Chicago Blackhawks' Most Important Games Remaining in 2013

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2013

Chicago Blackhawks' Most Important Games Remaining in 2013

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    The Chicago Blackhawks are bidding to become the first NHL team to win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships since the Detroit Red Wings accomplished the feat in 1997 and again in late spring of '98.

    Joel Quenneville's team has already avoided the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover that has impacted several recent Stanley Cup champions, including the 2010-11 Blackhawks, who struggled mightily after winning the Stanley Cup in 2010.

    The Blackhawks are going to have many tests along the way, but Quenneville will have a better feel for his team after seven crucial games between now and the end of the calendar year.

    Here's a look at their opponents in those games and what makes those games major challenges.

Blackhawks vs. San Jose Sharks, Nov. 17

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    Opponent: San Jose Sharks (11-2-5)

    Key Players: Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Antti Niemi

    Analysis: The San Jose Sharks have never made it out of the Western Conference playoffs, but general manager Doug Wilson has changed his team's personnel and its makeup.

    Longtime stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau remain key contributors, but the leadership has been transferred to Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. Both players seem to play much harder in crunch time than Thornton and Marleau ever have.

    Antti Niemi is one of the best goalies in the league, and he still has a bit of an edge to his game when playing against the team that jettisoned him in 2010 after he backstopped the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup.

    Rookie Tomas Hertl is an explosive scorer, and he has a leg up in the Calder Trophy race.

    The Sharks measure themselves against the Los Angeles Kings and the Blackhawks, so it's clear that Chicago will need a maximum effort to compete against this superb team.

Blackhawks at Vancouver Canucks, Nov. 27

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    Opponent: Vancouver Canucks (11-7-2)

    Key Players: Ryan Kesler, Henrik Sedin, Roberto Luongo

    Analysis: There has been a certain level of hatred between the Blackhawks and the Canucks since the 2008-09 season when Chicago defeated Vancouver in a six-game playoff series.

    Vancouver grew tired of seeing its season ended by Chicago in the postseason, and there was a hard, nasty and physical edge to their meetings. The feelings between the two teams only intensified when the Canucks finally got their revenge and eliminated the Blackhawks in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs.

    The Blackhawks never had any love for former Vancouver head coach Alain Vigneault. Now that he's gone, it seems unlikely they will warm to John Tortorella. The former Rangers coach has basically kept his cool since coming to the Pacific Northwest, but a meeting with the Blackhawks could bring his temper back to the level he regularly displayed when he was coaching the New York Rangers.

Blackhawks at Minnesota Wild, Dec. 5

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    Opponent: Minnesota Wild (10-4-4)

    Key Players: Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Josh Harding

    Analysis: The Minnesota Wild view themselves as the coming franchise in the Western Conference.

    When they signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in the summer of 2012, they knew it would take some time to get to the top of the conference, and they are not there yet. However, every time they play the Blackahwks, they know it is a measuring stick of how far they have come and how much distance they still have to travel to get there.

    The two teams split a home-and-home series in October, with the Wild winning in Chicago and the Blackhawks responding with a win at the Xcel Energy Center.

    The key to this game may turn out to be goaltender Josh Harding, who is having a Vezina Trophy-type season with a 9-2-2 record, a 1.22 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage. If the Wild get an early lead, the Blackhawks may have a hard time overcoming Harding's focused play.

Blackhawks vs. Anaheim Ducks, Dec. 6

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    Opponent: Anaheim Ducks (15-4-1)

    Key Players: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Jonas Hiller

    Analysis: The Ducks appear to have put last year's first-round playoff defeat behind them, and they have rolled to first place in the Pacific Division.

    Head coach Bruce Boudreau has a formidable team on his hands because the Ducks have a superb combination of size, strength and speed.

    The Ducks were 3-0 last year against the Blackhawks—a remarkable achievement considering the Blackhawks' record 24-game point streak at the start of the season and their Stanley Cup-winning performance.

    Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry form one of the game's best 1-2 punches, and the Ducks may represent the Blackhawks' most challenging opponent in the Western Conference this season.

Blackhawks at Toronto Maple Leafs, Dec. 14

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    Opponent: Toronto Maple Leafs (11-6-0)

    Key Players: Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Jonathan Bernier

    Analysis: The Maple Leafs view themselves as legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference, but head coach Randy Carlyle's team will be primed to play one of its best games of the year against the defending Stanley Cup champions.

    The Maple Leafs know that the Western Conference has had much the best of it in interconference competition this season, so they know they will be tested by the Blackhawks.

    This is a great measuring stick for them. The Maple Leafs traded for former Blackhawks center Dave Bolland days after Chicago won the Stanley Cup because they believed he would help them take the next step. Bolland (ankle tendon surgery) most likely won't be able to play in this game.

    The Maple Leafs are a fast team, and they will try to use their quickness to get an edge on the Blackhawks. Quenneville's team must be ready for an up-and-down the ice type of game.

Blackhawks vs. Los Angeles Kings, Dec. 15

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    Opponent: Los Angeles Kings (11-6-1)

    Key Players: Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick

    Analysis: This will be the first meeting between the Blackhawks and the Kings since Chicago defeated Los Angeles in five games in the Western Conference final last season.

    That should assure the Blackhawks that the visitors will come with their best effort. In last year's series, the Blackhawks tended to wear down the Kings with their relentless checking and pressure.

    Kings head coach Darryl Sutter is sure to appeal to his team's pride when they face the team that knocked them out of the playoffs and ended their reign as Stanley Cup champions.

    A goaltending duel between Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick may be the key to this game.

Blackhawks vs. Colorado Avalanche, Dec. 27

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    Opponent: Colorado Avalanche (14-3-0)

    Key Players: Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Semyon Varlamov

    Analysis: The Colorado Avalanche have come flying out of the gate, and they have shown no sign of slowing down through the first quarter of the season.

    The Avalanche have plenty of young offensive talent in Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and rookie Nathan MacKinnon, but they had questions on the blue line and in goal at the start of the season.

    Those questions have been answered by fast and responsible play emphatically to this point in the year. Semyon Varlamov has a 9-3-0 record with a 2.01 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage.

    First-year coach Patrick Roy has gotten the Avs to play hard every night, and the Blackhawks will need their best game to beat them.