The following ran in Sunday’s edition of “The Committed Indian”. With the Hawks opening the playoffs on Friday night, we’ll have plenty of time to break stuff down and give some guided thoughts to the first round. Until then, let’s take a look back at what we just witnessed from the past seven months.
When we wrote in this space last year for the Committed Indian’s final regular season edition, we brought you the five biggest wins of the 2008-2009 season. Seeing as though the Blackhawks set a franchise record in wins this year, picking the most important seems a bit arbitrary. Instead, we’re going to give the six biggest developments from this record-setting regular season. Why six? Because we said so.
Hold on tight, here it comes. We’ll count down from six to one for effect.
6. Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson suffer major injuries in back-to-back games. The magical transition game of the Blackhawks took a big hit one fateful weekend in March. On the 13th, Johnsson left with a concussion. The next day, Alexander Ovechkin put an already off-balance Campbell through the boards while his back was turned, and the rest is history. Starting then, the Hawks were forced to turn to Jordan Hendry, Nick Boynton and Dustin Byfuglien as replacements – and to Byfuglien and Brent Sopel as top-pairing d-men with Duncan Keith. Their breakouts and power play entries, among other things, suffered, and the now-annual March swoon took full hold.
So, next time you’re cursing another Dustin Byfuglien defensive zone turnover or wondering aloud who thought Patrick Sharp would be a good point-man on the power-play, just remember this dark weekend that completely changed the Hawks defensive depth chart.
5. Tomas Kopecky finally becomes an effective fourth line player. Well, it took nearly the entire season and a few healthy scratches in between, but the emergence of Tomas Kopecky has been the perfect remedy for the Hawks’ March nightmare. The Hawks record when Kopecky notches a point is 14-1-0. While that may not necessarily mean he’s the Hawks’ Most Valuable Player – OK, it absolutely does not – it certainly suggests that the Hawks are a much better group with productive tenth, eleventh and twelfth forwards, and it’s been particularly important given the inconsistent play Ben Eager has provided this season. Throw in Colin Fraser’s recent streak, and it’s obvious the Hawks have been buoyed offensively by the two least likely forwards.
Another important factor in Kopecky’s turnaround is that it may prevent the Hawks from buying out the final season of his contract. With a huge decision looming this summer on what to do with Cristobal Huet, that will help. Somewhere in Switzerland, the ghost of Curtis Brown silently weeps.
4. March swoons are OK – so long as they’re preceded by dominant Novembers, Decembers and Januarys.
This regular season started off much like the last one – without the high profile firing of a head coach, of course – as the Hawks plodded along at a mark close to .500 for a month. Then came November, when the Hawks won eight straight, including two wins against San Jose and another in Vancouver. They wouldn’t look back.
As Tim Sassone of the Daily Herald pointed out this past week, “from Nov. 9 through Jan. 7, the Hawks went 23-5-1, capturing 47 out of a possible 58 points.”
3. Antti Niemi bails out his team, the coaching staff and the front office. While we’ve always believed goaltending gets too much credit during the good times and too much blame during the bad, there have been multiple times this season where the Hawks needed their goalie to guide them through the tough stretches. More often than not, it was Niemi, and not Huet, who was able to do that.
Niemi had a whole three games of NHL experience prior to this season and has put together a record not even the most imaginative fanboy could’ve predicted back in September. Let’s put it this way: If Niemi didn’t have the season he has, there’s a decent chance the guy sitting next to you right now would’ve pined for the immortal Hannu Toivonen to come save the day in net.
And, while Huet’s legacy in Chicago is likely to be far worse than his stay actually was, his time here is clearly over, assuming the Hawks can work out the financial particulars.
2. The Blackhawks avoid Salary Cap Armageddon; re-sign Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith to multi-year extensions. With the swift stroke of three pens, the Hawks extended their championship window another six years. Perhaps most importantly, each aforementioned player took critical steps forward this season.
When he’s not beating up the elderly or getting a happy ending in the back of a limo, Patrick Kane has turned into one of the most dynamic weapons in the entire NHL. While his first two years saw him as mostly a power-play specialist, Kane has developed his all-around game to heights his critics could have never dreamed of. It started during last year’s playoffs and it’s only gotten better. Now a 30-goal scorer, Kane’s relative backchecking and defensive responsibility have put him in the discussion for the NHL’s top players.
Duncan Keith has gone from dependable defenseman to top-four Team Canada blue liner to Norris Trophy favorite. Barring injury or trade, he’s also a Blackhawk for nearly the next decade-and-a-half. That should give Bauer enough time to find him a pair of skates that fit properly.
Similar to Kane and Keith, Jonathan Toews took another large step towards superstardom during the Olympic Games. Toews, who was originally slated to play a fourth-line role, was simply too good to be in such a limited role. He’s also the Hawks’ third leading scorer and the unquestioned leader of a group that is one of the league’s best.
1. Spring has sprung. In the not-so-distant past, pollen, sunlight and warm weather meant the NHL Playoffs had started and that the Hawks would be doing the very same thing us fans would be: watching them from home. No longer.
This regular season’s best development is that, as winter turns to spring, the Hawks may well be the favorite to capture Lord Stanley’s Cup this June. In the immortal words of Doc Brown at the end of Back to the Future III, “Your future hasn’t been written yet; no one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.”
Is there any longer a doubt that ours involves the Cup, though?