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2011-2012 season preview: Chicago Blackhawks

2010-2011 record: 44-29-9, 97 points; 3rd in Central, 8th in West

Playoffs: Lost to Vancouver 4-3 in Western quarterfinals

After struggling at the start of last season and a suffering a tough first-round exit against the rival Canucks, the Blackhawks should be back among the league’s elite. They traded Troy Brouwer at the draft for a first-round pick, then went out and acquired veteran Andrew Brunette to fill a top-six role. Chicago still has great leadership with Jonathan Toews, a top-flight defensive pairing with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and the experience of a team than can go deep. If you believe the Blackhawks can rebound from last season’s Stanley Cup hangover, then you have good reason to think they might hoist the prize again in June.

Offense

Even during their post-Stanley Cup season, scoring was never a problem for the Blackhawks. They finished as one of only four teams that averaged over three goals per game — their fourth-ranked power play certainly helped. Something to watch will be the Hawks second-line center role. Patrick Sharp may be making the move back to the position that he started his career, but Patrick Kane will move from the wing and begin season in the middle. Aside from the usual suspects like Toews, Kane, and Sharp, guys like Dave Bolland and Marian Hossa are waiting in the wings to show their stuff as well. Needless to say, they’re stacked up front.

Defense

Over the course of the season, Keith admitted that things weren’t right last season. Obviously, the ‘Hawks want to get back to the Cup finals and likewise Keith will want to return to the Norris Trophy-level that he displayed in 2009-10. The team will also look to replace Brian Campbell’s offensive awareness on the back end. While Campbell was overpaid, he helped on the power play and solidified the ‘Hawks depth on the blueline (fun fact: Campbell’s plus-28 led the ‘Hawks last season). Look for Nick Leddy to fill Campbell’s skates over the course of the season.

Goalies

Corey Crawford took over the starting role midway through last season and never looked back. In 55 starts, Crawford posted a 33-18-6 record with a strong 2.30 goals against average and .917 save percentage — the numbers were good enough to put him in the discussion for the Calder Trophy. It will be important to prove that he can avoid the dreaded sophomore slump for the full season after signing a brand new 3-year deal worth $8 million. Behind Crawford, Ray Emery was brought in and should be an upgrade over Marty Turco’s performance last season.

Coaching

Widely regarded as one of the most respected coaches in the league during his tenure in St. Louis, Joel Quenneville seemed to push all of the right buttons from the moment he arrived in Chicago — eventually leading the ‘Hawks to the Cup in 2010. Last season, he couldn’t find an answer for the Stanley Cup hangover at the beginning of the season (nor could he decide on a starting goaltender). This season, he should have no problem getting the team’s attention from Day 1.

Breakout candidate

Chicago will ask Leddy to step up and play the significant minutes this season with Campbell’s exodus to Florida. Drafted in the first round by Minnesota, Leddy split time between Rockford (AHL) and the Blackhawks last season. The team will look to Leddy to perform on the power play — if he can fulfill the potential that he flashed last season, then ‘Hawks fans will forget about Campbell by Christmas.

Best-case scenario

When people talk about ‘best-case scenario’ in Chicago, they aren’t concerning themselves with the regular season. If everything falls into place this season, there’s no reason to think the ‘Hawks can’t complete to win it all. Crawford will need to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke, Keith will need to demonstrate that he can return to an elite level and the organization will need to fill Brouwer’s left wing position. If those things come to pass, Chicago will be in the conversation to win it all.

Reality

In a tough Central Division, the ‘Hawks have the talent and depth to complete for the divisional crown. They’re a team that has all the pieces and has proven they can perform at the highest level — they’ll just have to prove they’ve found the motivation that was lacking at the beginning of last season. It’s realistic to expect the Blackhawks to fight with the Red Wings to win the Central. The top spot in the division and the second or third seed in the Western Conference are certainly within the realm of possibility.

Video: Canucks escape Arizona with another win for the moms

at Pepsi Center on February 9, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.
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With their mothers traveling on the road trip — Matt Bartkowski‘s mom, Beth, has become a cult hero in Vancouver after another priceless media interview — the Canucks took back-to-back wins, moving them right back into the thick of the playoff fight in the Western Conference.

After beating the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday, the Canucks held on for the 2-1 victory in Arizona on Wednesday, despite being without Brandon Sutter (broken jaw), Alex Edler (broken fibula) and Derek Dorsett, who was scratched from the lineup due to illness, as per Sportsnet’s Dan Murphy.

It was only a few days ago, following a home loss to the Calgary Flames, that it felt like the Canucks’ playoff hopes were essentially dashed. They fielded their healthiest lineup in months and couldn’t score and couldn’t win.

Two quick wins later, they’re two points out of a Wild Card spot in the West, despite getting outshot in Arizona.

Up by a goal in the third period, defenseman Alex Biega played the hero, pulling the puck out of the crease after it got by Ryan Miller on a backhand shot from Kyle Chipchura, maintaining Vancouver’s lead.

Phaneuf burned on Zetterberg game-winner in Sens debut

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A day after getting traded out of Toronto, Dion Phaneuf made his Ottawa Senators debut.

It ended with a 3-1 road loss for the Senators, and Phaneuf getting burned by Henrik Zetterberg on the eventual game winner early in the third period.

Zetterberg picked up the puck near the Ottawa blue line, beat Phaneuf to the outside, slipped the puck under the stick of the Sens’ newest blue liner and quickly roofed his shot on Craig Anderson.

“He made a real good play and you’ve got to give credit when credit is due,” Phaneuf told the Ottawa Sun.

“I put my stick there, he put (the puck) under and he made a good shot. I’ve got to have a better stick in that situation, but you’ve got to give him credit for that play.”

Phaneuf finished the night with a minus-one rating and two hits in almost 22 minutes of ice time, putting him second among Sens defensemen in that category behind Erik Karlsson, who played a whopping 33:30.

Phaneuf drilled Red Wings defenseman Danny DeKeyser with a hard slap shot early in the third period.

DeKeyser played one more shift — all of 10 seconds — before exiting the game.

Video: Rangers shut out red-hot Sidney Crosby and the Penguins

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The New York Rangers are likely too far behind the Washington Capitals to take any legitimate run at the Atlantic Division down the stretch.

But winners now of four straight, the Rangers have opened up a bit of a gap between them and other Eastern Conference teams in the playoff race. New York scored a 3-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, winners in six of their last seven games, on Wednesday.

In the process, they held a red-hot Sidney Crosby off the score sheet, which has been a difficult, sometimes impossible task for opposing teams since about the middle of December. He entered this game with a seven-game scoring streak.

(In fact, New York held No. 87 to without a shot on goal in the entire game.)

Henrik Lundqvist stopped all 34 shots he faced for the shutout.

Kevin Hayes gave the Rangers the lead in the first period, before Dominic Moore and Jesper Fast put the game away in the third.

Pittsburgh remains in the second Wild Card spot in the East. The Rangers now move three points clear of the rival Islanders for second in the Metropolitan.

Video: Wideman hearing ‘a tricky case’ as NHLPA hopes to get 20-game suspension reduced

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There is no certain timeline for when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman might rule on Dennis Wideman‘s appeal, according to a report from hockey insider Darren Dreger on NBCSN, as the Calgary Flames defenseman hopes to get his 20-game ban for hitting linesman Don Henderson reduced.

“Now, ultimately what they’re hoping from a Wideman perspective and the Players’ Association is that commissioner Gary Bettman will rule and he will reduce the number of games suspended down from 20,” said Dreger during a segment on NBCSN.

“Is he going to reduce it by three games? Five games seems a bit of a stretch. And when might he do that? There’s no timeline on this.”