This year’s run for the Cup will be more grueling than ever for the Hawks. History hasn’t been kind to past Stanley Cup champions, as it has been 15 years since a team has repeated (Detroit in 1997 and 1998).
To make matters worse, the new playoff format is bound to make this year’s Stanley Cup chase more excruciating and physically demanding for the club than in 2010 and 2013.
The West is undeniably the more talented of the two conferences. It is difficult to predict who will represent it when the Western Conference Final rolls around. It seems as if almost every team currently in the playoff picture is a powerhouse. Chicago, St. Louis, Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles could all be looking at a shot for the championship.
The Blackhawks will no doubt have to face two or three of these teams to return back to the Stanley Cup Final.
Let’s begin with their presumed first-round opponent.
With only seven games left in the regular season for the Hawks, they are all but locked in to play the Colorado Avalanche in the first round. Their divisional foes haven’t been kind to them at all this year, as the Avs have beaten the Blackhawks in four of their five meetings.
The Blackhawks are relying on two components that will deliver them a trip to the second round.
The first is that reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Patrick Kane is expected to return to the lineup come playoff time. Having their leading goal scorer back will undoubtedly be huge, and his postseason experience will be a big help in this club’s quest for its third Stanley Cup in five years. That experience ties into the second point.
The Blackhawks have an incredible amount of postseason experience unlike the Avalanche. This postseason is expected to be a proving ground for the likes of captain Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon. The team’s young stars had a surprisingly decent season, but as every hockey fan knows, the regular season is just that: regular.
Teams need to be durable to make it through four rounds of playoff hell, and despite an amazing rebound from last season, the Avs are still not convincing.
It will be a tough matchup, and the Blackhawks should make it out alive, but Patrick Roy’s Avalanche will be their easiest competition of the playoffs.
The St. Louis Blues are currently three points behind the Boston Bruins in the race for the Presidents' Trophy. If they pull ahead in these last few games, it will be the first time since the 1999-2000 season that the team has won the award. They will make easy work of their first-round opponent (Phoenix as of right now) and will be one of the more grittier, defensive teams that the Blackhawks will face.
The Blackhawks will be facing some of the best goaltenders in the world this postseason, and Miller is one of them. The former Sabres netminder has had an impressive career so far, but he only has his silver medal from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics to show for it. The 33-year-old has a while before he hangs up his skates for good, but expect him to be giving it his all in his first postseason in a new sweater.
This series will be a defensive battle, as both clubs ice some of the best blueliners in the game. Norris Trophy candidate Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will be matched by Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester , which will make for a extremely physical second round.
Now that Detroit is a member of the Eastern Conference, this series will mark the beginning of a stage in the Blues-Blackhawks rivalry that fans have never seen before. Expect the victor to be heading into the Western Conference Final with a full head of steam.
It is incredibly hard to predict who will make it out of the Pacific Division of the postseason bracket, but the San Jose Sharks are likely to be the favorite.
The Sharks are led by forwards Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton, both of whom possess puck skills and durability, which are two necessary requirements for successful playoff hockey. The Blackhawks defense will have to play twice as strong to contain not only these two players but the rest of the Sharks’ talented roster.
The Sharks also have something the Blackhawks do not—a consistent goaltender. Antti Niemi, who helped carry Chicago to its first Stanley Cup in 49 years back in 2010, has been tremendous for his club this year. Niemi is currently second in the league with 36 wins.
Across the ice from Niemi would be Chicago’s Corey Crawford, who can have some shaky periods of play, as fans witnessed last season. Thankfully, the team bailed him out; however, he still has something to prove. His 29 wins this year are great, but the daunting task of performing well in the playoffs looms on the horizon. With a solid postseason appearance, he can finally be added to the discussion of the best goalies in the world.
In 2010, the Blackhawks swept the Sharks in the Western Conference Final, and don’t think San Jose forgot about it. The NorCal club is so close to its first Stanley Cup that it can almost taste it, and the Sharks are talented enough to finally make it happen. If the Blackhawks make it past the Sharks, then this will be one of the most incredible Stanley Cup runs ever seen.
Many will adore a Stanley Cup Final rematch between these two teams, as they have an incredible amount of respect for each other after last year’s historic bout that saw the Blackhawks defeat the Boston Bruins in six games.
The two teams split the two-game regular-season series this year, with the Hawks winning in a shootout back in January while the Bruins shut out their Original Six rivals 3-0 this past Thursday.
Boston has a stranglehold on the Eastern Conference, and their most challenging dance partner will most likely be the Pittsburgh Penguins. Boston pulled away late in the season with the top spot of the East and once again will use its size and skill effectively to knock off the Penguins for the second straight year if the two clubs meet again.
If the Blackhawks hope to hoist another banner in the rafters of United Center, then it will require productivity on all fronts of the ice. That means shutting down big men like Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic while keeping skilled veterans like Patrice Bergeron and Jarome Iginla at bay.
Tuukka Rask is the fourth and final goaltender they would face. Unlike the others mentioned here, Rask has limited playoff experience (two seasons' worth), so that will not be a problem.
It will be a long road for the Blackhawks, but this team is built around a core of hockey players that love challenges. Nothing compares to what these men will face this year. The 2010 and 2013 runs were just precursors for the brutal two-month journey they will embark on this spring. They are the kings of the NHL, but there are numerous hungry clubs looking to dethrone them.