Chicago Blackhawks' 5 Biggest Questions Ahead of the Olympic Break
As the Blackhawks finish their demanding West Coast road trip, general manager Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville have an opportunity to examine their team during the Olympic break.
When the team returns to action at the end of the month, the Blackhawks will begin the home stretch of the regular season.
Their inability to win games that stretch past 60 minutes—14 overtime and shootout losses—will likely cost them the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and could cost them the division title.
However, this is still a powerful team capable of winning its second straight Stanley Cup and third in five seasons. Here's a look at the biggest questions the Blackhawks' brain trust will have to consider.
Will Duncan Keith Remain a Norris Trophy Favorite?
2013-14 stats: Three goals, 45 assists, plus-18; 24:37 TOI per game
Potential pitfalls: Not only is Duncan Keith the anchor of the Chicago Blackhawks defense, he is likely to man the same role for Canada's Olympic team. His heavy workload could drain him when he returns from the Olympics.
Analysis: Keith is a remarkable athlete and one of the most talented defenseman in the NHL. He won the Norris Trophy in 2009-10, and his consistent contribution on the offensive end has placed him as the favorite to win the award for the second time in his career.
Keith is not a big man for a workhorse defenseman at 6'1" and 200 pounds, but he excels at the physical aspects of the game and is dependable in all situations. He may have a bit of a mental lull once he gets back from Sochi, but if he can withstand the physical rigors he should return to form within two or three games.
Will Jonathan Toews Regain His Goal-Scoring Touch?
2013-14 stats: 18 goals, 36 assists, plus-19; 20:33 TOI per game
Potential pitfalls: Jonathan Toews is one of the best all-around players in the game, and he is clearly a dominant defensive player. However, his devotion to stopping opponents can impact his offensive game. Toews has scored three goals in his last 18 games, and the Blackhawks need more from him.
Analysis: Toews is likely to have a huge impact on Canada's chances for Olympic gold, and he will leave everything he has on the ice.
However, once he gets back to the Blackhawks, he will be singularly focused on the team. His focus should improve, and he will likely start putting the puck in the net with more consistency. As long as he doesn't get hurt in Sochi, he should return to form quickly upon his return.
Is Corey Crawford Consistent Enough to Get the Job Done Once Again?
2013-14 stats: 21-8-10; 2.42 goals-against average; .914 save percentage
Potential pitfalls: Corey Crawford has drawn substantial criticism from Blackhawks supporters this year because he seems to let in at least one stoppable goal every night.
He has also had a very difficult time in games that have gone past 60 minutes. He needs to perform better in those games if the Blackhawks are going to hold off the St. Louis Blues in the Central Division.
Analysis: Critics can pick apart Crawford's game all they want, but the Blackhawks never would have won the Stanley Cup without him last year. He has the full support of Joel Quenneville, because the head coach knows that Crawford has a short memory, and if he allows a bad goal he will bounce back quickly.
Crawford, at 6'2" and 208 pounds, is a big goalie who knows how to use his size to make the goal look small to opposing shooters. He has proven himself in the biggest games, and he should be able to play up to that performance again.
Can Marian Hossa Stay Healthy?
2013-14 stats: 23 goals, 25 assists, plus-24; 18:27 TOI per game
Potential pitfalls: Marian Hossa is one of the most talented and consistent offensive players on the Blackahawks' roster. However, there have been serious concerns about Hossa's ability to stay healthy.
He has had knee, neck, shoulder and concussion problems in the past, and the added stress of carrying the offensive load for Slovakia in the Olympics could make it difficult for Hossa to stay healthy once he returns to the team and the stretch run begins.
Analysis: When Hossa is healthy and fully engaged, he is one of the most impactful players in the sport.
He creates brutal matchup problems for opponents because of his strength, skating ability and skill. Hossa does not have to carry the Blackhawks because the team is loaded with talent. However, if he's on top of his game, he is a difference maker.
Will the Blackhawks Survive Their Dreadful Penalty Kill?
2013-14 penalty kill ranking: 25th; allowing goals on 20.4 percent of opponents power play opportunities.
2012-13 penalty kill ranking: 3rd; allowed goals on 12.8 percent of opponents power play opportunities.
Analysis: This may be the team's biggest issue as it approaches the home stretch and the postseason. Several teams have managed to win the Stanley Cup with a poor power play—last year's Blackhawks and the 2011 Boston Bruins are prime examples—but a poor penalty kill is another story.
Even if the team plays stellar 5-on-5 hockey, a substandard penalty kill can undo that advantage. Joel Quenneville and his assistant coaches must figure out a way to solidify the penalty kill, or the Blackhawks won't have another end-of-season celebration this year.
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