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One minute remaining: midseason measuring stick

by Harvey Wittenberg / Chicago Blackhawks

There's no doubt that winning three Stanley Cups in six seasons is an amazing feat in today's salary cap era, and having won the Cup last year brings added pressure. Being in the Central Division, which many regard as the toughest in the NHL, doesn't provide much relief either. The Blackhawks hit the midpoint of the schedule this week with back-to-back games against Pittsburgh, and their sweep over two nights may set them up for a big second half.

Last season, the two wild cards came out of the Central, and there are early indications pointing in that direction again, although there is still a lot of hockey to play. Before winning the Cup, the Blackhawks finished the regular campaign third in the division and tallied 102 points to reach the playoffs.

In comparison with last season, the Blackhawks had 56 points with 27 victories after 41 games, and this season they are at 54 points with 25 wins, not too far off that pace. The 2010 Cup team had 59 points at the midway mark, but in 2011 the Blackhawks only had 45.

Considering the changes this season due to the salary cap, it appears that the Blackhawks seem to be finding their way recently. The positives so far have been the play of Patrick Kane and rookie Artemi Panarin on the offensive side. Artem Anisimov is on a pace to surpass his best goal-scoring season (22 goals in 2013-14). Corey Crawford has a league-high six shutouts and recently played in his 300th NHL regular-season game.

Thus far, 14 different players who weren't on the roster for the finals against Tampa Bay have suited up this season. Besides Panarin and Anisimov, newcomers include Erik Gustafsson, Phillip Danault, Dennis Rasmussen, Brandon Mashinter and Rob Scuderi.

Another positive of the strong first half has been the power play, which is among the league leaders. Improving their road record, which started off slow, will be another goal in the second half of the schedule. As Head Coach Joel Quennville has repeatedly said, the first goal is making the playoffs—and then it's a whole new season.

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