Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun debate whether the Chicago Blackhawks can rebound in time to return to the postseason dance and share thoughts on the World Junior Championship (give us your take here):
Burnside: Happy New Year, my friend ... or as you might say, Bonne Annee!
I watched the World Junior Championship semifinal between Canada and the United States last night, and it made laugh how many had tried to portray the Canadians as the "underdogs" in this made-for-television, made-for-Canada event. The Canadian fans dominated the crowd at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, as Canada advanced to its 10th straight final with a resounding 4-1 victory. A very disappointing loss for the Americans, who beat Canada last year in the gold-medal game.
But on to hockey that really matters. How about the defending Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks suddenly getting healthy and making a statement, with Jonathan Toews scoring the winner in a big 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Monday night?
LeBrun: Before we move on, I have a lot to say on last night's World Junior game.
I think the juxtaposition yesterday was too rich to miss. First, the NHL announced that Saturday's Winter Classic was the most-viewed NHL regular-season game in 36 years. You think to yourself, "Boy, the game is finally making serious in-roads in the U.S." Then, hours later, American hockey fans are embarrassed by what transpires in the HSBC Arena stands. Reports indicate the crowd was at least three-quarters Canadian. A tournament official e-mailed me last night and said that's partly because 63 percent of tournament tickets packages were bought by Canadians.
Still, our colleague David Shoalts of The Globe and Mail, which has been covering the tournament, said local fans could have gotten more involved. "There were at least 3,000 tickets available yesterday and I bet those were taken by Canadians," Shoalts said to me via e-mail. "Bottom line: this tournament still means way more in Canada than it does anywhere else."
On a day I was feeling great about the Winter Classic and its ability to draw new fans in the U.S., I was reminded Monday night how far America has to go with this sport.
Yes, I did catch the Chicago-L.A. game, although I must tell you, Vancouver-San Jose was the game of the night. Give me that in a playoff series any day come spring.
The Blackhawks played with serious urgency last night. While the score was close, I never had the feeling the Hawks were going to lose this one. Toews was at his best, willing his team to victory. The Hawks need to get on a run here and move into the safe zone.
Burnside: It's been hard not to think of the Detroit Red Wings when watching the Blackhawks bob up and down in the choppy seas that are the Western Conference. Injuries to key personnel, such as Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Toews, have made integrating all the new parts of the lineup that much more difficult. Like the Wings last season, you have to wonder how much energy will be expended by the defending Cup champs just to return to the postseason.
Even with the big win against Los Angeles, a game in which they spotted the Kings the first goal, the Blackhawks are still outside the playoff bubble. Shocking to consider they might not even qualify for the postseason the year after bringing home their first Stanley Cup since 1961.
LeBrun: The Hawks will make the playoffs, I guarantee you that. Toews himself almost predicted as much to Chicago media after last night's game.
"It's crazy to think we're the type of team that's not going to be there at the end of the year," the Hawks' captain told Chicago writers. "That's ridiculous. We want to stay healthy, and we hope things keep getting better from here on [out]. ... We'd all be pretty disappointed at the end of the year -- knowing what we have in this locker room -- if we can't accomplish our goal of doing that."
Chicago is not the team you want to face in the first round. Of course, in the tougher Western Conference, there never is an easy matchup these days. Corey Crawford, for the record, looked dynamite last night. I thought the Hawks wouldn't go anywhere unless it was Marty Turco carrying the mail, and while I still believe the veteran netminder must deliver the goods, Crawford is looking awfully confident right now. His save on Anze Kopitar late in the game was gorgeous.
Burnside: I agree, the Hawks will be in the playoffs. But as someone who predicted they would return to the Stanley Cup finals (after all, this is all about me), I wonder if they will find that groove and that cockiness we saw as they rolled through Vancouver, San Jose and Philly in the final three rounds last postseason.
Maybe they'll be like the 2009 Penguins, a team that looked adrift and suffered through key injuries in the middle of the season before elevating its game once April rolled around. But from watching Pittsburgh and Detroit last spring, being able to produce two long playoff runs in a row means bucking the odds.
Still, with Hossa back (he scored a nice goal last night) and Patrick Sharp having a monster season, there's no reason the Hawks shouldn't be able to shoulder their way back into the mix and perhaps secure home-ice advantage. Speaking of which, any idea why the Hawks are so pedestrian (12-10-0) at the Madhouse on Madison, your home away from home in the playoffs? Last season, they were dominant there (29-8-4).
LeBrun: Scotty, the Hawks played 12 of their first 20 games of the season at home. It was obvious to anyone the first 20 games were going to be the most painful, as they tried to find cohesion within the new lineup and fight the Cup hangover and injuries. What will be interesting to me is what GM Stan Bowman does before the Feb. 28 trade deadline. Bowman told me last month he's coveting defensive help, which isn't surprising because the Hawks are thin there. Until tomorrow, my friend.