Chicago Blackhawks look to become part of an elite group - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

Blackhawks look to become part of an elite group

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

The Chicago Blackhawks will begin their quest Tuesday night for another Stanley Cup. Winning consecutive Cups is no easy task as the Detroit Red Wings back in 1997 and 1998 were the last to accomplish the feat. One would have to travel back to the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton teams of the mid-to-late 80's to find a club that won three Cups in five years or less. The odds may be tall but considering the Hawks have been crowned champs twice in the past four years, they can't be counted out.

The two times in the past four campaigns they did not win the last game played there were legitimate excuses. The summer following the 2010 Cup about 40 percent of the roster was dumped in a salary cap purge. In the 2012 playoffs injury concerns for the concussed Marian Hossa and similar issues for Jonathan Toews helped spoil the playoff run.

When looking for continuing success, it may be wise to focus on younger players like Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad who played significant roles last season. Nick Leddy had a very good camp and may be ready to establish himself as a difference maker. Leddy signed a new deal this summer but it was only for one year and this season is a big one for him. If the young guys can continue to improve rather than take a step back the Hawks could be poised for another long playoff run.

At first blush having Detroit out of the Central Division seems like a great bonus. The rest of the Division is full of teams that should improve but really don't know how to win the big games yet. Also, for the first time in awhile the schedule starts off favorably for the Blackhawks. Six of the first eight games will be played at the United Center. Over the opening six weeks 12 of 19 tilts will be conducted on home ice.

Success this season may boil down to the Hawks ability to take advantage of a home slanted start to the season and not becoming complacent. If the focus is there and the injury bugs stay away the Blackhawks should have a very good chance to make history.

The importance of playing well in the regular season should not be dismissed. Although NHL success is determined in the playoffs being able to secure enough points to have home ice throughout, or most of the time during the post season, is a big factor for success.

The main reason the Hawks had a decent shot at coming back from down three games to one versus Detroit was because two of the final three contests were played at the United Center. As it was it took some luck, outstanding goaltending and the determination of a champion to advance.

If the Hawks take too many nights off as a group or are plagued with injuries, this season could be rocky. For now their focus and attention to detail won't be questioned and head coach Joel Quenneville is fully aware of potential pitfalls.

Significant deletions from last season include Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik and Ray Emery.

There aren't many players smarter on the ice than Bolland but his overall play had slipped. Be it because of injuries or not, GM Stan Bowman wasn't going to pay Bolland $3 million plus to play on the fourth line. Frolik had an excellent season but he was a sell high candidate. Management felt there were players in the pipeline that could kill penalties and would be less expensive. Emery had a remarkable year and is a medical miracle in many ways. He wanted a chance to be a starter and will get that opportunity in Philadelphia.

Replacing Emery will be Nikolai Khabibuiln who was a free agent target of Bowman this summer. The signing makes sense but in the same regard counting on Khabibulin to give the Hawks 20-25 good starts may be a reach. The 40-year-old is a workout fanatic but he wasn't overly impressive in the preseason and is often injured.

To make matters worse Khabibulin is from the same school as another former Blackhawk Marty Havlat when it comes to returning from injuries. When hurt, both players seem to take a long time off and don't return a second before they feel they are 100 percent. Khabibulin won't be rushed back and if necessary the highly touted Antti Raanta could see some time between the pipes in Chicago. Until needed, Raanta will learn his lessons in Rockford.

The Hawks will be hoping when and if Khabibulin goes out for repairs it won't disrupt the work schedule of Corey Crawford. Crawford got richly rewarded with a hefty new contract and many will be waiting for him to show signs of breaking under the pressure of a fat bank account. Until proven otherwise Crawford deserves the benefit of doubt.

Joakim Nordstrom will be starting on the fourth line as a 21-year-old rookie. The coaching staff appears to be impressed with his smarts and the 2010 third round selection played well enough in camp to secure a roster spot. He will be asked to be part of the penalty killing unit and hopefully can fill the role of Frolik.

Two forwards from Rockford earned a promotion and have made the squad. Ben Smith will finally get an opportunity to show his stuff in Chicago. Smith is versatile and can play all three forward positions. The word going around is Jimmy Hayes has improved his skating and management has always liked his size. The issue for Hayes is he needs to play like a big man every game. If not he will find himself back in Rockford as there are others who are eager for a promotion.

High scoring Ice Hog center Brandon Pirri did not make the cut and the same was true of forward Jeremy Morin. Saad was given time in front of Pirri as a second line center possibility in training camp, so it wasn't a shock when he was sent down. Evidently management still sees things they don't like in Pirri's game as Saad never played as a center at any level before. Not exactly a vote a confidence for Pirri, but things could change. Morin was basically beaten out by Hayes but that could change as well as options are available and the leash could be short for some youngsters.

Michal Handzus will begin the year as the second line center. Patrick Sharp and Hossa will add enough scoring punch to carry Handzus. As long as Handzus doesn't see a lot of time playing alongside Patrick Kane things should be fine. Handzus is a determined player who is defensively responsible.

Another new addition, at least to start the year in Chicago, is defenseman Michael Kostka. He was signed as a free agent and played with the Maple Leafs last season. In a somewhat curious move, Quenneville decided to carry eight defensemen to start off. It remains to be seen how often Kostka will see action but there are reasons he could get some work.

With the Winter Olympics coming the league is shutting down for three weeks in February. That means the schedule will be compacted and maybe Quenneville is trying to make sure an older player like Michal Rozsival is as fresh as possible for the playoffs. Rozsival put on a remarkable, underrated performance during the Cup run.

So this time around the Blackhawks will have to deal with the notorious Stanley Cup hangover, the distraction of an outdoor game to be played at Soldier Field and the Olympics.

The Hawks aren't perfect, they may have trouble in the faceoff circle and also on the power play this time around as well. Being perfect isn't a requirement for NHL success but playing a solid system over and over again is necessary.

The fact is players like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Kane and Toews are just entering their prime. Hossa and Handzus are coming back from playoff injuries but are healthy enough to be in the lineup Tuesday night. So expectations are sky high and should be.

Last season when the Hawks were at their best they couldn't be beat. Blackhawk fans will be hoping the same is true once again.

Al's Shots

I will be writing articles On which will be posted the day following every game this season.

I would like to express my appreciation as many readers have been regulars since back in 2006. Once again you can also hear me on SiriusXM radio.

This season should feature a lot of exciting hockey and I have a feeling there will be plenty to discuss.

You can follow me on Twitter @AlCimaglia.

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