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Five Questions: Blackhawks must handle pressure

by Dan Rosen /

If there was a question the Chicago Blackhawks couldn't answer during their remarkable regular season, it hasn't been thought of yet. Even the most critical analyst can't invent an issue the Blackhawks didn't overcome.

The Blackhawks dealt with injuries to star players, the attention created by their historic season -- starting with a 24-game points streak, and the lull that followed when the streak inevitably ended -- and still won the Presidents' Trophy by a landslide.

Chicago now has an entirely new and greater challenge in front of it, which means new questions to answer. Here are five:

1. How will the Blackhawks handle the pressure of being the Stanley Cup favorites?

The Blackhawks are the overwhelming favorites in the Western Conference, but with that comes the intense pressure to be as good as everyone expects.

It's a lot easier to do that in the regular season than in the postseason, but this group is battle-tested enough to handle what comes its way. Nine players were on their 2010 Cup-winning team, so they know what's in front of them and how hard it will be to fulfill the team's potential.

Remember, the Blackhawks were considered serious contenders throughout the 2009-10 season and were playoff-tested then too, after going to the Western Conference Finals in 2009. This is not new territory for a lot of the core players.

2. Is Patrick Sharp fully recovered from his shoulder injury?

Sharp missed the better part of the second half dealing with a left shoulder injury. The forward missed 19 of 21 games before returning to the lineup April 24.

Sharp is one of the Blackhawks' most important offensive players. He is believed to be healthy now, but there is cause for some concern because a shoulder injury takes a long time to heal and, as Sharp proved earlier this season, it can easily be aggravated.

3. How will coach Joel Quenneville use his goalies?

This is probably the biggest question facing the Blackhawks. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery each played as the No. 1 this season, but Emery has been dealing with a lower-body injury, which could make the decision easier for Quenneville.

Even if both goalies are healthy going into the playoffs, Quenneville could start with Crawford and ride him as long as he plays well. Quenneville would be thrilled if he never has to consider changing goalies because that would mean the Blackhawks are rolling along, winning games and series.

However, if Quenneville has to switch, he would do so with confidence as long as Emery is healthy.

4. Are the Blackhawks deep enough at center?

When healthy, Dave Bolland has been Chicago's second-line center. He has struggled with the role at times and hasn't produced or defended to his usual standards. He's been the only inconsistent forward in the top six, and lately he's been dealing with some injuries.

Andrew Shaw and Michal Handzus are the third- and fourth-line centers, respectively. Each can be effective -- Handzus in the faceoff circle and Shaw on the forecheck, in particular -- but the key here is Bolland.

If he's healthy and consistent in his 200-foot game, Chicago will be fine down the middle and the depth will fall into place. If he's not, Quenneville might have to consider moving Sharp to the middle and Bolland down the lineup. Chicago is a better team when Sharp is on the wing because he's dangerous enough that the defense has to pay attention to him, and that leaves more space for Patrick Kane on the other side.

5. Will Brandon Saad be overwhelmed?

Saad hasn't been overwhelmed by much this season, but even the most confident rookie feels a twinge of nerves when he enters the playoffs for the first time. Saad should be no different, and, as always, his effectiveness likely will hinge on how he handles those nerves and where he channels his energy and focus.

Saad has turned into an important player for the Blackhawks. He's the left wing on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa and is in the discussion for the Calder Trophy because he has performed well and produced.

If Saad gets jittery early in the playoffs, Quenneville won't hesitate to push him down the lineup and perhaps move up Daniel Carcillo, who has played with Toews and Hossa this season and been in the playoffs before.


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