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To Be Or Not To Be

by Staff Writer / Chicago Blackhawks
Team chemistry will provide the answer this month for the Blackhawks in their quest for a playoff berth. With February's schedule showing six road games and then the two-week break for the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, there's little doubt that the Hawks will have to win the majority of their games at the United Center in January before the month on home ice ends on January 29th with a Sunday matinee against Calgary.

The last time Chicago went into January with a record below .500 and made the playoffs was in 1996-97. The Hawks were 15-20-6 on January 1st. That team wound up 5th in the Central Division and made the playoffs with 81 points and a record of 34-35-13. This season it will probably take 90+ points to make the playoffs.

Eric Daze was in his 2nd season with the Hawks and registered 22 goals after getting 30 in his rookie campaign. Denis Savard, now an assistant coach, played his last season after being obtained from Tampa Bay. The #3 all-time Blackhawk point leader (1,096) retired at the end of the season and his #18 was retired the next year.

The following campaign ('97-'98) saw the Hawks miss the playoffs for the 1st time in 28 seasons when they won only one of their last 10 games, falling five points short of post-season play.

But going into January with a winning record does not ensure making the playoffs either as the Hawks found out in the 2002-03 campaign. Chicago was 18-13-6 but wound up 3rd in their division with 79 points, winning only three of their last 10 games.

The last Hawk playoff bound team was 2001-02 when they hit January 11 games above .500 and finished 3rd in the Central Division with 96 points. Daze led the squad with 38 goals and rookies Mark Bell and Kyle Calder played their 1st full seasons in the NHL. Tyler Arnason joined the Hawks for 21 games after a strong season with Norfolk where he eventually won AHL Rookie of the Year honors. Defenseman Jaroslav Spacek was acquired in a trade with Florida.

Injuries are all a part of the game and while General Manager Dale Tallon has made a number of key acquistions and continues to do so, the offense hasn't clicked as well as the defense.

When injuries take away 226 career NHL goals by Daze and Tuomo Ruutu's 23 goals in his 1st NHL season, that firepower is hard and almost impossible to replace.

Hawk coach Trent Yawney said at the start of the season that with the new rules, special teams will be a major factor and that certainly has been the case. So far, Chicago leads in the unenviable category of being the most penalized NHL team. The penalty killers have been steadily improving to rank in the top third of the league, but they certainly have been overworked which takes away from the offense. The power play has struggled and Yawney knows that it will have to start delivering if they are successful in making a strong playoff run.

Getting back to my opening statement regarding team chemistry, with the large number of new Hawk players -- too many to count right now because of injuries and subsequent acquistions -- it takes time and patience, which leads to frustration by the players, coaches and, naturally, the fans. However, I am not trying to dismiss that as an excuse because going into the locker room after every game at the United Center, you can see in the players' faces that they want to win!

I feel that the play of the rookies and the new younger players is promising, but the question is whether they make the big difference this season.

Again, quoting Shakespeare, "To be, or not to be?" Hopefully the answer will be positive for the Hawks when January ends!

Go Hawks! A Happy and Healthy New Year to all!

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