Quenneville stick with his preseason #1 in Corey Crawford or go to Ray Emery, who has had a fantastic season? Or does he do the unorthodox and platoon both goalies throughout the postseason? For my money, I feel that Coach Q should stick with what has worked thus far (platooning the two), and simply ride the hot hand in the playoffs. If one of the two struggles, it makes the decision that much easier. In that way, I think it will sort itself out. If one had the edge right now though, it'd be hard to pick against Emery, who had yet another lights-out performance last night.

Does Q go with Crawford or Emery
The other comes back to line pairings. Bolland seemed to be struggling before he was injured, notwithstanding a 2 goal game right before he got hurt. Does Quenneville ease him back into the rotation and rely more on Kruger on the second line? It's hard to imagine Bolland, who has always performed admirably in the playoffs, not getting the nod, but Kruger's bump to the second line shows Quenneville's confidence in him and coach wouldn't hesitate to go with Handzus and Shaw, another player he likes, if he has to. An interesting one to watch as well, but I think we'll see Bolland back on the second line when he's healthy. One thing is for sure - Quenneville will ride the hot hand not just in net, but on offense as well. If he sees Kane feeding well off Kruger on the second line, I would bet on seeing Bolland down on the third line. With the way Coach Q shifts lines, you just never know.

The Hawks though, for such a potent offensive team, need to get the powerplay sorted out. It's a major weakness on a club that can be nearly flawless on any given night. The penalty kill has been outstanding, and it'll be even more important as the playoffs start. But the Hawks have to begin to exploit teams on the power play. Additionally, they need to come out firing in third period of games where they've already established a lead. The team must establish a will that regardless of any lead, they will come out and play their punishing, puck possession style of attack. Keep up the intensity, speed, and skill on the forecheck and play with the same confidence and focus that makes the team so dangerous in the first two periods.

The Hawks will figure this out, because they have outstanding leadership, talent, and coaching. They have nine games left with a finally healthy full squad to get back to where they were when they torched the rest of the league at the start of the season. They're still atop the NHL standings and play consistently better than any team in the league. Now, with the return of Sharp and Hossa, the hope is that the Hawks can stay healthy moving forward and continue on the path of returning the Stanley Cup to Chicago.