5 Chicago Blackhawks Storylines That Won't Go Away During 2013-14 Season
A season after setting regular-season records and winning the Stanley Cup in dramatic fashion, they are in first place overall as the season nears the midway point.
The overriding question won't be answered until they play their final game next spring:
Can they defend their championship and become the first team to do so since the Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back titles in 1997 and '98?
There are other questions surrounding the Blackhawks as they continue their march towards the postseason. Here's a look at five of them.
Can Patrick Kane Win the Scoring Title?
Patrick Kane is clearly one of the most talented players in the NHL. He has been a difference-maker since the Blackhawks drafted him with the first overall pick in 2007.
He was at the top of his game last spring when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy and led the Blackhawks to their second Stanley Cup in a four-year span.
As good as he was then, he has taken his game to a new level this year. Kane has scored 46 points (20 goals and 26 assists) through the first 37 games of the season. He is the second-leading scorer in the league, just one point behind Sidney Crosby.
Kane has been especially hot lately, scoring 12 points in his last six games.
This is more than a hot streak, however. He ranks with the elite scorers in the league and his skill level indicates that he can remain there. Kane's greater maturity may have a lot to do with consistency that the organization was waiting for, but had never seen prior to this season.
He is in a position to make a run at the NHL scoring title for the first time in his career.
Is Duncan Keith the Best Defenseman in the NHL?
Duncan Keith has been an elite-level NHL defenseman since before he won the Norris Trophy in 2009-10, the year the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.
Keith was good before that and he has been solid since then.
Keith is the odds-on favorite to win the Norris Trophy as the 2013-14 season approaches the midway point.
He is the NHL's leading scorer among defensemen. He has 32 points and leads Ottawa's Erik Karlsson by one point. Keith's 29 assists means he is tied for third in that category, behind Evgeni Malkin and Joe Thornton and tied with Nicklas Backstrom.
Keith is also doing an excellent job on the defensive end. He has a plus-15 rating, and he is averaging 24:16 of ice time per game.
Keith will have to hold off Karlsson, P.K. Subban, Zdeno Chara, Drew Doughty and Ryan Suter if he is going to win his second Norris Trophy. That's formidable competition, but Keith shows no signs of losing focus.
Will the Penalty Killing Improve?
The Blackhawks struggled on the power play last year (19th) but dominated on the penalty kill (third). That combination caused head coach Joel Quenneville some anxious moments, but it ultimately proved to be a workable formula for winning the league's championship.
This year, it's the opposite story. The Blackhawks are scoring power play goals with ease, but they are struggling on the penalty kill.
The Blackhawks rank third in the NHL, scoring on 24.6 percent of their power-play opportunities. Every time they have the man advantage, they are creating scoring opportunities and they are cashing in with regularity.
However, Chicago's short-handed play has not been good. The Blackhawks rank 28th in that category as they are killing 74.6 percent of the penalties that have left them with a man disadvantage.
That's simply not good enough. Given their choice, coaches of championship-level teams would prefer competent penalty killing to go with a struggling power play than the other way around.
The Blackhawks need to improve their penalty killing if they are going to put themselves in a position to win the Stanley Cup again this year.
Will the Goaltending Hold Up?
One of the primary questions faced by the Blackhawks since the start of the season was the status of their backup goaltending.
After Ray Emery left as a free agent, the Blackhawks signed 40-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin with the hope that he could provide Corey Crawford decent relief when he was inserted into the lineup.
As the season approaches the midway point, it appears the Blackhawks have even more issues than just their No. 2 goalie.
Khabibulin and Crawford are both sidelined with lower-body injuries. They should both be back shortly.
However, Khabibulin is not the answer as a viable backup. While he has seen limited action, it's hard to believe in a goalie with a 5.00 goals against average and an .811 save percentage.
Crawford has not been at his best either. He has a 2.47 GAA and a .907 save percentage. Crawford's goals against mark ranks 25th among goalies who have played 10 or more games this season. That may not be good enough for a team with championship aspirations.
While call-up Antti Raanta has done a nice job and has a 7-1-1 record to go with a 2.26 GAA and a .920 save percentage, there are legitimate questions about the Blackhawks' goaltending that could keep them from winning another title.
Will the Blackhawks Become a Mini-Dynasty?
Winning one Stanley Cup championship is nice and bringing home a second title in a four-year period is notable.
However, when that third championship comes in a five-year span, a team can stake a legitimate claim toward being a mini-dynasty.
If the Blackhawks can survive the brutal Western Conference and then go on to raise the Stanley Cup again in June, they will put themselves in a very rare category.
They will join teams like the Montreal Canadiens (late 1950s and late 1970s), the Toronto Maple Leafs (the 1960s), the New York Islanders (early 1980s), Edmonton Oilers (late 1980s) and the Detroit Red Wings (late 1990s through early 2000s) as the NHL's most notable dynasties.
Critics may not want to recognize them, but they will deserve to be ranked with the best teams of the last 60 years.