With four games left in the season, the Chicago Blackhawks are on the verge of clinching their fourth straight postseason trip.
Without going into all sorts of tiebreaker scenarios, if they get just one point Saturday against the Nashville Predators they are in. They could have been in either of the last two nights if Phoenix or San Jose lost, but both teams won.
Currently the Hawks are holding down the sixth seed in the Western Conference. However, with games against Nashville Saturday, and the season finale against the Red Wings, there is still a chance to move up the standings.
If the season ended today, the Hawks would face the L.A. Kings, which, in my opinion, is a very bad matchup for the Hawks.
Coach Joel Quenneville likes to juggle his lines during the regular season. This season he has been forced to do so a little more often due to player inconsistency, suspensions and injuries.
Usually come playoff team, he nails down things, so with the playoffs right around the corner, how may the defensive pairings and the forward lines look?
There has been one constant all season on the fourth line, and that has been Jamal Mayers.
While he isn't a natural center, he has done a pretty good job in the faceoff circle and also has provided toughness to a team lacking in that department last season.
Coach Quenneville likes players who are responsible on defense, so to go along with Mayers, I am putting Michael Frolik and Marcus Kruger on the wings.
Putting Kruger on this line might surprise some, since he has been the second-line center for most of the season. However, with the way I have constructed the lines, this is the only spot for him.
While the fourth line traditionally wouldn't see a lot of time in the postseason, all three of these players are valuable members to the penalty kill. Kruger and Mayers have also seen time on the power play as of late, so they will still see the ice plenty.
Depending on the matchup, we could see Brandon Bollig step in here if the Hawks are playing a physical team like the St. Louis Blues.
While they may split up from time to time during the regular season, come playoff time there is no breaking up Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
Looking back at Keith's suspension, it may have been the best thing to happen to him. In theory, as a first-line defenseman, the five-game hiatus saved Keith around 150 minutes of total ice time, and he should be well rested for hopefully a long playoff push.
Seabrook has looked much more like the player last season than the one who was struggling offensively earlier in the year. He has seven points so far in the month of March; he had only 24 coming into the month.
When the Hawks need to get a big stop, expect to see a lot of this pairing with the next offensive line.
If the Hawks run into San Jose or Vancouver, I guarantee you we'll see Quenneville throw Dave Bolland's line out there to stop Joe Thornton or the Sedin brothers.
With that said, the opposing coach will do everything he can to avoid the matchup.
If Bolland had played in all seven games last season against Vancouver, I personally think the Hawks would have won that series. Alongside Bolland as of late has been Bryan Bickell and rookie Andrew Shaw.
Bickell is very familiar with being the line, as he was on it last postseason and started the season there as well. After playing awful for most of the season, he has tallied eight points in the past month.
Shaw is the real question mark on this line. For his size and the abuse he has taken, it is amazing that he is still standing. Like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps going and going. He has 19 points in 33 games this season, and continues doing the dirty work this team needs.
If Shaw does struggle, I think Michael Frolik would get the first shot to step in, and maybe he can catch lightning in a bottle again.
Seriously, did anyone see this coming when GM Stan Bowman traded for Johnny Oduya?
I sure didn't. I thought at best, Oduya would come in and fill the role of the fifth or sixth defenseman.
I never thought he'd be playing 27 minutes a night while also contributing a little offense. He has five points in 14 games since coming over from the Jets at the trade deadline.
Originally he was paired with Brent Seabrook, but after a rocky start, he has seemed to find a perfect partner in Nick Leddy.
Let's hope these two can keep this up in the playoffs. If they are able to continue playing 25 minutes a night, that will help ease the pressure on both Duncan Keith and Seabrook.
This is where things get a little interesting.
In my opinion, Patrick Kane has played his best hockey this season at center. He started the season great there, and as of late with Jonathan Toews out of the lineup, Kane has started playing well again.
I also think it has something to do with him being paired with Marian Hossa. Let's be honest: Isn't everyone better when they skate with Hossa?
The third player on this line is Andrew Brunette. While not always my favorite, he has played better as of late, and it might have something to do with him being with Kane and Hossa.
Brunette was brought in during the summer to help out the second line, and after struggling most of the year, maybe he has finally found his niche. If he does struggle, we could see Michael Frolik or Andrew Shaw get some time on this line.
If Coach Quenneville does decide to move Kane back to the wing, then I would expect to see Marcus Kruger on this line.
If you told me that Niklas Hjalmarsson would be part of the third defensive pairing at the beginning of the season I would have believed it.
Or I would have assumed that they traded for an awesome top-four defensemen.
Having Hjalmarsson on the third pairing means that the Blackhawks have five legit defensemen capable of skating 25 minutes a night to throw out there during the playoffs. How many teams can say that?
Who is paired with him is the big question now.
Steve Montador had a set back with a possible concussion and is back to square one in his recovery. Sami Lepisto is still out with a knee injury leaving rookie Dylan Olsen and veteran Sean O'Donnell as the only options.
My guess is that Olsen will get the first shot since he has played in every game since his call up in February. In 26 games this season he is a minus five with one point and has shown the ability to skate 20 minutes when asked.
If he stumbles then I think coach Quenneville will have no problem turning to O'Donnell. If somehow Montador does recover in time to play during the postseason I think he would be the obvious choice, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that to happen.
I'm assuming not only that Jonathan Toews will be healthy and playing come playoff time, but that we will also see him before regular season's end.
Toews has not played since Feb. 19, but he has been skating for over a week, and hopefully will be cleared for contact soon. Do you remember the impact Dave Bolland made last season with his return during the playoffs?
Now imagine what getting a healthy Toews back will do for this team.
We will just have to wait and see if I'm right, but regardless of who is centering this line, I know Viktor Stalberg and Patrick Sharp will be on the wings.
Much like with the second line, if Toews is not in the lineup I would expect Marcus Kruger to step in. If that does happen, this will become more like the second line.
That would make the line with Kane and Hossa the top line, drawing the other team's best defensive players. If Kane has to go against a tough defensive center, it might not work out so well.
Let's hope Toews does return, because it will make the Hawks exceedingly more dangerous regardless of their seed. It should be a fun final week to the 2011-12 season.