Chicago Blackhawks' 5 Biggest Questions in Final Month of 2013-14 Season
The Chicago Blackhawks have shown plenty of flashes this year that indicate they are capable of defending their Stanley Cup championship.
However, while there is no doubt about the talent level, the Blackhawks have not been as consistent as head coach Joel Quenneville would like them to be.
They are trailing the St. Louis Blues in the Central Division and are no longer at the top of the heap in the Western Conference after last year's record-setting season.
Here are the key questions that are going to have to be answered, if they are going to get back to the top.
Will the Blackhawks' Penalty Kill Rise to the Occasion?
The Chicago Blackhawks were one of the NHL's best teams at killing penalties in 2013. That was a huge part of their success, and it played a key part in their four playoff victories over the Minnesota Wild, Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings and the Boston Bruins.
The penalty kill has struggled for much of the 2013-14 season. Instead of shutting down opponents and stealing momentum with their PK, the Blackhawks have often been wounded by their performance killing penalties. Currently, the Blackhawks rank 19th in that area, as they have killed 81.1 percent of their short-handed situations.
However, their performance recently has been much better. They have killed 53 of their last 57 short-handed situations over their last 16 games. That has allowed the Blackhawks to drastically improve their penalty-kill rank, which at one point was as low as 29th.
The big question is whether they can retain their recent form, or if they will dip back to the level they were at earlier in the season. If there is any back-sliding, it will be difficult for the 'Hawks to assert themselves down the stretch.
Can Patrick Kane Go on Another Hot Streak?
As the 2013-14 season approached the halfway point, it appeared that Sidney Crosby was likely going to get some serious competition from Patrick Kane for the league's scoring race.
Kane was off to the best start of his career. After a stellar run that saw him take home the Conn Smythe Trophy following the playoffs, he scored 22 goals and 27 assists in his first 39 games.
However, Kane has cooled off over his last 25 games. He has scored just six goals and 11 assists over that time frame.
There is no doubt that Kane is one of the most talented players in the league, but the Blackhawks would like to see him improve his productivity over the final portion of the regular season.
Is Brandon Saad the Blackahawks' Next Star?
Brandon Saad has shown dramatic growth in his second year. He has been a consistent scorer for the Blackhawks and he appears to be one of the team's most dependable players.
Saad, who is 21 years old, has scored 18 goals and 25 assists this season, and he has a team-best plus-29 rating. He is currently playing on the Blackhawks' top line with captain Jonathan Toews, and he has looked like he belongs there. According to ExtraSkater, he also has 58.7 Corsi For percentage, a figure that ranks 10th in the league and second on the team.
Saad is on the cusp of becoming a star for the Blackhawks. However, now that the regular season has reached its most critical point you have to wonder: Can he continue to climb and become the team's next legitimate headliner or will he hit a wall that derails his progress?
Can Marian Hossa Stay Healthy Down the Stretch?
Marian Hossa is the kind of player who causes headaches for opposing players and coaches. He is simply too big, strong, fast and skilled to defend with any conventional plan.
He is especially dangerous on a team like the Blackhawks that has so many outstanding players. It's difficult to devise a plan to stop Hossa when you also have to find a way to contend with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
But, will Hossa remain in the lineup for the Blackhawks?
He has recently been sidelined by an upper-body injury. While it was not a long-term problem, Hossa takes a lot of big hits from opponents who are fearful that he will make a big play against them.
Hossa, 35, has had a long 15 months. He played deep into June as the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup and he also played for Slovakia in the Olympics. If fatigue or injury slow him down the rest of the season, the Blackhawks will have a problem reaching the heights.
Will Corey Crawford Play at the Highest Level?
Corey Crawford may have backstopped the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup last spring, but that hasn't prevented him from catching a lot of abuse from the team's loyal fans.
They haven't forgotten Crawford's postseason performance, but they often criticize him on sports radio because he seems to give up at least one stoppable goal every game.
His numbers are good but not great this year. He has a 25-11-10 record along with a 2.27 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage. His save percentage ranks 12th among all goalies who have played 25 or more games.
Crawford is going to have to be better than good the rest of the way. He needs to make a statement down the stretch and cut down on those "easy" goals that have tormented him to this point in the year.
If he can't, it could be a very long offseason for Crawford and the Blackhawks.
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