By Robert Zeglinski
For a team that’s always supposedly looking ahead, that always has the playoffs primarily on their mind, it’s been an unusual season on Madison Street for the Chicago Blackhawks. Mainly unusual, because they’ve clinched the best regular season record in the Western Conference and a third Central Division crown in eight seasons.
A veteran squad biding it’s time for a crucial coming two-month grind, the 2016-2017 Blackhawks were not.
Instead of “saving” energy for the spring march of the playoffs after meandering through the first half of the season, all of a sudden, the Blackhawks turned on a gear.
A gear, that quite frankly, no one believed they possessed. The salary cap was supposed to strip the Blackhawks after all. It was supposed to leave them a top-heavy team capable of a boom or bust anywhere in the postseason. It was supposed to put Chicago’s Stanley Cup hopes temporarily on hiatus.
The best laid plans of mice, men, and in this case – Hawks – actually, don’t go awry.
A post All-Star break stretch in February where Chicago won 20 of 27 games, obtained at least a point in 22 of those games, and vaulted themselves into home ice throughout the Western Conference playoffs as other contenders like the San Jose Sharks and Minnesota Wild floundered, has the target again on the Blackhawks’ back.
And you know they’re not done. You know deep down, that for a team that’s accomplished everything, this is a hockey team with forever lingering higher aspirations, especially after they’ve hit their stride.
Las Vegas already has the Blackhawks as the reasonable championship favorite based on odds (duh), but they’re not reading their own press clippings, quick hits, tweets, or Instagram posts. They know the playoffs are a different animal.
Head coach Joel Quenneville echoed that same ideal to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“I still think our best hockey’s got to be ahead of us to have all the success we’re looking for,” said Quenneville after the Hawks secured every necessary clincher.
The expectation, as it should almost always be with this core of players, is yet another championship. The expectation is that they take their play up another notch as the hockey becomes do-or-die and more meaningful. Playoff losses to the St. Louis Blues in the first round with a shell of a team are but blips in the past. Wiped clean from the memory, in fact.
There aren’t any excuses now.
Anything less than finishing the season on a win in June is a failure, regardless of the journey it took to get there, and regardless of the fun that was had beforehand.
With the team the Hawks have on hand and much of the rest of the league in shambles, any result but that, just isn’t acceptable.
Fun fact: Chicago has only lost one series in the Quenneville era where they have home ice, and that one series loss occurred in overtime of a Game 7 to the Los Angeles Kings in objectively, one of the greatest playoff series of all time. And the last time they had home ice in at least the West and won their division, they also obviously, won their second of three Cups in this period in 2013.
Simply put, history is on the Blackhawks’ side to capture their fourth Cup in eight seasons. As is the pressure to live up to that previous billing.
Though, Chicago’s top guys that have been here before – that being Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and of course, Corey Crawford – know what it takes. And, quite possibly, with this kind of leadership and star power in tow buoyed by newfound depth such as Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman, the Hawks will have nothing to worry about as their fate hangs in the balance in say, another potential sudden death overtime game this May.
Quenneville knows, that in the long run, his juggernaut is in good hands. As long as the cogs of said juggernaut, are running on all cylinders.
“Our top guys, when they’re our best players, we’ll always be in a good place.”
When they’ve been at their best, every obstacle that’s come the Hawks way has eventually eroded. Some of it’s luck, some of it’s legitimately being better than their opponents. The Tampa Bay’s, Boston’s, Philadelphia’s of the world (each of the three previous Final opponents), or, Detroit’s, Nashville’s, Anaheim’s, Vancouver’s can acquiesce to that fact. They know that even when you have this Hawks’ team lying on the mat, somehow, there’s still a haymaker or two hanging around, unused.
The Blackhawks have this extensive list of teams that were quite good, but just not good enough to get through them. And as the West yet again waters down to it’s competition, the list of the fallen has to grow.
Yet there’s a nagging question to ask: What is the version of this team’s best? Two years after their third Cup in six seasons, the core of the Hawks’ roster hasn’t changed much. Yet, the surrounding parts have.
As mentioned, Schmaltz and Hartman will have to play huge roles and grow up quickly in the war zone that is the NHL postseason. They’ve been too important in Chicago’s recent hot streak to go downhill in any fashion.
Defenseman Brian Campbell, is a seasoned veteran, and has won a championship with this organization before (2010), and he’ll be expected to carry a huge load once again.
Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov, easily the two biggest pieces added in the past 22 months, can also not experience any let-downs as they comprise two thirds of the Blackhawks’ second line (with Kane), arguably the best line on the team.
They were the ones who received a taste of postseason action last year, but not without the obvious heartbreak. A natural growth and ascension in performance is expected.
As everyone sits here on the brink of what should be, rather, needs to be an emotional two-month long ride, we won’t gain any obvious answers on new pieces for a little while. And when they do come, it’s emphatically positive.
Who will be the new heroes this year? Which familiar face will come through in the nick of time? The Blackhawks can only hope they come out with a new cheat sheet here.
But the thing about these Blackhawks is that they don’t hope. They somehow always have the answers to questions such as this. Their confidence and play on the ice does all the talking.
Chicago’s modern organizational slogan is “One Goal” and that’s not just clever marketing. The goal is the Cup in conjunction with the waves of emotion and focus preceding it. Seabrook, among many of the other Hawks, once reiterated this sentiment.
“Few things in life are as powerful as setting a goal. We know what ours is.”
Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer for SB Nation and managing editor at No Coast Bias. Follow Robert on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.