The Chicago Blackhawks have won two of the last four Stanley Cup championships and it would not be a surprise if Joel Quenneville's team made another deep run in the playoffs this year.
That's because the Blackhawks are one of the most versatile teams in the league. They can play a skating game and outflank the opposition in a heartbeat. They can play a defensive game and limit their opponent's chances. They can play a hard-hitting game and demonstrate that they can take or dish out physical punishment and still gain an edge.
But when the Blackhawks are dictating the pace, they will control the puck for 55 percent or more of the game. That kind of possession puts the club in an excellent position to defend the Stanley Cup.
That's because of the team's high skill level. Chicago general manager Stan Bowman believes that the players his team puts out on the ice on an every-game basis are better than their opponents nearly every time.
He thinks that because of the personnel that the Blackhawks have on their roster. Start with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
Toews was the third overall pick in 2006 and demonstrated a mental maturity that matched his physical skills from the start. That put him on the fast track to superstardom.
Chicago's captain may be the best all-around player in the game. He may not be as talented offensively as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos or Alex Ovechkin, but he is not far behind and is superior on the defensive end.
He combines his physical talent with an attitude that will not allow anyone to get the best of him. "Above all else, I am going to do everything I can to win every puck battle in each game," Toews said. "I came to that conclusion long ago because that's what has to be done if you want to win games.
"It doesn't happen by magic. It happens by hard work."
A year after the Blackhawks selected Toews, they picked Patrick Kane with the first pick in the 2007 draft. While Kane has had a series of off-ice incidents in the past, his overall talent is undeniable.
He is an offensive dynamo who knows how to get open and either get his own shot or set up a teammate. He does this with his skating ability and incredible stick-handling talent.
Toews and Kane are in the team's first rank of superstars, but they are joined by defenseman Duncan Keith, left wing Patrick Sharp and right wing Marian Hossa.
Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson are right behind them.
In addition to the stars, the Blackhawks' key role players like Brandon Saad, Johnny Oduya, Marcus Kruger, Kris Versteeg and Michal Rozsival are just a little bit better than those of the opposition.
That's why the Blackhawks fare so well at the puck-possession game. They have an edge in talent which allows them to keep control of the puck longer than their opponents.
When a team wants to control the puck, it must do a superior job in the faceoff circle. With more than one-third of the season behind them, the Blackhawks are winning 51.8 percent of their draws. That puts them in a tie with St. Louis for eighth place in the NHL.
Quenneville would like to see his team get up to third or fourth in that category, but the Blackhawks' performance in the faceoff circle is a good jumping-off point.
The Blackhawks thought so much of their own puck-possession ability that they believed they could win consistently without stellar goaltending.
That's why they let Antti Niemi walk away as a free agent following the 2010 Stanley Cup triumph. Bowman's thought process was that, since the Blackhawks were dominant in so many areas on the ice, they could still find a way to win even if the goaltending was not at an All-Star level.
They may have sold Niemi short, because he has gone on to become a star with the San Jose Sharks, but they started to change their opinion once Corey Crawford cemented his hold on the starting goaltender's position.
Crawford had a remarkable year in 2013 (1.94 goals-against average, .926 save percentage) and continued that play during the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup run (1.84 GAA, .932 save percentage) in the spring.
His mental toughness was as big a factor in beating the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final as any one single factor.
Crawford gave up five goals to the Bruins in the fourth game of the series. While Chicago won that game 6-5 in overtime, Crawford's tendency to get beaten on the glove side was exposed.
|Blackhawks' Key Stats|
|Faceoffs||51.8 percent||Eighth (tie)|
|Goals per game||3.48||First|
|Shots per game||34.6||Second|
|Goals for/goals against (5-on-5)||1.43/1.00||Fourth|
|Win percent when outshooting opponents||.652||Eighth|
Such a problem coming to the forefront at that moment would have ruined other goalies. Instead, Crawford simply focused on the next shot.
"That's what I have always done and that's what I have always been taught," Crawford said. "If I get beaten on a shot, I move on to the next one. It doesn't matter if it's December or June, that's what you have to do to play the position."
The ability to focus on the next shot is why the Blackhawks gave Crawford a six-year, $36 million contract extension in the offseason.
The Blackhawks can win in any number of ways, but when they are playing their best game, they will hold on to the puck, out-execute the opposition and capitalize more often on their scoring opportunities.
They want to dictate the pace, make plays that most opponents can't and force the opposition into mistakes.
Few can even conceive of playing the game that way, but the Blackhawks do it with aplomb.
All quotes were obtained directly by Steve Silverman unless otherwise noted.
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