5 Keys for Chicago Blackhawks to Finish Strong in 2013-14 NHL Regular Season
The Chicago Blackhawks answered their wake-up call last week as they registered three consecutive victories, including a 4-2 home victory over the Central Division-leading St. Louis Blues, in which they looked like the quicker and more talented team.
The Blackhawks are biding their time before the playoffs start. Since they have won two of the last four Stanley Cup championships, they know the most important part of the year still awaits them.
However, head coach Joel Quenneville would like to see his team take some more positive steps in the final week of the regular season. In addition to giving the team some additional momentum, it may give Quenneville some peace of mind as his team prepares for the postseason.
Brandon Saad Needs to Play Assertive Hockey Again
Brandon Saad is one of the most talented of the young players on the Chicago Blackhawks roster. He has stepped up into an important role on the team, as he has scored 19 goals and 26 assists this season while compiling a plus-23 rating.
However, head coach Joel Quenneville has noticed a dip in Saad's play in recent games, and he sat him down and made Saad a healthy scratch when the Blackhawks played the St. Louis Blues on April 6.
This was designed to get Saad's attention so his mind would squarely return to the business of playing hockey.
Saad told Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times the message Quenneville gave him. ‘‘Pretty short talk,’’ Saad said. ‘‘Just refocus, get ready and get back in the lineup.’’
Quenneville would like to see more consistency from the 21-year-old Saad in the final week of the season.
Get Corey Crawford on Track
Corey Crawford is a frequent target for fans who call or text local radio-talk shows in Chicago.
While Crawford has solid numbers this year—31-15-10, a 2.22 goals against average and a .918 save percentage—Blackhawks fans have been frustrated because it appears that Crawford regularly gives up one "bad" goal nearly every game.
While Crawford has demonstrated the ability to bounce back and move on to the next shot, this year's Blackhawks are not the juggernaut that last year's team was. In 2013, Crawford could give up a bad goal (or maybe even two) in any game, and the team had more than enough firepower to bounce back.
That may not be the case this year. The Blackhawks would like to see Crawford tighten things up in the final week of the regular season.
Depth Players Must Continue to Produce
Injuries to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have forced the Blackhawks to bring up players like Jeremy Morin and Joakim Nordstrom from the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Rockford.
Morin was one of the Blackhawks' most impressive players in Chicago's 4-2 win over St. Louis on April 6. He had a goal, an assist and was named the game's first star.
Nordstrom was solid in that game, and recent acquisition Peter Regin has played well for several weeks.
These are depth players who will play an important role in the final week and perhaps longer, if injuries prevent regular players from returning to the ice.
The Blackhawks have 15 forwards on their roster, and they will dress 12 for their upcoming postseason games. If Kane and Toews return as expected, the chances are the trio of Morin, Nordstrom and Regin will watch the playoffs from the press box.
That's a good problem for Quenneville, who admits that his lineup decisions consume his thought process.
“We think about that probably every minute of the day,” Quenneville said.
Get Johnny Oduya Back Up to Speed
Johnny Oduya must be on top of his game if the Blackhawks are going to have an excellent chance to defend their Stanley Cup championship.
Oduya does not get the recognition that first-pair defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook often receive, but he teams with Niklas Hjalmarsson to form the Blackhawks' shutdown defensive pair.
The Blackhawks need to have Oduya find his best form in the final three games of the regular season. He played a huge role in last year's championship run last year, and Quenneville will be depending on him again this spring.
Monitor Kane and Toews Closely
As far as injuries go, the Blackhawks seemed to get hit with a double-shot last month when Patrick Kane (lower body) and Jonathan Toews (upper body) went down within a few games of each other. Neither player will compete in any of the remaining regular-season games, but both are expected to be back for the playoffs.
That's probably just what's going to happen, but the Blackhawks have to be careful to monitor their two stars and not let either one of them push too hard at this point.
Kane has started skating, and Toews is expected to resume skating soon. With the playoffs scheduled to begin April 16 (or 17), it's important that they are both ready to compete at 100 percent. The Blackhawks are better off waiting and making sure they are ready, rather than pushing them for the first game of the playoffs.
If they can pass all tests, by all means, let them play. But the team should not try to fool itself and push them back into action for Game 1 if they are not ready.
It's difficult for any team to show that much restraint. But the Blackhawks have very mature senior leadership in general manager Stan Bowman and Quenneville, and they need to make that tough decision if it is required.