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Hawks facing questions as season winds down

by Brian Hedger
CHICAGO -- Their forward lines were shaken up during a practice on Sunday at the United Center and questions still surround the Chicago Blackhawks as they head into the final eight games of the regular season.

Do the defending Stanley Cup champions -- currently sitting eighth in the Western Conference -- have enough experience to stave off key injuries to forward Patrick Sharp (knee) and center Dave Bolland (concussion) in their quest for a playoff spot?
How will they respond on the road Monday against the rival Detroit Red Wings -- after dropping a gut-wrenching 2-1 home game to the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday night? Is there simply too much inexperience and youth on the roster, which was shaken up last summer because of the Leagues's hard salary cap?

The answers will be revealed over the next eight games, but there is one thing that's certain -- if this team is going to make it into the West's playoff field, it needs the "core group" of Stanley Cup champions still on the roster to lead the way.

"They kept the core guys, or what they wanted their core to be, for a reason," said forward Troy Brouwer, who's gone 16 games without scoring a goal and is among those brought back after winning the team's first Cup in 49 years. "Now is that time where those guys need to step up."

Brouwer will be a restricted free agent, but might as well consider himself part of the "core group" that needs to pave the way to the playoffs -- along with big names like captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell to name a few.

Toews didn't speak to reporters following the tough loss on Saturday and wasn't available after Sunday's practice, but those who did meet with reporters agreed that it's time to start relying on the Hawks' Cup-winning experience. Over the last eight games, the Hawks have three meetings against the Red Wings -- two on the road -- plus road games against the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens.

"It's felt like the playoffs the past 15 to 20 games," Kane said. "We've been playing pretty well, as of late. We just can't get down on ourselves when we let one slip away. Obviously, it's unacceptable and we want to make sure we play better, but we've got to get that good feeling back in here and I think it probably starts with the guys who were here last year, part of that Stanley Cup winning team."

Coach Joel Quenneville agreed. He said the final stretch run should be looked upon as a good challenge rather than a mental burden.

"It's a fun situation," he said. "Every game's big. Every game's fun. Everybody wants to play in these type of games. You should be excited. These are playoff games. Everybody likes to play in these settings, where every shift's important and every play's important. We've been tested over the last couple years in these type of situations, so it should enhance us as we go along here, as the stage gets bigger and more important."

Sharp improving:
Sharp is not back on the ice, but Quenneville said on Sunday that his leading goal-scorer is "making rapid progress" recovering from a knee injury that occurred a week ago -- when he bumped knees in Phoenix with Radislav Klesla.

"We're really pleased and encouraged that he's been able to ratchet up his off-ice training and conditioning," Quenneville said. "We'll have a better assessment or a number of days (until he returns) once he gets back on the ice, but we've been happy with his progress."

Bolland (concussion) has made slight improvement but not enough for the Hawks to get a timetable for his return. Likewise, they don't want to rule him out for the rest of the season either.

"I don't think we'll ever get to that point," Quenneville said. "Right now it's status quo, but there's some progress."

Hawks want more from Brouwer: One of the new line combinations during Sunday's practice included placing Brouwer on the top line with Kane and Toews -- which is something Chicago coaches are hoping will accomplish two things.

First they'd like to get more offensive production from Brouwer -- who hasn't scored a goal and has just one point in the past 16 games. Secondly they'd like to get Brouwer's physical presence and size mixed in with the speed and skill of Kane and Toews.

"Whether it's him or (Bryan Bickell), we need some physicality up front," Quenneville said. "We seem to get more zone time and more threats off the rush, but we need more of a net-front presence. We need those guys to be more involved."

Brouwer agrees.

"It's been awhile since I've done much of anything except for hit people," he said. "So, I've really got to start picking up my offensive game -- especially going into the playoffs."

Dowell banged up: Rookie center Jake Dowell has a cut about three to four inches in length above his left eye after a run-in with Anaheim forward Jarko Ruutu on Saturday.
The cut took 40 stitches between periods for Dowell to get back on the ice.

Possible new lines for Hawks: Aside from Brouwer skating with Toews and Kane on the top line Sunday, newcomer Marcus Kruger centered Bickell and Hossa on the second line, Dowell centered Michael Frolik and Tomas Kopecky on the third line while the fourth line was centered by Ryan Johnson between Viktor Stalberg and Fernando Pisani.

In goal, Quenneville said Corey Crawford will again get the start against the Red Wings on Monday -- his 19th straight -- and will face Joey MacDonald instead of starter Jimmy Howard, who sprained his shoulder on Saturday night and is listed as day-to-day.
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