2010-2011 NHL season preview: Chicago Blackhawks

GYI0060694354-toews-brucebennett-getty.jpgLast season: (52-22-8, 112 points, 1st in Central Division, 2nd in Western Conference) The Blackhawks had themselves a good season. Winning the Central Division was good but winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1961 — ending the longest-active drought in the NHL — was a whole lot better. After getting the playoffs off to a rocky start against the Predators, the Hawks only got better and beat everyone up along the way to winning it all. They essentially put all their eggs in one basket last season to win it and they did. Kudos.

Head coach: Joel Quenneville enters his third season as coach having freshly gotten the monkey off his back. After tough seasons leading the Blues and Avalanche as their head man, and having issues with the Red Wings wherever he went, Quenneville put it all together last season and stopped toying with his goaltending long enough to get Chicago over the hump. This season, his task is a lot more difficult. While there’s still a ton of talent in Chicago, doing the delicate dance needed to repeat will be tougher with what amounts to a brand new roster.

Key departures: G Antti Niemi, F Kris Versteeg, F Adam Burish, F Andrew Ladd, F Ben Eager, D Brent Sopel, F/D Dustin Byfuglien, F John Madden, G Cristobal Huet. You might’ve heard about Chicago having to get rid of a few guys over the summer because of salary-cap problems. This a bit of a big deal.

Key arrivals: F Viktor Stalberg, F Ryan Potulny, F Fernando Pisani, G Marty Turco, D John Scott, F Jeremy Morin, F Kyle Beach, D Nick Leddy. Trade pieces and rookies dot this list of new arrivals. Turco is the man of the hour here. Everyone else will (likely) have their role on the team, but Turco is the guy that has to hold it together. Speaking of which…

Under pressure: Yeah, it’s Turco. The Blackhawks cleared out Huet to Switzerland and walked away from Niemi to bring in Turco. You can argue about how important Niemi was to Chicago’s Stanley Cup run all you want, but when they needed him he was their guy. Turco is coming off of a few rough seasons in Dallas where drama seemed to always surround him even though he was never challenged for his job. Now he comes to Chicago a little older, maybe a little wiser, and for the ‘Hawks sake, a bit more grown up. Corey Crawford isn’t challenging him for the starting role and the success of the ‘Hawks this season is all on Turco.

GYI0061874899-turco-dilipvashwanat-getty.jpgProtecting the house: With Turco and  Crawford as the goaltending duo, things take a decided turn. Last season, Niemi and Huet essentially split time in net 55-45 in favor of Niemi, an ideal kind of split when you’re not sure who your starter will be. Now it’s definitively Turco’s job, while he can be a stellar goalie, he’ll need to be more consistent with Chicago to keep the team winning and the fans at bay.

Defensively, the Blackhawks are virtually the same as they were last season and that’s key. Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell (out a month with a knee injury), Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook make up a dynamic first four set of defensemen. They signed Scott in free agency, Nick Boynton took the league minimum to come back and Jordan Hendry will try to make his way into the lineup. Leddy stayed long into camp and now looks to break into the ‘Hawks lineup as well. Leddy was Minnesota’s first-round pick in 2009, who they obtained in a trade for Cam Barker. Question is, do the ‘Hawks want to be patient enough with Leddy to let him learn on the job.

Top line we’d like to see: Load up that first line with all the talent, baby. Marian Hossa-Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane. Yeah, we know Patrick Sharp is good too, and we dig Dave Bolland’s game now, especially shorthanded. When you’re the champs though, show everyone else you’re not there to screw around and come out blazing with all the big guns and let it fly.

Oh captain, my captain: Toews is the captain and can you really argue with what he’s done as the head man of the Blackhawks? His deadly serious demeanor and ability on the ice helped carry Canada to a gold medal and the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup. People might still be unfamiliar with him (somehow) but he’s the best player in the league that not-as-many people talk about at least when compared to Crosby and Ovechkin. If only we could get him to be as goofy and awkwardly affable as Patrick Kane is, we’d have yet another potential media darling. That said, what he does for the Blackhawks is as good as any of the great captains have done in the past and he’s still just a kid.

GYI0061873576-scott-dilipvashwanat-getty.jpgStreet fighting man: While the team lost the pugnacity of Burish to free agency, they pick up a behemoth in Scott, who was one of the Wild’s team leaders in fights including this vicious knockout of Canucks youngster Alexandre Bolduc. Blackhawks fans are so eager to see Scott fight, they’ve already given him the nickname of ‘Murdersaurus.’

Best-case scenario: For the ‘Hawks, if their top two lines do their job and the defense does their thing once again limiting opposing shots and playing beastly, making Turco’s job that much easier in goal, the Blackhawks again will be a very dangerous team. They’ve arguably got some of the best players in the league as it is in Toews, Kane, Keith, Hossa, and Seabrook. Having that many great players is a luxury and they’ll need them to be great all season and into the playoffs to have a shot at repeating. Luckily for them, most of the teams in the Western Conference also have questions so it opens things up a bit when it comes to the playoffs. The ‘Hawks can get back to the Stanley Cup finals, but they need to not have their depth players come up small and they need their top players to be at their best. Making all of the roster turnover not hurt their play will be the biggest challenge.

Worst-case scenario: Teams load up against their top two lines while the defense doesn’t play as air-tight as they did last season leading to Turco running into old problems that he had in Dallas. Chicago’s third and fourth lines play non-existent hockey and the Blackhawks bow out in the first round of the playoffs. Yes, they’ll be a playoff team so stop talking about them like they won’t be. There’s too much talent here to fall that far. That said, may the hockey gods help this team if injuries become a problem. The Blackhawks have spent their depth to fill out ranks this year and the cupboard is as thin as any in the AHL.

Keeping it real: This team will still be pretty good. They’re not the juggernaut they were last season, but anyone writing off Chicago as dead in the water is either crazy or an obsessed Red Wings fan. This team desperately needs optimum performance from their best players and they need their depth players to not be terrible. They need Turco to have a resurgence in Chicago in order to go deep in the playoffs, but they’ll be a playoff team for sure.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, I’ll give Chicago the champions’ benefit of the doubt and put them down as a 4. They’ll need things to break right for them in the playoffs to get back to the finals and they’ll be a very difficult team to play against no matter what. They’re not the shoe-in Stanley Cup contenders they were last year, but they’re not out of the running either. They can get there, but they’ll need some luck in doing so.

(Toews photo: Bruce Bennett – Getty Images)

(Turco and Scott photos: Dilip Vashwanat – Getty Images)

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    NHL on NBCSN: Sharks look to complete home-and-home sweep of Avalanche

    SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 21:  David Schlemko #5 and Kevin Labanc #62 of the San Jose Sharks celebrate after Schlemko scored the game-winning goal in overtime on Spencer Martin #30 of the Colorado Avalanche at SAP Center on January 21, 2017 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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    NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Colorado Avalanche host the San Jose Sharks at 9:00 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

    Tonight’s game between the Avalanche and Sharks will be the second time they go head-to-head in three nights.

    On Saturday, Colorado came back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits, but they eventually fell in overtime, as Sharks defenseman David Schlemko scored the game-winner just 1:18 into the extra frame.

    Despite the loss and the horrific record they own, Avs coach Jared Bednar has felt good about the way his team’s been playing of late.

    “We are coming on,” Bednar said on Saturday, per the Denver Post. “It’s discouraging at times because you don’t get the results. It’s those one or two mistakes. You have to find a way to cure, to eliminate them as much as you possibly can, make sure you’re not making the same mistakes over and over. But we’re playing real good hockey against real good teams right now and we’re fighting and in all the games.”

    When you’re 13-29-2 overall, you try to find small victories in every battle, and improved overall play during losses has to be considered a small win every time.

    Over their last 11 games, the Avalanche have come away with just a single win (2-1 in OT over the Isles on Jan. 6). With the OT loss to the Sharks on Saturday night, Colorado has picked up three of a possible 22 points during that stretch of 11 games.

    As you may have expected, scoring has been a huge issue for them. If we look back at their last 10 games, they’ve managed to score more than two goals just once, and that came in a 6-4 loss to Chicago on Jan. 17.

    As for the Sharks, things couldn’t be going much better right now.

    Since their 4-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 14, they’ve rattled off four straight wins over Winnipeg, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay and Colorado.

    So yea, these two teams couldn’t be headed in more opposite directions. San Jose won as many games last week as the Avalanche have since Dec. 8.

    Saturday’s game against the Avs was the Sharks’ fifth game in eight days and at times, they looked fatigued. Even though they ended up pulling out a win, they weren’t satisfied with their overall play.

    “When we’re on our game, we’re making it tough with grind time and traffic at the net, some chances,” Joe Pavelski told CSN Bay Area on Saturday. “Tonight we didn’t have as many as we could have had. We’ll try to find a little bit more for next game.”

    PHT Morning Skate: Matthew Tkachuk’s parents hate the way he chews on his mouthpiece

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    –After playing in over 1400 NHL games and being a disciplined professional athlete, Teemu Selanne is finally able to enjoy his free time and his family. “The greatest thing is there is no schedule. Over 30 years with a certain schedule, and now I don’t have it. One thing also people don’t realize is how disciplined a life you have to live or you want to live when you play. When it comes to eating and resting, in many ways it’s a selfish life too if you have family,” said Selanne. (NHL.com)

    –Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk does everything he can to get an edge over the competition. From taking plenty of vitamins to quirky pre-game routines, van Riemsdyk will stop at nothing to improve his game. “I think always growing up I was always really a freak,”said van Riemsdyk. “When you take care of things like that and you’re trying to find an edge in that way too, you feel better game in and game out and you’re able to play better game in and game out.” (Canadian Press)

    –Enforcer Eric Boulton is the last player from the 1994 draft class with an NHL contract. His unlikely journey to the NHL included many stints in the minors, plenty of punches and even digesting raw potatoes. (The Hockey News)

    J.T. Miller scored the overtime goal in Sunday’s 1-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings. You can watch the highlights by clicking the video at the top of the page.

    –Even though his father, Keith, suffered a severe jaw injury during his NHL career, Flames rookie Matthew Tkachuk refuses to stop chewing on his mouthpiece, and it drives his parents crazy. “They’ve seen me do it for all these years, and I guess they try to tell me to stop, but it’s just a habit,” said Tkachuk. “I did it in junior, too. I remember my dad’s injury, but I don’t know if a mouth guard would have stopped him from losing teeth there. It was a pretty hard slap shot.” (Postmedia)

    Mike Condon has done a lot of traveling over the last year. He was put on waivers by Montreal, he was traded from Pittsburgh to Ottawa, but now, he seems to have found a home with the Senators. Even though he’s playing well, Condon isn’t willing to look too far ahead. “It’s basically just about staying in the moment,” Condon told SI.com. “It’s not looking too far ahead. The past is in the past and the future, you have no control over. For me it’s about being in the moment and being where I am right now, it keeps things a lot simpler.” (Sports Illustrated)

    –The creator of the “Peanuts” cartoon strips, Charles M. Schulz, was a big hockey fan, who owned his own arena in California. Sometimes, he also incorporated hockey in his classic cartoons. (BarDown)

    The Predators are on a roll

    DENVER, CO - MARCH 05:  Filip Forsberg #9 of the Nashville Predators awaits a face off against the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center on March 5, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Predators defeated the Avalanche 5-2.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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    ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) Filip Forsberg scored twice, including the tiebreaking goal in the third, and the Nashville Predators rallied from two goals down to beat the Minnesota Wild 4-2 Sunday night.

    Forsberg took a pretty feed from Ryan Ellis and one-timed it from the left circle past Darcy Kuemper with 6:36 left to put Nashville up 3-2.

    It was Kuemper’s first-career loss in five starts against the Predators, who have won six of seven and wrapped up a five-game road trip with four wins.

    Ryan Johansen added an empty netter for Nashville, and James Neal also had a goal. Pekka Rinne stopped 21 shots for Nashville.

    Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville scored for the Wild. Kuemper, starting in place of regular starter Devan Dubnyk, had 28 saves as Minnesota fell into a first-place tie with Chicago atop the Western Conference.

    Forsberg tied it at 2:20 of the third on a backhander past Kuemper’s stick side.

    Minnesota started fast, pulling ahead 2-0 just 7:31 into the game. Granlund scored his 11th just over two minutes in. Pominville added his seventh five minutes later.

    But seven games in 10 days appeared to catch up with the Wild in the second as Nashville outshot Minnesota 10-4 in the period and controlled the puck effectively.

    Neal pulled the Predators to 2-1 with his team-leading 16th goal of the season 2:25 into the period.

    Late letdown costs Canucks versus their old rivals from Chicago

    CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 22: Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrtaes a third period goal against the Vancouver Canucks at the United Center on January 22, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Canucks 4-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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    Sure, the Vancouver Canucks clawed back against an old rival, the Chicago Blackhawks, on Sunday.

    But, thanks to a late letdown in regulation, they missed out on a great opportunity to move into a playoff position.

    Down a pair of goals in the third period, the Canucks managed to come back in hostile territory. It started with a Troy Stecher power play goal. Bo Horvat, in the lineup two days after getting hit in the back of the head with a slap shot, tied it up for Vancouver just 46 seconds later.

    But the chance for at least a single point slipped at the worst possible time, as Jonathan Toews scored with 1:18 left in regulation and then set up an empty net goal from Marian Hossa just a few seconds later to secure the 4-2 win.

    The Canucks remain stuck at five wins — just five wins — on the road. They have the 29th-ranked road record in the entire NHL. Only the Arizona Coyotes have been worse away from home ice. So, that’s a problem that needs to be fixed down the stretch.

    Vancouver had a chance to move into a wild card spot. Instead, they let the Blackhawks regain momentum as the period went on, and as a result, they remain on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture for right now.

    Corey Crawford earned his 200th career win, making 26 saves. That’s a milestone night for him. For Toews, that’s his most productive night of the season, as he factored into all four Chicago goals, which, of course, included the winner.

    This has been a difficult year for Toews. He’s been injured. His point production has been down.