Blackhawks are true champions

10-171460575-smallFor the third time in six seasons, the Blackhawks can call themselves Stanley Cup champions. With their impressive 2-0 shutout victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night, the Hawks have cemented themselves as the greatest NHL team of the salary cap era, and some people are choosing to use the word “dynasty.” Whether or not you agree with that label is a discussion for another day. For now, let’s just focus on how great, fun, exciting, legendary, etc., this team is.

The pursuit of this Stanley Cup victory really began as soon as the L.A. Kings knocked the Hawks out of the playoffs last season in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Final. The Blackhawks were one shot, one goal away from advancing to the Stanley Cup where anything could have happened. Instead, they were sent packing far too early for their liking. A bad taste was left in their mouth, and an even stronger hunger left in their minds to get right back to that same spot and change the outcome. They did just that this go around by defeating the Anaheim Ducks in Game 7 of this year’s WCF.

Once they reached the Stanley Cup Final just a couple of weeks ago, this team knew that they would not walk away empty handed again. They had too much reason and too much desire to let that happen. Essentially, the Blackhawks knew that they would win the Cup this year, only they’ll never tell us that.

As if losing to the Kings last spring wasn’t enough motivation, the Hawks received plenty more of it this year that propelled them to winning a third Cup in six years. They endured one of the toughest regular seasons a team could possibly imagine. Just before Christmas, they lost their assistant equipment manager, Clint Reif, to an all too sudden death. The players and coaches all considered him to be just as much a part of that team as anyone else, and his loss hit the Hawks harder than any of us can imagine. Then not long after, former teammate Steve Montador suddenly passed away, again pushing the players’ emotional capacities to the limit.

This team was already on a mission to win the Cup this year to avenge their Game 7 loss last year. After the deaths of two people extremely close to the team, the Blackhawks were not going to be denied the Cup. They were going to win it for those who would not be there to experience it, and they did just that.

Looking back on this playoff run, it’s really amazing to think about how good this year’s Hawks really were. Take this series against the Lightning for example. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp combined for three goals in the series, yet they still won in six games. Contributions were made up and down the lineup to get the Hawks another Cup, whether it was Antoine Vermette, Teuvo Teravainen, Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw, etc. This was a true team full of champions, and now, that’s just what they are.

130107_gq_trout_aDuncan Keith, the unanimous vote-getter for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, put together his best ever stretch of play. He finished the playoffs having played more minutes than anyone else, and it wasn’t even close. Keith finished the postseason with close to ninety more minutes than the next closest player, which is astounding. To add icing on the cake, he scored the game winning goal Monday night.

And how about Corey Crawford? The guy loses his starting job prior to Game 3 of Round 1, only to get it back for Game 6 and never relinquish it. He closed out the playoffs with a shutout to win the Stanley Cup. Had it not been for his early struggles in the first round, Crawford would have had a strong case to be the Conn Smythe winner.

10-171460575-smallAs the seconds ticked down to zero at the end of Game 6 Monday night, it was hard to believe what was happening. For the first time in most of our lifetimes, the Blackhawks were winning the Stanley Cup on home ice in front of their own fans. It was a surreal imagine that I’ll never forget. And although Stanley itself was a little late getting to the party due to sever weather earlier in the evening, it didn’t really matter. The party was on.

Watching Jonathan Toews accept the Stanley Cup from Gary Bettman for the third time, but the first at the U.C., presumably sent chills down the spines of all of Chicago. USP NHL: STANLEY CUP FINAL-TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING AT S HKN USA ILAs Toews then passed the Cup onto Kimmo Timonen, it was tears that took over for the chills. A man who nearly lost his life just a year earlier, who had no clue if he’d ever put on another pair of hockey skates, was holding the greatest trophy in sports above his 40-year old head for the very first and last time. It was truly one of the great moments in Stanley Cup history.

Joel Quenneville solidified himself as one of the single greatest coaches the sport has ever witnessed, winning his third Stanley Cup as the Blackhawks coach. What’s truly remarkable about Quenneville in all of this is that he has now won the Cup here in Chicago with three different coaching staffs. That is a testament to him and to the men he chooses to stand beside him behind the bench.

This year’s Chicago Blackhawks may not have been the best of the three teams they’ve had win the Stanley Cup over the last six years, but they were the toughest. Regardless of what adversity they faced during the regular season and these playoffs, they found a way to overcome it and came out as champions. They started this run five years ago as a bunch of “kids” who were too young and too dumb to realize what they had just done. Now, they are legends who will be looked upon as a modern-day dynasty. For those who just won the Cup for a third time with the Blackhawks, they will forever be the faces of this great organization, and rightfully so. And for a few of them, they’ll be seeing their number hang high above the United Center ice one day, as well as a bronze statue placed outside the stadium for the rest of time.

Enjoy this one, as it may be a while until the Blackhawks ever get back to this point due to imminent salary cap casualties. For now though, the Blackhawks are Stanley Cup champions.

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Blackhawks on the verge…again

10-171460575-smallWith Saturday night’s Game 5 victory over the Lightning in Tampa Bay, the Blackhawks have put themselves in position to do something they haven’t done since 1938: win the Stanley Cup on home ice. Saturday night marked the second time in three games that the Blackhawks have defeated Tampa Bay at Amalie Arena, and they did it by playing their best all around game of the series.

The first four games of this Stanley Cup Final saw the Lightning begin each game as the better team, only to have the Blackhawks get better as the game progressed. One could even argue that Tampa Bay was the better team over the course of the first four games. Saturday night’s game flipped the script, however, as the Hawks came out in the first period as the much better team. They dominated in Corsi, ending the period with a 26-14 15-_DSC2491-toresizeadvantage, and also led in shots 14-5. The first period ended with the Blackhawks also winning on the scoreboard by a score of 1-0 thanks to a major mishap between Ben Bishop and Victor Hedman.

Over the years, the Blackhawks have shown that they know how to take their game to that next level when they need to. They know when they have the chance to put their foot on their opponent’s neck, and they always seem to do so. Saturday night was no different. With the series tied 2-2, the winner moving to within one victory of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup, the Hawks knew it was time to elevate their game and scratch out a win. Add in the fact that a win in Game 5 would mean a chance to lift the Cup on home ice in Game 6, and that team had more motivation to play their best than they probably knew what to do with.

So that’s where we’re at now. The series headed back to Chicago and the Blackhawks knowing that with a win Monday night, they’ll be celebrating a championship on home ice for the first time in 77 years.

Here’s what needs to happen in Game 6 to ensure that the aforementioned does take place:

  • Get another great start. For the first time in this series, the Hawks were the better team in the first period during Game 5. This needs to happen again in Game 6. The United Center is going to be absolutely insane with noise, and the Hawks players need to feed off of that right from the get go. Getting a quick one or two (can we dream?) goal lead would be huge and put the Lightning in a very tough spot.
  • Keep it up Crawford. Corey Crawford has arguably been the MVP of this series, and he turned in yet another fantastic performance Saturday night. He definitely seems to have a boat load of confidence right now and is playing his best hockey of the year. With Tampa Bay likely to come out in full desperation mode, Crawford should expect to be tested with some quality scoring chances. It will be on him to make the necessary saves and some “highlight reel” saves.
  • Solid PK. The Blackhawks’ penalty kill has been rather brilliant against the Lightning. They’ve killed off 12 of the 13 penalties that they have taken in this series, which is a huge reason they are now one win away from clinching. Maintaining a solid PK Monday night will once again be large if they can do so. The United Center crowd thrives on successful penalty kills, which lends some momentum to the home team.
  • Star time. The fact that the Blackhawks are one win away from lifting the Stanley Cup without Patrick Kane or Marian Hossa scoring a single goal in this series is remarkable. Heck, Jonathan Toews only has one goal, as does Patrick Sharp. This speaks volumes about the depth of the Blackhawks. However, maybe now is the time for the stars of this team to make their mark. It’s never too late for Showtime.
  • Zone exits. The Blackhawks have been having a really tough time clearing the puck out of their own zone against the Lightning. Tampa Bay does an exceptional job of clogging the boards and not allowing the Hawks to get the puck out of the zone that way. This has led to numerous defensive zone turnovers and subsequent scoring chances for the Lightning. It is imperative that the Blackhawks find a way to get the puck out of their zone successfully in Game 6. Whether it’s using the middle of the ice, flipping the puck high into the air and out of the zone, or literally anything that may work, the Hawks need to do it because using the boards as a way of clearing the zone is not working.
  • Lastly, the Big Four. The top four d-men of the Hawks (Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya) have all played very heavy minutes ever since the beginning of the Western Conference Final. This is well documented. Game 5 was possibly their best performance of this series, especially for Niklas Hjalmarsson. If these guys can put together just one more great game and leave it all on the ice, the Hawks should be in good shape. With the Stanley Cup on the line, I’m confident this will be the case.

The Hawks are 9-0 in Game 6’s under Joel Quenneville. That is absolutely remarkable, but also somewhat of a meaningless stat at this point as each game and each series is different. What that does say, however, is that this team knows how to close out a series when given the chance. This is a cold blooded team that does not often give their opponent second chances. Knowing full well that with a win they can celebrate the Cup on their home ice with their own fans, it would be silly to think the Blackhawks won’t be completely amped up and ready to go Monday night.

Having already won two Cups in the last six years, the Hawks know how to prepare for a potential Cup-clinching game like this. When you’ve got guys like Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, and so on, you know you’ll be prepared and solely focused on the task at hand.

I am expecting the Hawks’ best game of the series in Game 6. I don’t think they’ll let the an opportunity like this pass by without taking advantage of it.

*Also, WIN IT FOR KIMMO!

Quick hits on the Hawks

15-_DSC2491-toresizeFriday night the Blackhawks earned a big two points with a shootout victory over the Edmonton Oilers in a game that turned out to be much closer than anticipated. The Oilers gave the Hawks all they could seemingly handle, but were never able to get a two-goal lead in the game. The Blackhawks ended up tying it late in the third before Antoine Vermette scored the shootout winner giving the Hawks a 2-1 victory.

It’s been two games now since the trade deadline has passed, and we have gotten a good look at the Blackhawks’ acquisitions in those games. Here’s what I have noticed from them, and the team, over the last two games.

  • Tuesday against the Hurricanes was the Blackhawks debut for both Kimmo Timonen and Antoine Vermette. Each player looked a bit lost out there at times, which was to be expected, but the Hawks as a team looked excellent. All four lines played great. You could tell the team was energized by the trades Bowman made.
  • Friday night, in a much faster paced game than against the Hurricanes, Kimmo Timonen was noticeably struggling to keep up. I’m not too concerned with it. The guy hasn’t played in a year, and he’s almost 40 years old. Give him a few more games to get back into the swing of things before really making any judgments about him.
  • Antoine Vermette was one of the best players on the ice against Edmonton. He had easily 2-3 great scoring chances, but couldn’t find the net on any of them. He also set up his linemates for great chances a few times, but no one converted on those either. In the shootout, Vermette scored the game winning goal after misses from both Toews and Sharp. That had to be a huge moment for him. These are positive indications, and ones that hopefully continue.
  • Corey Crawford has bounced back very well after being pulled against the Bruins a couple weeks back. He made a career high 46 saves against the Oilers on a career high 47 shots against. Pretty impressive.
  • All four lines of the Blackhawks looked really good against Carolina on Tuesday. Against the Oilers, however, the Hawks didn’t get as much production from top to bottom. Andrew Shaw definitely makes the fourth line better now that he’s on the wing there, but I think Teravainen needs to be playing every night to really give the Hawks an advantage depth-wise over most other teams. He was scratched against the Oilers, and his vacancy on the ice was noticeable.
  • Speaking of Teravainen, it looks like he’ll be playing tomorrow night against the Rangers on the second line, as well as on the second powerplay unit.
  • In practice today, Patrick Sharp was skating with Richards and Carcillo on the third line. I have two problems with this. First of all, Carcillo looks like he might be playing tomorrow night in place of Bryan Bickell. Bickell has been underperforming, but I don’t think he should sit so that Carcillo can play. Car Bomb is not good. Secondly, I would move Sharp to the top line with Toews and Hossa to try and get him going offensively. He always seems to do well with 19 and 81, and the Hawks could really afford for his production to pick up.

With the win over Edmonton, the Hawks now find themselves just 2 points behind the Blues, who have a game in hand, and 6 points behind the Predators, who have lost 5 straight. The Hawks have a game in hand on Nashville. The Blackhawks also have Minnesota breathing down their neck now. The Wild have won 5 straight games and sit just 4 points behind the Hawks.

With about a month left to the regular season, a lot can still happen. Nashville’s once comfortable lead in the division is now not so comfortable, and the Hawks are now not that far off from being in a Wild Car position. Every game from here on out is a big one because you can expect the other top teams in the Central to win almost every night.

The Blackhawks need to ramp up their level of intensity starting Sunday against New York if they want to keep pace with the rest of their division.

Blackhawks’ new lines taking shape; Sharp addresses rumors

15-_DSC2491-toresizeNow that the dust has settled from the trades that brought in Kimmo Timonen and Antoine Vermette, we can really begin to look into what lines we may see from the Blackhawks moving forward. Today was the team’s first practice since their loss in Tampa Bay Friday night, and it was also Timonen’s first with his new team. Vermette did not participate due to travel reasons.

The lines in today’s Hawks practice were Versteeg-Toews-Hossa, Sharp-Teravainen-Saad, Bickell-Richards-Shaw, Nordstrom-Kruger-Smith. After practice, Quenneville indicated that Vermette will center the second line, meaning we might see Teravainen on the third line, Shaw on the fourth, and either Nordstrom or Smith benched. It also wouldn’t surprise me if the Hawks bench Teravainen, even though I think that would be the wrong thing to do.

The defense pairings today were skewed because Keith did not practice. Timonen was paired with Seabrook, however I don’t think that will be the case tomorrow night. If I had to bet on the d-pairings, I’d say they’ll likely be Keith-Seabrook, Timonen-Hjalmarsson, Rozsival-Rundblad.

Kimmo Timonen was also taking reps with the Hawks’ number one powerplay unit today. That unit consisted of Shaw, Toews, and Hossa, with Seabrook and Timonen at the points. I am really looking forward to seeing just how big of a factor he might be on the team’s powerplay moving forward.

Both Timonen and Vermette will be in the Hawks’ lineup tomorrow night against Carolina. Since Vermette did not practice with the team today, it remains a bit of a question mark at this point in terms of how he will be used on the special teams. One would assume he’ll center the second powerplay unit, as well as take faceoffs on the penalty kill, but we won’t really know for sure until he plays.

Also, Timonen will be wearing number 44, while Vermette will wear 80. That makes it four players now wearing a number in the 80’s for the Hawks, in case you were wondering.

Patrick Sharp

15-_DSC2491-toresizeAccording to the local beat writers for the Blackhawks, Brent Seabrook addressed the media on his own today to put the Patrick Sharp and “fight” rumors to rest. He was never asked by the media to address the situations, but felt it was his job as one of the team leaders. To summarize, Seabrook made it clear that the locker room is “tight” and that there are no issues going on in there whatsoever. Jonathan Toews later backed up those statements.

Then Patrick Sharp addressed the reporters and said that the rumors surrounding him are “laughable,” yet have taken a big toll on him. He denied all the rumors and even went so far as to say he is looking into taking legal action against those who reported the rumors on the internet yesterday. Sharp said that these rumors have taken a toll on him and his family, and have even begun to affect his play on the ice. If you want to read more of what Sharp said today, I suggest scrolling through the Twitter timelines of Mark Lazerus, Chris Kuc, and/or Brian Hedger.

The fact that the Blackhawks took it upon themselves to bring these rumors up with the media today tells me that there probably isn’t anything bad going on in that locker room right now. Maybe, and quite possibly, something did happen last year as was first reported by the guys at The Committed Indian. Who knows what that may have been… As of right now though, it would appear all is good in the Hawks’ locker room despite what some morons on Facebook and Twitter are saying.

If in fact all of this crap surrounding Patrick Sharp is false, then I can’t help but feel terrible for him and his family. He has been absolutely degraded through social media over the last week. I don’t blame him for wanting to pursue legal action against those responsible for the rumors if everything really is false.

Hopefully all of this off-ice stuff gets put to rest once and for all very soon and we can begin to focus solely on the Blackhawks’ as a hockey team. There is a lot of reason to be optimistic even despite the Patrick Kane injury.

Blackhawks acquire Timonen, but may not be done

15-_DSC2491-toresizeFriday night the Blackhawks traded for 39 year old Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen in exchange for a couple of draft picks, including this year’s 2nd round pick. The Hawks badly needed to upgrade their blue line before the trade deadline came and went, and it appears that they have done so. It all depends on Timonen’s health, however.

Kimmo Timonen, a 5-time NHL All Star and 4-time Olympian (Finland), has yet to play in a game this season. Last summer, blood clots were discovered in his right leg and both lungs, which kept him off the ice for quite some time. Since being cleared to resume hockey activities, Timonen had been practicing with the Flyers and was apparently ready to start playing in games again as of Friday. He was supposed to be back in the Flyers’ lineup tonight as a matter of fact, and is likely to be in the Hawks’ lineup on Monday.

In a phone conference after learning that he had been traded to the Hawks, Timonen said that his one goal in returning to play hockey this season is to win the Stanley Cup. That’s it. He also made it clear that it may take him a few games to really get back into “game shape” and back to the level of playing that he is used to. That should come as no surprise.

While we were all anticipating Stan Bowman to acquire a defenseman before the trade deadline on Monday, Kimmo Timonen’s name was not often mentioned as a possible target of the Hawks. Now that the deal is done, let’s take a look at what the Hawks got:

  • I’m guessing most people’s first reaction to the trade was “He’s 39!?” Or something along those lines. The answer is yes, but don’t be discouraged by that. People close to him have commented that “he’s in the best shape of his life.”
  • Timonen was once one of the NHL’s elite defenseman with the Predators and Flyers. He is, as mentioned before, a 5-time All Star and 4-time Olympian. He had, and still has, incredible skating ability and great offensive and defensive awareness.
  • His game is more of an offensive style, which fits perfectly with the way that the Blackhawks play. They can easily use him on the second d-pairing if they want (or third when Oduya comes back), and the powerplay. He is another good left-handed shot from the point.
  • Despite being 39, age has not really caught up with Timonen the way it does with most aging players. He isn’t what he once was, but he’s not that far off either. He can still out-skate a lot of guys in the NHL.
  • He is a great presence in any locker room and is yet another leader we can add to the roster.
  • Timonen carries a 1-year, $2 million dollar contract with him and has already stated he is going to retire after this season.

To sum it all up, even though he has yet to play this season, Timonen was a great acquisition for this specific team. Obviously the ultimate decision on this move can’t be made until we see how he performs, but all signs look good at this point.

By getting Timonen, the Hawks now have at least four reliable defensemen on the roster. Maybe even five if Oduya can get back to the way he was playing the last two years. Adding Timonen now also allows Quenneville to reunite Seabrook and Keith on the team’s top d-pairing. That pair is often regarded as one of the best in hockey.

With Trevor van Riemsdyk getting set to return to the Hawks sometime very soon, the defense doesn’t look all that bad suddenly (it’s worth noting that the Hawks placed Tim Erixon on waivers today and sent Kyle Cumiskey back down to Rockford). If the Blackhawks can enter the playoffs with a trio of d-pairings that looks something like Keith-Seabrook, Hjalmarsson-Timonen, Oduya-TVR, I’d be quite happy. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be that way barring another injury.

In other news, it sounds as though Bowman isn’t done trading yet. He told reporters that he would still like to add another forward via trade by Monday. The team still has roughly 4-5 million dollars in cap space, and it appears they are intent on taking advantage of that.

Antoine Vermette and Curtis Glencross have both been heavily linked to the Hawks in trade rumors over the past few days. Vermette, a center, would be the better option of the two. He is a two-way player, is great at the faceoff dot, and would be a great add to a Blackhawks team that could use another center. I’m not so sure that the Blackhawks’ centers (aside from Toews) could truly compete with the centers of the Kings, Ducks, and even Blues as the roster stands right now. With Brad Richards’ decline in performance over the past couple months, it would be great to add a younger and bigger centerman to the Hawks’ second line. This would allow them to demote Richards to the third line and move Shaw his natural wing position, which happens to be where he is most valuable as well.

As for Glencross, he’s got a lot of talent and skill, but he’s a left winger, and the Hawks really don’t need another wing. Obviously the more scoring potential on the roster the better, but when it comes down to Vermette and Glencross, Vermette would be the better fit. Especially if/when Kane comes back in the playoffs.

There are also A LOT of Patrick Sharp rumors out there right now. And by rumors, I mean hockey rumors, and non-hockey rumors… Supposedly the Hawks have had trade discussions with Detroit, Montreal, and Washington regarding Sharp. That was reported by a number of NHL reporters and writers. At the same time, however, Sharp’s agent is claiming that the Hawks told him Sharp will not be dealt by the trade deadline. With Kane now out, I think it would be smart to hang onto Sharp unless they’re getting a top 6 forward in return.

As for the non-hockey rumors surrounding Patrick Sharp, they’ve actually been there since last year, but only now is the average fan finding out about them. If I can say one thing, it’s this: Be cautious with what you believe. There are a lot of rumors out there right now, leading me to think that something did in fact happen, but I’m also being real careful with what I choose to see as facts. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire, but just how big of a fire? Until that information is leaked and confirmed, take the rumors with a grain of salt. Don’t believe everything you read. If the situation inside the locker room is really as bad as some are making it sound, I think we see Sharp get traded by the deadline. Keep in mind though that this supposed “stuff” was already there before the season even started. It didn’t just happen in the last week.

That’s all for now. The next 48 hours should be fun.