The Chicago Blackhawks are wasting away before our eyes.
A few weeks ago, they appeared to have either as good a chance or better of walking away with the Stanley Cup at the end of the season as any other team.
But with less than two weeks to go in the regular season, the Blackhawks' chances for repeat success and their third title in five seasons are starting to look questionable.
Heading into their April 3 home game against the Minnesota Wild, the Blackhawks have lost three games in a row and are 7-8-1 since the end of the Olympic break. They have lost Patrick Kane to a lower-body injury for the rest of the regular season, and matters went from bad to worse when captain Jonathan Toews absorbed a nasty hit from Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik last Sunday and suffered an upper-body injury.
There has been much debate about whether Orpik's hit was dirty or not, and while he was cleared by the NHL and was not suspended, the video evidence does not put Orpik in the best light.
Orpik had Toews in his sights for at least 25 feet before delivering the hit to his upper body. As he followed through, there was contact with the head (53-second mark of video link), even if it was not the spot of original contact. Orpik also leaves his feet (55-second mark) in the late stages of the hit, but perhaps not enough to warrant discipline.
Orpik has a history of delivering devastating hits. Earlier this year, he gave Loui Eriksson of the Boston Bruins the first of two concussions he suffered this year, and he has also been involved in delivering heavy hits to Daniel Paille and Derek Stepan (knee-on-knee).
Orpik may not cross the line, but he comes within inches of it. He may not be breaking the rules, but he is inviting retaliation.
That's not something that Orpik or any of the Penguins had to worry about after Toews went down and missed the rest of the game. After the hit, Marian Hossa came over and appeared to deliver a stern lecture—and nothing else.
The Blackhawks are not a team that is built for fighting or retaliation, and even if they wanted to follow that route, heavyweight Bryan Bickell has been out of the lineup. The only Blackhawk who could have realistically sent a message would have been 6'2", 223-pound Brandon Bollig.
Retribution may not be the answer, but sending a message and making sure nobody else suffers such abuse is vital.
Those who claim that pounding Orpik is nothing but Neanderthal behavior don't understand fully. The idea is not vengeance; it's protecting the remaining stars that remain upright.
The Blackhawks were eliminated soon thereafter. They would eventually engage Torres in a dust-up after he got done serving a 25-game suspension (later reduced by Gary Bettman), but that came so long after the fact as to be meaningless.
The Chicago culture is all about skill, puck possession and skating circles around an opponent. It is a philosophy that has brought Joel Quenneville's team multiple Stanley Cups.
But when the best player on the team goes down, it appears to be open season on the team's best assets. Dirty hits are ugly and have no part in the game, but it's not just about the officials putting the offending players in the penalty box.
It's about insuring that it won't happen again. Or at least lessening the likelihood that it will happen again.
Do the Blackhawks need a "policeman" to protect their stars?
A player who has it in his mind to deliver a devastating hit is likely going to deliver it he has his mind set to do just that. However, he has to think about the price that has to be paid.
If he plays the Boston Bruins, for example, that player is going to have to contend with Shawn Thornton, Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Kevan Miller or Johnny Boychuk. That has not stopped Orpik since Paille and Eriksson have been two of his victims, but it is something an aggressive player must consider.
The Blackhawks don't have that kind of lineup and that may be why Toews had to suffer such a brutal hit.
It may be the reason that Blackhawks fans and management may wonder who is going to be next to suffer a brutal upper-body hit.