(Full disclosure: I am Chicago editor of PJ Media and obviously have a rooting interest in who wins.)
The Stanley Cup may be the most unique trophy in all of professional sports. Unlike other pro sports awards that are made new each year and presented to the winner, the Cup remains in the possession of the previous year’s champion until a new one is crowned.
In the off season, each member of the winning team gets to keep the Cup for one day. It’s flown around on a special jet, making appearances in players’ home towns all over the world. A truly special moment for the player and his family.
Given that tradition, it’s no wonder that NHL playoff hockey games are a spectacle of intensity, courage, and brilliant play. This makes repeating as champion in back-to-back years an extremely difficult proposition.
So many things can happen to derail a repeat; a hot opposing goalie in one of the early rounds, injuries, even a lack of intensity by the champion. The last team to win the Cup two seasons in a row was Detroit in 1996-97 and 1997-98.
The reigning Stanley Cup champions are the Chicago Blackhawks. What are their chances to repeat the feat and grab the Cup once again?
Here are 5 reasons the Hawks will win again.
1. Outstanding production from their superstars.
Following the break for the Winter Olympics, the Blackhawks went into a minor funk. Part of the reason for that was injuries to some of their key players. But overall, they just weren’t getting the scoring from their bevy of talented forwards.
Then the playoffs began and it was like someone flipped a switch. Wingers Patrick Kane and Marion Hossa, and center Jonathan Toews have elevated their games to another level. With Coach Joel Quennville juggling line combinations to get at least one of his best players on the ice at all times, the Blackhawks offense has flourished in first 9 games.
2. The Return of Brian Bickell
One of the big stars of the Blackhawk’s run for the Cup last year was Brian Bickell – a most unlikely hero on a team chock full of offensive talent, Bickell played on the third line — a grouping that Quennville would send out to check the opposing team’s top line. He ended up scoring 9 goals and 8 assists in 23 playoff games for the Hawks, giving them an offensive boost in the tight checking, low scoring playoff games.
But Bickell had a below average regular season this year, playing in only 62 of a possible 82 games and scoring only 11 goals and 4 assists. He was benched a few times by Quennville for sometimes lackluster play.
But someone lit a fire under Bickell once these playoffs began and he is once again producing at key times. He’s tied for second on the team for points scored in the playoffs and is flying around the ice, using his 6’4″ 230 lb frame as a battering ram to terrorize opposing forwards. Bickell adds a much needed presence in front of the net where his bulk screens goalies from seeing shots.
If Bickell can continue to contribute, the Hawks will be tough to beat.
3. Duncan Keith is playing the best hockey of his career.
Defensemen Duncan Keith is once again showing why he is one of the tops at his position in the league. Playing defense well in the NHL is an art — part positioning, part fearlessness, and part savvy. Keith has them all and then some, including a laser-like slapshot from the point that allowed him to tally 55 assists during the regular season — best among defensemen and sixth best among all players in the league.
Keith is averaging an astonishing 28 minutes 42 seconds of ice time per game during the playoffs. He excels on the penalty kill as well as the power play and is a courageous shot blocker. There isn’t any aspect of the game that he doesn’t have an impact on and his presence on the ice, his surety in handling the puck in his own zone, has a calming influence on the team.
If the Hawks repeat, Keith will be a big reason why.
4. Goalie Corey Crawford is once again in the running for playoff MVP
With a save percentage of .929 and a goals against average of 1.99, Crawford has had a spectacular playoff run — until Tuesday night’s game when the Hawks came out flat against the Minnesota Wild and lost 4-0.
Buttressed by a strong defense in front of him, Crawford has made several spectacular, game saving saves while expertly handling the puck behind the net. What’s more, he’s hot. And the advantage of having a hot goaltender at playoff time is incalculable.
5. The team looks hungry again
There were times during the regular season when the Hawks played uninspired hockey. They seemed to play down to the level of their competition at times, losing to inferior teams but beating the league leaders.
They lost 15 times in overtime or shootouts — a dismal record bested only by New Jersey who lost 18 times. In short, the team seemed to have lost their edge from last year.
After losing the first two games to St. Louis in the first round of the playoffs, it appeared that the Hawks would succumb to an early exit. But returning home proved to be a tonic to the team and they reeled off 4 straight victories to finish the Blues and then ripped the Minnesota Wild the first two games of the second round.
They were riding high with a six game playoff win streak until they lost on Tuesday night to the Wild. But even if they lose game 4 on Friday, the confidence they possessed that took them to the championship last year is back. It may not be enough to carry them all the way to victory, but all the elements seem to be in place to make the odds of a repeat very good.