Runaway Freight Train About to Derail?

The Chicago Blackhawks have been the National Hockey League’s (NHL’s) second hottest team, only behind the scintillatingly-hot Pittsburgh Penguins who have sported a 13-0-1 record.  The Blackhawks have blistered their way up the NHL’s Western Conference standings at an 8-1-1 clip, including a recent 5-0-0 run all of this being done without the services of their captain and leader Jonathan Toews, who has missed the past 14 games with a concussion.

In spite of this devastating loss, the Blackhawks are only one point out of the Western Conference’s 4th position.

They have received stellar goaltending from Corey Crawford, who has appeared to solidify himself as the starting netminder for the rest of the season and quite possibly the Stanley Cup playoffs, barring an injury or an impending funk.

Their defense has been rock-solid, giving up only 16 goals in nine of their last ten games played, save for surrendering five goals against the St. Louis Blues on March 6th.  Their blueline allowed an average of only 24 Shots on Goal (SOG) per game for nine of their last ten games, save for the 31 shots given up during their loss to the Blues.

They have received prolific scoring from not only their usual stalwarts – Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane – but their secondary scoring from the other forward lines has been stellar – Viktor Stalberg, Dave Bolland and Bryan Bickell.  They’ve also received plenty of offensive punch from their top blueline pair of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.

However, all of those positive vibes have now hit a snag as Duncan Keith has been suspended for five games after a delivering a vicious elbow to the head of Vancouver Canucks forward Daniel Sedin and receiving only a 2-minute minor penalty after Sedin delivered the very same vicious elbow to Keith earlier in the game without receiving as much as a minor penalty.

Interestingly enough, the NHL referee who failed to spot both the initial elbow or the subsequent elbow that followed was none other than Dan O’Halloran who also allowed Sedin to become a human punching bag at the fists of Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals, again without any penalty being assessed.

The NHL’s Vice-President of Hockey and Business Development and league disciplinarian, Brendan Shanahan, faced a difficult decision of imposing punishment not only for a ‘star-on-star’ – Keith is a former Norris Trophy recipient and Sedin was last season’s scoring champion – incident and inept officiating but also giving consideration that it involved two of the NHL’s elite teams, with a history of great disdain for each other as evidenced by their last two Stanley Cup playoff series in 2010 and 2011 with the Blackhawks nearly pulling off an 8th vs. 1st seed upset during the opening round of the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Sedin is listed as day-to-day with a concussion with no timetable for his return, to include the playoffs.  Needless to say, Vancouver fans are livid over the penalty as well as the potential impact of losing their elite star for the playoffs.

However, given the two blown calls that occurred, Keith’s history of overall clean play as well as the political ramifications of a potential suspension for the rest of the regular season – Keith is allowed to return for the final two regular season games and for the playoffs – I believe that the punishment appears to be fair, given those parameters.

And while there is some relief that Keith will be able to return for the Stanley Cup playoffs, the timing of the suspension – given the Blackhawks recent hot streak and a five-game stretch that includes road contests against the New Jersey Devils and the Nashville Predators and home games against Nashville and the NHL’s points leader, the St. Louis Blues – couldn’t have happened at a worse time.

Combine that with the uncertainty of Toews’ return and the Blackhawks have a true situation of ‘batten down the hatches’.  And while the Blackhawks can still possibly obtain home-ice advantage for the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, one of the NHL’s true juggernauts faces a great deal of uncertainty during the final two weeks of the regular season and possibly into the playoffs.

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