Tuesday, March 15, 2011
By Chris Boden
Only 12 games remain in the Blackhawks' season. Exactly four weeks from now, they'll be preparing for their first-round playoff opponent. That's the way they're looking at it inside the locker room, without any doubt their golf clubs will even be a consideration then.
Fourth-place in the West feels good after an impressive win over San Jose, made more impressive by the fact they were without two key players, were returning home from nine days on the road and playing the second game of a difficult back-to-back. But they're also still just four points removed from 9th place heading into Tuesday night and should they come up empty in Dallas Thursday night, they could be back in a tie for eighth-place depending on the scenarios between now and the end of that night's action.
Despite last week's hiccups (the most costly of which was coming up empty against the Panthers), the defending champs have done an exceptional job of taking care of business over the past month, failing to come up with a point just twice. And when we wrote last week about squeezing at least two, if not three, points out of the weekend versus the Caps and Sharks, they delivered three. Importance was added because they'll be doing a lot of sitting around the next week and a half, with just three games over 11 days. It comes at a good time for a handful of players whose banged-up bodies can use the lighter schedule. It won't ease the nerves of daily standings-watchers, because while their schedule lightens, other teams will pass them.
They also have the most difficult schedule of the nine teams packed between third and 11th in the West. Entering Tuesday's action, here's the average Points Percentage of the contenders' remaining opponents:
San Jose .579
Los Angeles .565
When we brought this up to Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa and Joel Quenneville Monday night, they wouldn't say whether all the tough opponents necessarily helps them remain in a proper focus and mindset. But they all agreed no opponent is easy, even those out of the playoff picture (Florida, back here next Wednesday, beat the Hawks in the one example of a first period in which the Hawks were not playing as they should). The players also say they've approached the past month as if the playoffs have already begun. For the most part, it's showed. There are still three games left with Detroit, as well as tough trips into Boston and Montreal.
With Brian Campbell's injury, it's a good thing Stan Bowman went beyond looking for just a "fifth or sixth" shot-blocking, penalty-killing defenseman at the trade deadline. He got more in Chris Campoli, who's definitely elevated the blue-line depth with his overall, well-rounded game. That's made all the more important as the Hawks await the return of one of the NHL's plus-minus leaders.
The Hawks cashed in on the fact they were just about fully healthy during their recent eight-game win streak, which they needed to do with all hands on-deck. Injuries are inevitable and the team's negotiating its way through the absences of Campbell and Dave Bolland. The center was lost on, as Joel Quenneville has indicated, the exact kind of stupid, irresponsible hit the league says it's trying to eliminate in order to reduce concussions, courtesy of Tampa Bay's Pavel Kubina. Now, the team and Bolland deal with the kind of injury that has no timetable for a return to the ice for an important player. He's aleady missed almost three games. Brad Richards recently missed 10. Sidney Crosby's just getting on the ice now for the first time in more than two months.
Most athletes are very particular about their equipment and almost never offer excuses publicly. I don't know whether fans would be interested in hearing every detail before booing or criticizing and just base their evaluations on the bottom line, or whether full disclosure would be helpful. They'll probably never get the latter with athletes who are big enough to face the music, based strictly on results. But there's this from Hossa Monday night: In addition to battling a number of health issues this season, he's also gone a long stretch without sticks he's comfortable with. He has them now, resulting in 10 goals and eight assists his last 15 games.
Chris Boden is the host of Blackhawks Pre and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet.