Don't write off the defending Stanley Cup champions just yet.
The Chicago Blackhawks may have seemed rather ordinary throughout much of the second half of the regular season, but they had plenty of fire in their opening-round Stanley Cup series against the St. Louis Blues.
The Blackhawks rebounded from a 0-2 deficit and defeated the Blues 4-2 by overcoming adversity, injury and ordinary goaltending at the start of the series.
The switch flipped in Game 3, and the Blackhawks found their stride. Then Patrick Kane evened the series with an overtime strike in Game 4.
Jonathan Toews did the same in Game 5, giving the Blackhawks the advantage with a win in St. Louis. Finally, it all came together with a four-goal explosion in the third period of Game 6. Game, set and match. The Blackhawks rolled to a 5-1 victory.
The Blackhawks eliminated the Blues and moved on.
Joel Quenneville's team demonstrated its championship pedigree in the first round of the playoffs. However, does that mean the Blackhawks are ready to defend their title and bring home their third championship in five seasons?
While they defeated the Blues in an impressive manner, their future opponents are not going to be intimidated. They will face the Colorado Avalanche or Minnesota Wild in the second round, and if they survive that confrontation, they will have to play Anaheim, Los Angeles or San Jose in the Western Conference Final.
The Western Conference was viewed as the superior conference throughout the regular season, and it is proving to be just that in the postseason.
The Blackhawks survived the first round of that meat grinder, but asking them to go through three more rounds to defend their championship will be more difficult than it was a year ago.
They were the Presidents' Trophy winner last year, and that gave them home-ice advantage in every series. They did not have that edge against the Blues, and if the Avalanche survive the seventh game against the Wild, the Blackhawks won't have it in the second round as well.
They needed home ice to beat the Detroit Red Wings last year, and it took overtime to do it.
A clutch goal by Brent Seabrook eliminated the Wings. In the following series, Kane scored a clutch double-overtime goal to eliminate the Kings. In the last game of the Stanley Cup Final win over the Boston Bruins, Toews scored a clutch goal and assisted on the tying score in the final moments.
The Blackhawks have the ability to make big plays when it matters most. Kane and Toews have more of this ability to come through in crunch time than perhaps anyone else.
T.J. Oshie played against Toews in the recently completed first-round series. He also played with Toews when the two were college hockey players at North Dakota.
"It seems like good things always happen to him,” Oshie told Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times. “You look at his track record and what he’s done and the teams he’s led—goals go in for him and he works hard to get them. It seems like guys that work hard and are honest players get the favorable bounces.”
He's honest and hardworking, yes, but Toews and his buddy Kane are also supremely gifted players. They have the kind of talent that perhaps no other team in the Stanley Cup playoffs can match. If the Blackhawks are going to defend their title and become a dynasty, that talent will see them through.
The numbers are starting to make a statement. So far in the playoffs, the Blackhawks rank first in penalty kill, stopping 93.1 percent of their opponents' power-play opportunities.
They are also fifth in five-on-five goals, scoring 1.45 goals to every goal that their opponents score. They are averaging 3.33 goals per game (fifth) and giving up 2.33 goals per game (third).
The Blackhawks are strong in the measurable categories, but it's not clear if they are at a championship level yet.
They passed the first test and have three more big exams to go to prove they are championship-worthy once again.
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