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Monday, March 1, 2010
Back from break, Hawks eye Cup

By Jesse Rogers

With the Olympics over, we can get back to the business of a little something called the Stanley Cup. Four Chicago Blackhawks have their Olympic medals. Hawk fans want their championship. Twenty one games remain in the regular season and at 41-15-5, the Blackhawks are sitting pretty. Here are some things to focus on as we re-start the season:
Blackhawks
The Blackhawks will be hoping to continue their winning ways when they return from the Olympic break.

Trade Deadline: Who knows, by the time you read this, the Hawks may have pulled off a blockbuster deal for a goaltender or even another defenseman. Or, they may be just fine as they are. That’s the beauty of their situation. No major needs come to mind. The Hawks, under John McDonough and Stan Bowman, are very good at keeping the lid on behind-the-scenes maneuvers -- I don’t recall Kim Johnsson’s name ever coming up in rumors, despite the deal taking a couple weeks to complete.

Publicly, other than a Joel Quenneville “he has to play better here or there” quote, the Hawks have stated they are happy with their goaltenders. League sources say they’ve looked into the availability of several netminders, including Olympian Tomas Vokoun of the Panthers, but whether they pull the trigger remains to be seen. And don’t count out the possibility of one more blueliner being added for more insurance. The deadline is Wednesday at 2 p.m. CT.

Goaltending: Barring a trade, the month of March could very well determine who gets the nod for the playoffs. When last seen, Antti Niemi started the final four games before the Olympic break and won all of them. He seems to have the edge as we hit the stretch run, but don’t count Cristobal Huet completely out. He says he’s ready to earn playing time back. Niemi may have won those four games -- which is still the most important factor -- but his goals against average has climbed while his save percentage has dropped. As written in this blog previously, though, Niemi bails out his defense when there’s a mistake in front of him more often than Huet. That’s no small thing. If that trend continues, it could just be the reason Niemi keeps the job.

Playing Time: Just like the regular season up until the Olympic break, nobody played more hockey the last two weeks than Duncan Keith. He led all Olympians in icetime and, barring a Hawk meltdown, is on schedule to play more minutes and games than in any one year of his career. The addition of Kim Johnsson will give both he and Brent Seabrook a breather when needed. In the last few days, Quenneville said the Hawks will “monitor” the players that were in Vancouver and deal with their playing time accordingly. Don’t expect much to change for the forwards, but it would be a surprise if those defensemen came back playing the same amount.

Health and Chemistry: The break gave some of the walking wounded time to heal. Ben Eager and John Madden should be ready to go this week and Adam Burish is expected to return on Sunday. The dents and nicks that Brent Sopel and Niklas Hjalmarsson have absorbed are also in the past. It’s possible that by next week, the Hawks will have their entire lineup available for the first time this season. It means line combinations can finally find some cohesion while the battle for playing time will be fierce. Remember, what happens in March and early April will be Quenneville’s lasting memory as he makes out his playoff lineup. You think Colin Fraser wants to miss out on most of the playoffs again? I don’t, and neither does anyone else. Of course, the team has to stay healthy, which not the easiest thing to do.

Seeds: Spring may be a time to plant them, but it’s also a time to determine them. As in, will the Hawks overtake the San Jose Sharks for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference? If they do, they get home-ice advantage throughout the postseason. Currently, they are two points behind San Jose but have played one less game. With a healthy, 11-point lead on the third seed, even if the Hawks don’t catch the Sharks, they’re not exactly in bad position. Only if they met San Jose in the conference finals would they have to possibly play four on the road.

Post-Olympics history: If you’ve wondered how the Olympic break affects teams when they return to NHL action, we have some numbers for you. After the three previous Olympic breaks, 15 of 16 teams that were leading their division at the time of the break went on to win it. At least one team in each previous post-Olympics that has sent multiple players to the games has a drop off when they return. For example, in 1998, Colorado (9 Olympians) was 29-13-16 before the break and just 10-13-1 after. In 2002, the Red Wings (11 Olympians) were 41-11-8 before and 10-6-6 after. That last one resembles the Hawks’ record the closest, and while the Wings weren’t horrendous after the Olympics, they certainly didn’t keep up the pre-Salt Lake Games pace.