Chicago Blackhawks' Blueprint to a Deep Run in 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Any time a team has won two Stanley Cups in the last four years, it may have a hard time taking the rigors of the regular season seriously. That appeared to be the case for the Chicago Blackhawks this season, as they finished in third place in the Central Division.
Last year, the Blackhawks had a record-setting regular season and finished off a grueling playoff run in dramatic fashion last June against the Boston Bruins.
They go into the 2014 postseason with an eye towards making it two titles in a row and three in five years. While it will be quite challenging for them to get through the Western Conference and back to the Stanley Cup Final, here's the blueprint they need to follow to make a deep postseason run.
Toews and Kane Must Play Like...Toews and Kane
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are the two best players on a very talented team.
Both are coming back from injuries that kept them off the ice in the final weeks of the regular season. Both should be close to full health when the puck drops in St. Louis for Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs Thursday night.
Toews (upper body) needs to be the team's dynamic leader who plays dominant defensive hockey, wins more than half of the draws he takes and plays consistently in the offensive zone.
Kane (lower body) must be creative in the offensive zone and finish his scoring opportunities. He also needs to venture into the dirty areas and not shy away from contact. Kane also must show his game-changing speed when he skates with the puck through the neutral zone.
When both players are at their best, it will be difficult for any opponent to shut down the Blackhawks. There are other players who can pick up the slack, but if the Blackhawks are going to beat the Blues in the first round and then go further, they need their superstars to play like superstars.
Power-Play Success Is Vital
While the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last year, they really didn't get much help from their power-play unit.
The Blackhawks had a success rate of 11.4 percent with the man advantage in the 2013 postseason, and that ranked 13th of the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs.
Their success, or lack thereof, didn't keep them from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final and beating the Boston Bruins. That's because they were so successful in five-on-five play.
This year it has been a different story. The Blackhawks have done well as a five-on-five team, but they are not as successful as they were last year. However, they have been far more efficient on the power play. They have been successful on 19.5 percent of their man-advantage opportunities, and that ranks ninth in the league.
It doesn't seem likely that they can repeat their championship run unless their power play is at least as good as it was during the regular season. If it sinks to last year's playoff level, they most likely won't get far.
Physical Play Needed from the Defense
The Blackhawks don't rank with the more physical teams in the NHL. Of the top teams in the Western Conference, Chicago does not play the kind of hard-hitting game that they can expect to see from St. Louis, Los Angeles, Anaheim or San Jose.
However, they can play tough when they have to, especially on the defensive side. The Blackhawks have an underrated shutdown pair of defensemen in Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson. They are skilled defensively, can assert themselves in the corners and keep the front of the net clear so goalie Corey Crawford can see the puck.
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are the No. 1 pair of defensemen for the Blackhawks, but they have more of an influence on the offensive end of the ice. Both can get the job done defensively on occasion, but Oduya and Hjalmarsson are more consistent in that area.
Head coach Joel Quenneville will put them out against their opponents' top line. Oduya and Hjalmarsson both had plus-11 ratings during the regular season and did well in the advanced stats. Oduya had a 53.0 Corsi for percentage, while Hjalmarsson was slightly better at 53.3, according to ExtraSkater.com.
If the Blackhawks are going to have a long run this spring, both men have to be at the top of their game and can't hesitate to play a physical game when it is needed.
Crawford Must Be on Top of His Game
Corey Crawford was often brilliant during last year's playoff run for the Blackhawks.
He had a 16-7 record along with a 1.84 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. Crawford did not win the Conn Smythe Trophy after last year's playoffs, but he was a contender for that honor.
Crawford was not perfect in last year's postseason and had some difficult moments against the Detroit Red Wings and the Boston Bruins. However, he bounced back from less-than-stellar performances with excellent ones and never got down on himself if he let in a questionable goal.
Crawford has not been the same goalie this year in the regular season. He had a 2.26 GAA and a .917 save percentage. More than the numbers, Crawford seemed to give up at least one bad goal every game.
Crawford often received pointed criticism from fans who called Chicago's sports talk radio shows, and Quenneville voiced his concern about Crawford's play from time to time.
If the Blackhawks are going to defend their title, they need Crawford to come close to matching last year's postseason form.
Role Players Step Up
It's not just the superstars who have to come through with solid performances for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Any team that wants to succeed, needs it top players to set the tone, but the team's role players must make solid contributions as well.
That was the case last year, especially in the Stanley Cup Final. Andrew Shaw scored the triple-overtime goal that gave the Blackhawks Game 1 of the series. Bryan Bickell scored the tying goal in Game 6 and Dave Bolland followed with the series-winner seconds later.
While Bolland is gone this year (Toronto), Shaw, Bickell and other role players remain, and they are expected to do their share. Jeremy Morin had an opportunity to play at the end of the regular season and could get a chance to play at some point in the postseason.
Future star Brandon Saad was ordinary in the final weeks of the season, but he could make up for that with a memorable playoff performance. Kris Versteeg and Marcus Kruger are other role players who could spell the difference between victory and defeat.