The Chicago Blackhawks have passed the first checkpoint on what they hope will be the road to back-to-back Stanley Cups, though the journey this season may be a bit more difficult.
The defending champs were assured of a sixth consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs when the Phoenix Coyotes lost 3-1 to the Minnesota Wild on Saturday. It came after the Blackhawks dropped back-to-back road games against the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators.
The road to a second championship won't be as smooth. Last season's team had the home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs; this one may not have it in any series. The Blackhawks are not likely to catch the St. Louis Blues for the Central Division title, and they're in a battle with the Colorado Avalanche, their all-but-certain first-round opponent, to see who finishes second and gets the home-ice edge.
Regardless of where they finish, the Blackhawks will be a serious contender to win the Cup for the third time in five seasons. Here are five reasons why:
1. They dominate the puck
Though they'll finish the regular season without star forward Patrick Kane and have been without Marian Hossa for stretches, the Blackhawks have scored more non-shootout goals than anyone in the NHL (242).
Chicago can score in a variety of ways. The Blackhawks have the speed and talent to score on the rush, as well as the size, skill and grit to grind down opponents in their own zone. They have big guns like Kane, Hossa, Patrick Sharp and captain Jonathan Toews up front, but their grinders and role players also contribute offensively. Second-year forward Brandon Saad and pesky Andrew Shaw are close to joining the four big names as 20-goal scorers, and players such as Stanley Cup hero Bryan Bickell and fourth-liner Ben Smith also contribute offensively.
Add in one of the NHL's best puck-moving defense groups and the Blackhawks present a puck-possession attack that's hard to stop when it gets rolling. They are outshooting opponents by an average of 6.1 shots per game and are in the top five in most shots on goal (33.4) and fewest shots allowed (27.1). You can't score without the puck, and the Blackhawks have the puck a lot more than their opponents.
2. Duncan Keith is playing at a Norris Trophy level again
Keith won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman in 2010, when the Blackhawks ended a 49-year Cup drought by beating the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Final. He's been good, sometimes very good, since then, but he's back to playing like a Norris candidate again this season. Keith is second among defensemen with 57 points, but unlike leading scorer Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, who's minus-17, Keith is plus-20, meaning that not only is he generating offense, but that he's doing it without sacrificing performance in his own zone.
Keith and longtime partner Brent Seabrook (40 points, plus-28) are among the top pairs in the NHL. They anchor a defense that also includes the shutdown duo of Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson and a solid third duo of speedy Nick Leddy and veteran Michal Rozsival.
3. Corey Crawford is Mr. Consistency in goal
It's easy to overlook Crawford, who went 16-7 with a 1.84 goals-against average and .932 save percentage during the run to the Cup last spring. He's not one of those names that come trippingly off the tongue when the discussion turns to elite goaltending. But he has the confidence of his teammates and his coach, and he's quietly putting up a fine season.
Crawford enters Sunday with a 29-14-10 record, a goals-against average of 2.22 and a save percentage of .918. The GAA and save percentage would be career-bests in an 82-game season. He's reached the point in his career where he doesn't lose his composure after allowing a bad goal. He does what needs to be done for a team of this caliber: He stops the shots that have to be stopped (and a lot of others). He gives his team a chance to win every night and can steal a game when he has to.
With a Stanley Cup already on his resume, Crawford doesn't figure to be bothered by playoff pressure. He's the ideal goaltender for this team.
4. Q keeps on generating W's
Like his goaltender, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville doesn't immediately come to mind when the elite at his position are discussed. But he's 6-for-6 in leading the Blackhawks to the playoffs, and he's the only coach in franchise history to win multiple Stanley Cups.
Quenneville is the ideal coach for a group with this kind of talent. He's got the pulse of the team, knowing when he has to crack the whip and when to pull back. He gets the most out of his talent and does an excellent job of rolling four lines and three defense pairings to get maximum production without burning out his stars.
Quenneville entered the 700-win club earlier this month, joining Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour as the only coaches to reach that milestone. That's pretty exclusive company.
5. They know how to win
Many of the core players on this season's Blackhawks already own two Stanley Cup rings; most of the rest were part of last season's team. This is not a group that's going to get flustered in pressure situations.
Chicago didn't panic last spring when the Detroit Red Wings won three of the first four games in their conference semifinal series; the Blackhawks merely went out and won the next three. They dethroned the defending champion Los Angeles Kings and won the last three games against the Boston Bruins after falling behind 2-1 after three games in the Final, capping their sensational spring by scoring two late goals to win Game 6 and take home the Cup.
Changes in free agency and restrictions on player movement may eliminate the kind of dynasties enjoyed by the Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers in the 1970s and '80s. But three Cups in five years would make the Blackhawks the NHL's best team of the salary-cap era. If there's any team that can turn it on in the playoffs, this is the one.