The Chicago Blackhawks are prepped and ready to compete in the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With three games left in the regular season, Chicago may choose to rest some star players in order for them to be in peak physical condition come playoff time. While that is acceptable, the Blackhawks have no such plan to rest as a team for the final three games.
Fighting for a Presidents' Trophy, given to the top regular-season finisher in the NHL, the Blackhawks may use these three games as a final tune-up for the postseason.
One thing is for sure—the stars of Chicago will have to shine just as brightly in the postseason as they did during the regular season. Depth may have benefited the Blackhawks, but their top players have also paid big dividends to claim No. 1 in the Western Conference.
Whether it be Patrick Kane racing down the ice or Andrew Shaw going hard into the boards, every player will have to play their best if Chicago wants to make a deep playoff run.
Following are the five most crucial players to the Blackhawks' playoff hopes.
Bickell looks like an entirely different player this season.
Bryan Bickell has been everything the Blackhawks had hoped he can be, namely a physical (and scoring) presence on the third line to give the team some much-needed depth.
Bickell picked up his game from last season and has proven that he can be a valuable player on the Blackhawks' roster. In 44 games this season, Bickell has 23 points and is a plus-14—a vast improvement from last season when he scored 24 points in 71 games.
His scoring presence on the third line has been pivotal for Chicago all season long, and to lose him just before the playoffs would be devastating.
It helps that Andrew Shaw and Viktor Stalberg are Bickell's linemates as both are having breakout seasons of their own.
Regardless, Bickell will also be expected to be a leader in the locker room as he has playoff experience.
Duncan Keith is playing as well as any NHL defensemen heading into the playoffs.
Duncan Keith has finally returned to form.
After slumping defensively and offensively since winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, Keith has found his old Norris Trophy-winning form.
Forget that Keith has scored 26 points in 44 games this season, what's really important is the plus-16 next to his name. He has found his speed and defensive touch once again and the Blackhawks are benefiting because of it.
In fact, Keith has used this stellar play to propel his name into yet another Norris Trophy discussion.
Considering that Keith spends an average of 22 minutes on the ice each game, his services are invaluable to the organization. The only player who is equally important, if not more, is captain Jonathan Toews.
Hopefully, the Blackhawks have Keith for the rest of the postseason. It won't be the same without the Blackhawks' longest-tenured player
Captain Jonathan Toews will be a big part of this team for a long time.
Captain Jonathan Toews may just be the most important player for Chicago, both on and off the ice.
Let's start with the fact that he's second in scoring on the Blackhawks with 46 points in 45 games—just behind the No. 5 scorer in the NHL, Patrick Kane. Toews is also a viable candidate for both, the Selke and Hart Trophies for his stellar play this season.
Toews is a little bit of everything for the Blackhawks.
He scores big goals when the team seems down and out, motivates his linemates during intermissions and will even fight an opponent twice his size to prove that he won't be pushed around.
This guy is the heart and soul of the Chicago Blackhawks and it looks like it's going to stay that way for a very long time.
Regardless of who the Blackhawks play in the first round, if Toews is out for whatever reason, Chicago would be in danger of being ousted early.
Both Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have backstopped the Blackhawks to the No. 1 spot in the NHL.
Corey Crawford and Ray Emery both deserve equal recognition for the success of the Blackhawks this season.
After all, they have nearly identical statistics—both have a .923 save percentage while Emery has a slightly better GAA.
There should be no quarrel, however, as to who will start in the postseason. Crawford may be coach Joel Quenneville's choice to start in the first round, but Emery could get his fair share of games as well.
To be fair, Quenneville could roll both goaltenders. It wouldn't be much different from how they were played in the regular season. Yes, the playoffs are a different animal, and by playing one goaltender, there is a better chance that he will get hot, but Crawford and Emery feed off of each other's play in net.
The Blackhawks have found their success in rotating both goaltenders. Why should that change?
For that reason and the fact that this has been such a short season, Quenneville should not have his eyes set on just one goaltender.
Patrick Kane is proving why he is one of the elite players in the NHL.
Patrick Kane has been anything but ordinary this season for the Blackhawks.
Leading the team in scoring with 51 points through 45 games, Kane has been the main player when it comes to offensive play for Chicago.
He may be small and a little bit cocky, but he makes up for that with speed and stickhandling that could put a NHL veteran to shame.
If Jonathan Toews is the heart and soul of this team, then Kane is surely the fire that motivates Chicago not just to win, but to dominate. It's a good reason why the Blackhawks are No. 2 in the NHL in goals scored—averaging just over three goals a game.
For as good as Kane is offensively, he has really improved his defensive game this season. Gone are the days where fans would see Kane cherry-picking at the opposing team's blue line.
Kane now aids in the Blackhawks' backchecking, which helps to cause turnovers and disrupt the other team from setting up.
He may not be fit to play as a second-line center, but Kane is a natural born winger. His skill and hunger to win are invaluable to this team.
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