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Winter Classic wraps; Blackhawks still team to beat

by Kevin Weekes

There's so much to talk about as we start 2014, but with the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic still so fresh in all our minds, let's start there.

The venue itself was beyond spectacular. Everything that the NHL has done with this game so far has been awesome. But Michigan Stadium was at a whole other level. Just to think there was an NHL game played at the Big House with 105,491 fans, it's beyond incredible. It was a sight to behold, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I don't think anyone who grew up playing the game at any level would have ever imagined they would play an NHL hockey game at the Big House. It was a historic event. The whole world's eyes were on the Winter Classic and that's pretty special.

For the fans who had never seen an outdoor game, they were all blown away. Every fan I talked to was going nuts. They deserve a lot of credit.

Kevin Weekes credits the fans for providing the NHL with an unforgettable spectacle at the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium. (Photo: Getty Images)

Although it may have slowed down the actual game, the snow was what made this Winter Classic special. The snow and the elements, you couldn't have scripted the look any better. There was not a person I spoke to who had a negative thing to say.

It was truly an epic event.

It may not technically be the midway point in the NHL schedule, but in many people's eyes, the Winter Classic symbolizes the beginning of the second half of the season. Heading into it, there are so many storylines to look at. For me, it starts with the defending champs.

Will the Chicago Blackhawks continue to play the way they've played? To me, they still look every bit like the team that won the Stanley Cup. There's no quit, no complacency. I don't see any drop-off in their game.

Now they've got their man Corey Crawford back in net after Antti Raanta was just named co-winner of the NHL's Rookie of the Month for December with Martin Jones.

Another thing I'm looking forward to is how things heat up in the Eastern Conference. It's still wide open. It's anybody's ball game. The Pittsburgh Penguins lead the East in points and I think the Boston Bruins are the best overall team in the East. The Tampa Bay Lightning have been playing well and you have to give them credit. Jon Cooper has done an amazing job with that group, both with and without Steven Stamkos, who appears to be on his way to coming back.

Can Henrik Lundqvist be Henrik Lundqvist and regain his form with the New York Rangers? I don't think he forgot how to play overnight. If he can get in gear and regain his top level, that makes the Rangers a much more dangerous team.

The New Jersey Devils have also managed to stick around and exceed everyone's expectations. A lot of great performances from Jaromir Jagr to lead that group.

Jaden Schwartz
Left Wing - STL
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 17 | PTS: 31
SOG: 82 | +/-: 20
In the Western Conference, the St. Louis Blues are an excellent team that is making a big push. I love the play of Jaden Schwartz. This run he is on right now is very impressive.

The Dallas Stars also still look impressive. The line of Valeri Nichushkin, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin has been amazing. And Nichushkin is only 18. It's unbelievable.

At the end of the day, the only Western teams I see hanging with Chicago in a seven-game series are St. Louis and the three California teams. The Blackhawks just have that swagger and that belief. It's tangible.

Crawford gets hurt, they bring in the undrafted rookie Raanta, who wins Rookie of the Month, and then Crawford comes back. You can't put a price on that. There are so many good players and people on that team that the Blackhawks repeating as Stanley Cup champs is not out of the question.

If they repeat, I'll call them a dynasty. Right now, they are on the verge of being a dynasty, anyway. That's how impressive they are, to do what they have done in the cap era. If they win, hands down, it's a dynasty.

Fortunately, we have several months of hockey left to see how it all plays out.

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