The Chicago Blackhawks have had a few hiccups in the last two calendar months, but those missteps don't necessarily mean their plans to repeat as Stanley Cup champions have been put on hold.
Uncharacteristic losses to the New York Rangers, Phoenix Coyotes and Winnipeg Jets and a tendency to come out on the short end in games that go to overtime or a shootout have been balanced by impressive victories over the Boston Bruins, Anaheim Ducks and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Any time there are significant questions about the Blackhawks, they tend to answer them in impressive fashion.
But they are continuously put to the test, and the loss of winger Marian Hossa to a lower-body injury could have an impact on their ability to perform throughout the home stretch of the regular season.
Hossa took a hard hit from Pittsburgh's Craig Adams in the early part of the Stadium Series game at Soldier Field against the Penguins. Hossa did not return with what the team is calling an upper-body injury, and Joel Quenneville told the media March 3 that Hossa is likely to be out for two to three weeks.
While the specifics of the injury are not known, that sounds optimistic. Hossa, 35, has been injured frequently throughout his career, and he is experienced enough to know there is no good reason to come back early from an injury. Coming back at less than 100 percent is a way for players to injure themselves again.
But players like Hossa are going to be missed when they spend time on the injured list. Even a team like the Blackhawks that is loaded with superior talent is going to have a difficult time making up for the loss of Hossa.
His skill set is so wide and accomplished that Quenneville can't expect to throw a young and talented player like Brandon Saad on the first line and get the same kind of stellar play.
That is what Quenneville is planning to do. He is expected to put Saad in Hossa's spot on the team's top line with Jonathan Toews in the middle and Patrick Sharp on right wing. For two or three games, it just may work out.
Toews and Sharp are Canadian Olympians and are at the top of their game. Saad is a second-year player who has been earning his playing time every time he steps on the ice. He was good as a rookie and he has been even better this year.
He is an excellent skater with a nose for the puck. He will go into the corners, battle to make a play and usually make the right decision.
But Hossa is simply too big, too strong, too skilled and too good to replace. He is not just another good veteran player.
When the Blackhawks need a big play, Hossa has been very well-equipped to take the puck, fend off a defender with one arm and make something happen when his teammates are not in a position to help out.
There's not a huge difference in size between Hossa and Saad. Hossa is 6'2" and 210 pounds, while Saad is the same height and 202 pounds. But Hossa is stronger and more accomplished at this point.
Saad has made the most of nearly every opportunity that he has gotten this season. He has a 58.0 Corsi for percentage, just one-tenth of a point behind Hossa. Those two rank second and third on the Blackhawks in that category with Toews (59.0) at the top of the list.
Hossa has scored 24 goals and 26 assists this season, averaging 18:14 of ice time per game and accumulating a plus-25 rating.
Saad has 18 goals and 23 assists and is averaging 16:23 of ice time per night. He has a team-best plus-27 rating.
The numbers are similar and have probably earned Saad his chance on the big line. But Hossa has been playing in the NHL since 1997-98, while Saad is a 21-year-old in his second full season.
With Saad moving up, newcomer Peter Regin likely moves back into the lineup as the third-line center and Andrew Shaw may move to the right wing spot on that line.
Quenneville said he does not anticipate the Hossa injury having a likely impact on the team's trade deadline plans, but that could be subterfuge.
Since when does any NHL coach or general manager reveal plans through the media?
General manager Stan Bowman always listens when his colleagues bring up trade possibilities. If the Hossa injury is more serious than the Blackhawks have let on, he just may be willing to make a serious move.
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