The Chicago Blackhawks are finishing the 2013-14 regular season without two of the organization's cornerstone players. We won't see Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews on the ice until the playoffs start.
That's just fine by me.
I haven't lost my mind, folks. Chicago will be hard-pressed to win a playoff series with Andrew Shaw in the middle of the top line, to say nothing about hoisting another Stanley Cup.
Pine all you want about getting Kane and Toews back into action, but it isn't happening until the postseason. Knowing that, there are definite advantages to coach Joel Quenneville navigating the remaining schedule without two of the 'Hawks biggest stars.
If the Blackhawks win out, they are going to be playing Colorado in the opening round of the playoffs. If they drop every remaining contest, they are going to be playing Colorado in the opening round of the playoffs. That has already been decided based on their position in the Central Division standings.
Home ice is still up for grabs. However, the Avalanche lead Chicago 104-103 in points as of Saturday and have two games in hand. Colorado does have to go on the road for five of its last six games, starting Saturday afternoon in St. Louis.
The 'Hawks host the Blues in a Sunday matinee, then have the Canadiens in Chicago before finishing on the road in Washington and Nashville. If Chicago takes all of the last eight points available, the Avs have to go 4-2 to open the postseason in Denver.
At this point, I would rather have as healthy a squad as possible knowing the 'Hawks are going up against the speed of the Avalanche either way in the first round. For that reason, I have no problem with Quenneville easing up on the minutes for more than a few players.
Chicago has played two games without Kane and Toews so far. Guess what? The world hasn't ended.
The 'Hawks looked sloppy Thursday night and needed a shootout to best Minnesota 3-2. Friday, Chicago got a late goal from Ben Smith to defeat Columbus 4-3. The Blue Jackets are fighting for their playoff lives out East. Getting a win in Columbus is nothing to sneeze at, especially for the short-handed Blackhawks.
Quenneville actually spread the ice time around Friday, with no forward skating more than Marian Hossa's 18:41. It paid off for Chicago as some little-used players had a big hand in the victory.
Smith, who skated over 18 minutes Thursday and Friday, has goals in each of Chicago's wins sans Kane and Toews. Jeremy Morin, who has had to play with one eye on the bench in most of his appearances this season, saw the ice for a season-high 13:39.
Morin, after setting up a Bryan Bickell tally against the Wild, scored his second goal of the season Friday. Letting a young player like Morin build some confidence and chemistry with Bickell and Peter Regin can't be a bad thing. The same goes for Joakim Nordstrom, who was called up this week.
Johnny Oduya was a late scratch before Thursday's game. Sheldon Brookbank has been used with Niklas Hjalmarsson in his heaviest minutes of the campaign. With Michal Rozsival returning to action Friday night, Quenneville shouldn't have to rush Oduya back into the fray.
Chicago's decision to sit Toews when the 'Hawks were already without the services of Kane may have been a scary prospect. Heck, it's still scary thinking of two key players having to shake off some rust entering the postseason.
Patrick Sharp missed a big chunk at the end of last season and still managed to lead the 'Hawks with 10 playoff goals. Kane and Toews have playoff experience. Provided they're healthy, I think both can get back into game shape quickly.
Nobody in their right mind would have requested the scenario in which Chicago finds itself. However, in the big picture, getting key players at or close to 100 percent and asking the role players to pick it up is likely to benefit the Blackhawks in the coming weeks.
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