Saturday, April 28, 2012

The 2011-12 Chicago Blackhawks

Last week, my beloved Chicago Blackhawks season ended abruptly, losing to the Phoenix Coyotes in game 6 of the opening round of the Western Conference Playoffs.  It was a tough pill to swallow, but thinking about it sort of inspired me for a new idea.  A year-in-review for my favorite teams & since the Blackhawks season is the first to end in the year 2012, I see no better time to start than now.

The 2011-12 season for the Blackhawks started off pretty well.  I remember writing a post about how excited I was for the season & thought they'd be vastly improved from last year's team.  While the ending result was the same, losing in the opening round of the playoffs, I would say this team did, in fact, get better.  They propelled themselves to the top of the Western Conference.  Jonathan Toews, Captain Serious himself, got to a roaring start & was in early consideration for the Hart Memorial Trophy, which honors the league's MVP.

The season definitely took a left turn at the beginning of 2012, unfortunately.  Their new acquisition, tough guy, Daniel Carcillo had been playing well for the Hawks, but he received a suspension in early January for a dirty boarding hit, which also hurt his knee and caused him to miss the rest of the season.  So long, Car-bomb, we hardly knew ye.  It was also becoming evident that the Blackhawks young players who were to be relied on after being introduced in 2010-11 were not living up to expectations.  Marcus Kruger, Michael Frolik, Jeremy Morin, & Ben Smith all failed to really make substantial dents & the lack of depth really hurt them.  The team skidded to a 9-game losing streak, which dropped them from the top of the conference, down towards the bottom 3 seeds.  Couple that in with the concussion given to their best player, Jonathan Toews, & we have a low-point for the season.

While Toews was out for an extended period of time, it was prevalent that their other stars step up.  Marian Hossa & Patrick Sharp played well, but it was Patrick Kane who really became the anchor for the team.  Kane is the type of player, like Hossa, who can receive the puck & hold on to it long enough to facilitate something on the offensive end, although often times it does result in him trying to do too much or his teammates can't keep up with him.  Their two best players down the stretch were their two all-stars, Patrick Kane & Marian Hossa.  Kane finished with a modest 23 goals, but an impressive 43 assists, for a total of 66 points on the season. Hossa, in return, had 29 goals & 48 assist, for a team-leading 77 points.  Also can't discount the contribution that Patrick Sharp, the team's leading goal scorer, gave with 33 goals & 36 assists for 69 points.  The team needed these guys to step up with Toews out & they did.  Defensively, they were solid at the top with former James Norris trophy winner for the top defender in the league, Duncan Keith & his gold medal winning teammate & line-mate, Brent Seabrook.  Tough to find a better duo than those two guys.  The Blackhawks also made a very underrated move at the trade-deadline by bringing in defenseman Johnny Oduya from the Winnipeg Jets.  He made an immediate impact & brought a sense of security & depth to a defensive core that was very much lacking.  Corey Crawford & Ray Emery, their goalies, are formidable, but not guys that can stop everything on their own by standing on their heads, they definitely need help.  The Blackhawks righted the ship after having an atrocious beginning to 2012 & put themselves firmly into the playoffs in the 6th seed.

The Blackhawks were part of one of the best divisions in all of hockey, the Central division features the Blackhawks, Nashville Predators, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, & Columbus Blue Jackets.  Save for the pitiful Blue Jackets, who serve no use other than to be the proverbial whipping boys, this division is filled with spectacular teams.  The Blues finished with 109 points & were 2nd in the West, the Predators finished with 104 points, good for 4th in the conference, after the division winners, the Red Wings finished with 102 points, putting them in the 5th seed, & the Blackhawks finished with 101 points, good for the 6th seed.  The Blackhawks were matched up with the surprising winners of the Pacific division, the 3rd seed Phoenix Coyotes.  Game 1 saw the return of Jonathan Toews, who put the Blackhawks on the board early with the opening goal, but the Coyotes answered back & despite a game-tying goal by Brent Seabrook with just 15 seconds left, they ultimately won it in overtime.  The game put the Blackhawks on notice, that they were not going to be an easy match-up.  Their goalie, Mike Smith, was making it very clear that he was easily capable of being a standout player.  Game 2's headline was the game-misconduct penalty called on the Blackhawks standout rookie, Andrew Shaw, who charged into the Coyotes goalie Mike Smith when he was behind the net playing the puck.  It was a controversial call, seeing as Shaw made no attempt to harm Smith, but was simply skating behind the net & the two collided.  Nevertheless, Shaw was kicked from the game and ultimately suspended another 3 games for the play.  More late-game heroics by the Blackhawks occurred in game 2 when Patrick Sharp scored the game-tying goal with a mere 6 seconds left, which led to an overtime winner for Bryan Bickell.  The Coyotes bounced back in a big way, though, by winning the next 2 games in overtime in Chicago & destroying the Blackhawks home-ice advantage.  The Blackhawks were given a severe disadvantage in game 3 when Raffi Torres, notorious shit-head for the Coyotes, delivered one of the most aggregiously dirty hits I have ever seen on Marian Hossa, knocking him out for not just the rest of that game, but the series.  Hossa received a concussion, possibly even a broken jaw & it was bad.  The Blackhawks were now without one of their best players & Torres was suspended 25 games, which was lenient in my eyes.  The Blackhawks bounced back in game 5 & won in overtime, thanks to a game-winning goal from Jonathan Toews & a competitive game 6 was ruined by a dominating 3rd period by the Coyotes, who ultimately won 4-0 & moved on to the next round of the playoffs, sending the Blackhawks home.

So what do you take away from this season?  Another opening round lost, the Blackhawks haven't won a playoff series since winning the Stanley Cup in the summer of 2010.  The team is still rebuilding since then, considering they had to let go a ton of key players.  This team needs to grow & they need some help.  The depth of the team has gone from being its savior, to its achilles heel.  Andrew Shaw was a spectacular surprise & he'll become a vital part of the team next season.  Kevin Hayes, another rookie, also showed some flashes & could be a decent player going forward as well.  I know I'm hoping & praying that Hossa can make a full recovery & return 100% for the next season, him being healthy is vital to this team's success.  A full season for their captain, Jonathan Toews, would be most welcome, as well.  Patrick Kane & Sharp mean more to this team than people realize, they do not need to be getting rid of talented forwards, especially when the 3rd & 4th lines struggle like they did in the playoffs.  Viktor Stalberg played very well in the regular season, but failed to show up in the playoffs.  Hopefully he can learn & grow from it & continue to establish himself as a solid player in the NHL.  This team needs help on defense.  Corey Crawford proved in the playoffs that he is nothing more than an average goalie who will give up more than his fair share of soft goals.  Duncan Keith & Brent Seabrook are studs & Niklas Hjalmarsson is solid.  Odyua is a free agent & despite his bad series against Phoenix, he did play well down the stretch, I wouldn't mind them bringing him back, provided the price is right.  Brandon Sutter will be available, he should be on the top of their wishlist, if they're able to afford it.

I liked what I saw from the Blackhawks this season.  They started off well, went into a spiral, dealt with injuries, & managed to bounce back.  All they can do is continue to do well & solidify themselves again as a top team in the NHL.

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