Chicago Blackhawks Get Defensive Amid Great Expectations

Mike SzwajaContributor IOctober 1, 2009

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - SEPTEMBER 29: Cristobal Huet of Chicago during the warm up before the ZSC Lions Zurich v Chicago Blackhawks Victoria Cup match at the Hallenstadion Arena on September 29, 2009 in Zurich, Switzerland.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

A year ago, the Chicago Blackhawks were the great unknown. They had the tools to win. A Stanley Cup-winning goalie in Nikolai Khabibulin. Young guns in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. A lockdown defensive pairing in Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. A veteran scorer in Marty Havlat. And fans who were so hungry for a winner, that more than 14,000 season tickets were sold.

Still, everyone wanted to know, could they actually win?

Win they did, more than anyone could have imagined. Next thing the massive crowds at the United Center knew, the Blackhawks were in the Western Conference Finals after a 104-point regular season.

Now everyone, including the guys who will pull the Indian head sweater over their heads in the season opener on Friday in Helsinki, knows they can and should win, and that should scare you to death if you’re a Blackhawks fan.

The 2009-10 season presents a whole new challenge. The sleeping giant is awake, and there are a slew of NHL teams waiting to play David to their Goliath. Tuesday’s loss to ZSC Lions Zurich was, perhaps, the best thing that could have happened to this season’s Blackhawks. Crazy fans. Inspired opponents. It’s a scene the Blackhawks will face nightly, and it’ll start Friday and Saturday against the Panthers.

Florida’s young talent will look to prove, early and often, that they’re ready to make a playoff run in the East. And it won’t get easy when the Blackhawks return stateside.

The last time they played on American ice, they were dueling with the Red Wings, and they’ll pick up right where they left off on Oct. 8 in Detroit, where the dynamic in the heated rivalry has changed.

The Blackhawks, for the first time this decade, are serious contenders to win the division. If all goes as planned, the Red Wings will be chasing the Blackhawks up the standings, and the early season duel will set the tone for what are sure to be compelling matchups all season.

Olympic years present challenging schedules for all NHL teams, but could it hurt the Blackhawks more than other teams?

Khabibulin is gone. In steps Cristobal Huet as the main man in front of the net. Huet has promised he’ll succeed as the main goalie, not having to constantly look over his shoulder, but Joel Quenneville has to keep him fresh. And that, again, is potentially scary for Blackhawks fans.

The backup choices are less than thrilling. Corey Crawford mastered the AHL and Antti Niemi mastered the Finnish league, but neither netminder has looked comfortable on NHL ice. Because of the Olympic year, the Blackhawks will play on consecutive days 13 times, which means the backup goalie will need to be good.

Huet will no doubt start the season on Friday, but will Quenneville immediately turn to either Crawford or Niemi on Saturday? The fact the head coach has yet to name a clear-cut backup should tell you he’s not fully comfortable with either guy.

Whoever mans the net on any given night should rest assured he’ll get plenty of solid help from his defensemen. Seabrook and Keith play together like McCartney and Lennon wrote songs together.

Nobody can move the puck as quickly and skillfully from his own zone, through the neutral zone, and into the attack like Brian Campbell can.

If anyone was worried about Niklas Hjalmarsson, he looked unflappable and fully capable in the playoffs, but can he do it night after night when the adrenaline might not be as high? That will be his challenge.

Cam Barker will finally prove that he was worthy of the third overall pick in 2004. Barker’s heavy shot became a real power play weapon down the stretch last season, and he started to get a little nasty in his own zone.

Brent Sopel appears to be the sixth defenseman, and his clean bill of health better mean that he’s going to be better, because when he was on the ice last season, he was an instant liability.

If last season’s Blackhawks had one glaring Achilles’ heel, it was the lack of two-way play from their forwards, and the front office knew it. Enter John Madden and Tomas Kopecky as free agents. Those signings might not turn heads, but the presence of those two guys will make a world of difference.

Their styles can’t be any more different. Kopecky is an intimidating presence who will use his size and long reach to punish just about anyone who gets in his way. Madden’s style relies a little more on being a pest. The ultimate nuisance of a defensive forward, if you will. The versatility of these two guys will give Quenneville matchup options he simply didn’t have last season. 

The Hawks will score goals, especially when Marian Hossa finally suits up, but it shouldn’t be nearly as easy to score on the Blackhawks this season. They’re simply a more complete, well-rounded hockey team...on paper.

As long as they remain focused and understand they’ll get every team’s best effort every night, there’s no reason to believe they can’t take their season one step further and play in the Stanley Cup Finals.