The last time the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, all the way back in 2010, they lost half their roster to trades and free agency that summer. The following season, they barely made the playoffs as an 8 seed and lost in the first round. After their most recent championship, the Blackhawks only lost three skaters and a goaltender, all of whom have been ably replaced. Though Michael Frolik’s presence on the penalty kill is still missed (Chicago sits 26th), the defending champions are otherwise enjoying an excellent season. With a total of 82 points, the Blackhawks (34-10-14) are first in the Central Division and for a long stretch back in December led the NHL. Though the Anaheim Ducks have surpassed the Hawks in the overall standings and St. Louis is hot on their heels in the Central, Chicago has repeatedly shown resiliency when faced with adversity.
Perhaps the best example of that was during their hot streak from Thanksgiving till the end of 2013, when rookie goaltender Antti Raanta stepped in for injured regulars Corey Crawford and Nikolai Khabibulin. Raanta, signed in June after winning the Finnish Liiga championship and MVP of both the regular season and playoffs, was called up from Chicago’s AHL affiliate in November when backup Khabibulin injured a rotator cuff. Raanta was able to get a few starts under his belt, going 3-0-1, before Corey Crawford went down with a groin injury against the Florida Panthers in December. The Blackhawks made it easy for Raanta to step into the spotlight by scoring 20 goals in their next three games, but the rookie proved his worth by backstopping the Hawks to the tune of 7-1-2 and first place in the league in the 10 games Crawford missed. Raanta capped off 2013 with a shutout against the visiting LA Kings December 30th. The Blackhawks have kept Raanta on as Crawford’s backup and both goaltenders have performed well; Crawford is currently 21-8-10 and Raanta is 12-2-3.
The injuries to Crawford and Khabibulin are the only major health problems Chicago has had this season, and Crawford has already healed. Khabby may have played his last game; he’s done for the season after surgery and at age 41, he doesn’t have many years left. His play was shaky even when healthy and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him hang up his skates at the end of the season (or sooner). Other players with a history of injuries have remained healthy; despite missing a large chunk of last season, Patrick Sharp has shown no signs of slowing down after playing well enough to force his way onto Team Canada for this year’s Olympics. The sexiest man in hockey is lighting up goaltenders like never before, as he’s 5th overall in goals scored and on pace to best his career high (36), set back in 2008.
Sharp’s linemates, captain Jonathan Toews and veteran Marian Hossa, are both enjoying excellent seasons and showing no symptoms of the concussions they’ve suffered in the past. They form the top line on the highest-scoring offense in the NHL; all three rank in the Top 25 in points. Behind those three, the Blackhawks are littered with scoring depth. Winger Patrick Kane is having a career year, leading the team in scoring (63), while defenseman Duncan Keith leads all defensemen in assists (44), a mere three behind league leader (and all-around superhuman) Sidney Crosby. With seven players posting 34 or more points, including two defensemen, and an incredible 12 players with 21+ points, the Blackhawks overwhelm you with relentless production. And stats. The Blackhawks are good enough to overwhelm you with stats.
Simply put, Chicago fields an elite team night in and night out. Opponents cannot afford to take a night off against the Blackhawks, who have consistently found ways to come back against deficits steep and shallow. They are the deepest team in the NHL – 10 players from the Blackhawks are playing in the Olympics, including third-string defenseman Michal Rozsival and occasional healthy scratch Michal Handzus. Chicago also has an incredible coach in Joel Quenneville, who now holds the third spot on the all-time coach’s wins list and is the only Blackhawks coach to ever win multiple championships. Chicago is a favorite to represent the West in this year’s final, and though Anaheim, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and San Jose will all have something to say about that, sooner or later, they’ll have to say it in Chicago.