Sidney Brown brings his weekly dispatches from the front lines of Blackhawks fandom every week during the hockey season.
With the all-star break past us now the drive to the playoffs begins for the Men in Red and by the look of things the Chicago Blackhawks are re-energized and ready to plant their flag atop the Western Conference.
Currently riding a two-game win streak built before all-star weekend, the Hawks’ current 7-game road trip marks the make or break point in their season with each game contributing to important standings points that are on the line. A win at Pittsburgh is already in hand but the rest of the first half of the trip consists of the top contenders in the Western Conference — possible playoff opponents — back half wraps up with divisional foes looking to play spoiler.
Consider this, the Hawks went 5-1 back on their November road trip, which included victories over the defending Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, who currently lead the West conference. The Hawks usually do their best work against top competition, and with wins already on their record each team on the first half of this trip, expect some of Chicago’s best performances to help jump start the season’s second half.
The closing half of the road trip will be challenging given the fact that the Hawks are only 4-4 overall against the three teams scheduled — Winnipeg, St. Louis and Minnesota. All three environments also bring their own tough home ice environment.
The Nashville Predators are sitting in first place in the Hawks’ central division but the Preds have recently learned of an injury to their starting goaltender Pekka Rinne which should last 3-5 weeks. This is a perfect time for the Hawks to start making a lasting impact while establishing themselves as the class in the central.
Yes, Dallas and Winnipeg are teams that have given the Hawks trouble all season, but the experience of Chicago should come through should one or both teams have the pleasure of facing the Hawks in the playoffs. With 14 points available to collect on this trip and with 2 already in their pocket I predict the Hawks will end up with 9 points for the trip.
Road Trip Schedule
January 21st at Pittsburgh Penguins (Win — 3-2 (SO))
January 28th at Los Angeles Kings
January 30th at Anaheim Ducks
January 31st at San Jose Sharks
February 3rd at Minnesota Wild
February 6th at Winnipeg Jets
February 8th at St. Louis Blues
Five Keys to the Second Half
5) Marian Hossa — With 10 goals and 24 assists, Hossa could use at least a little boost in the former category. Fatigue, as well as age, has caught up to Hossa and maybe this break could have provided the opportunity the vet needs to ensure he’ll be in the right place for the stretch run of the season.
4) Patrick Kane — The club’s top-scoring sensation has been hot all year and usually around this time of the season he hits a wall. So expect the goals to stop temporarily for a while but Kane’s ability to play two way hockey along with his skilled passing should continue to make him dangerous and a source of support for teammates.
Will Kaner score 50 goals? I doubt it, but expect his point totals to be among the league leaders by season’s end and maybe we as fans can chant MVP with no worries.
3) Corey Crawford — Crow got off to a great start to the season, carrying the Hawks early through some tough periods in the early section of the season., An injury sidelined him for most of December but since then he’s played competively and in the last week or so has started to show signs that he’s returning to form.
Expect Corey to continue carrying the load but backup Antti Raanta must get more game action before season’s end. Heaven forbid another serious injury happens to Crawford, if it does, Raanta must be trusted to maintain confidence during the season’s most important games.
2) Power Play — Ranking 14th overall in the NHL (18.9 percent), the Hawks could stand to move this unit of their special teams up a few notches. The Hawks must make teams pay with a price on the scoreboard when they allow a man advantage, doing so by keeping it simple and not trying to do too much with the puck. With their talent, goals should come at a premium for opponents, which could make the Hawks more explosive and effective when their high-powered offense attacks.
1) Health — At this time last season, both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane missed time due to injuries but managed to return just in time for the playoffs and they didn’t miss a beat but it could be argued that fatigue helped do the Hawks in against an LA Kings team that didn’t need much more of an advantage last year’s Western Conference Final.
With the expected return of Kris Versteeg sometime in February and rookie defenseman Trevor Van Riemsdyk coming back sometime in March, the Hawks should be fully loaded depth-wise by the time the postseason begins. Outside of another run by another inspired team, health will be the main key for the Hawks winning another Stanley Cup and with the age of some of the veterans on Chicago’s roster, the Hawks will have to not only be ready but as fresh as possible come mid-April.
Goals — Patrick Kane (22); Assists — Kane (29); Points — Kane (51); Goals Against Average — Antti Raanta (1.87); Penalty Minutes — Andrew Shaw (32).
Goals Per Game: 3.0 (5th in NHL)
Goals Allowed: 2.3 (2nd in NHL)
Power Play Percentage: 18.9 (14th in NHL)
Penalty Kill Percentage: 88.4 (1st in NHL)
The Road Ahead (1/28 – 1/31)*
Tonight at Los Angeles Kings, 9:30 PM
Friday at Anaheim Ducks, 9 PM
Saturday at San Jose Sharks, 9:30 PM
*All times Central
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