When the season started I was not sanguine about the Chicago Blackhawks chances of repeating as Stanley Cup champions. Like he did in 2009/10, Hawks GM Stan Bowman did a cap purge and divested himself of much of the Hawks’ reserve strength. I anticipated a repeat of 2010/11 where the Hawks were in rebuilding mode; replacing their free agents with promising youngsters (like Corey Crawford) and letting them grow up on the ice (the Hawks failed to repeat that year).
I foresaw the same result and that view was buttressed by the alleged rape allegations made against Patrick Kane (which were later dropped last November 5 when police declined to prosecute the case due to insufficient evidence and the alleged accuser herself declined to pursue criminal charges). When the regular season began the Hawks were wingless, tethered, and hooded. There were black clouds over the Second City and it looked like it was going to be a very long, mediocre season for the Blackhawks.
However, amazingly, Chicago has defied the odds; rebounding back with a vengeance; playing determined, spirited, feisty hockey. They have regained their offensive firepower and; coupled with the defensive prowess of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and goalie Corey Crawford; have surged into the Central Division lead, surpassing the Dallas Stars who, since day one of this season, had led the Central Division until now.
Chicago went on a 12 game winning streak (a franchise record) and over all they have gone 16-4-0 in their past 20 games, outscoring their opponents 62 to 39 in the process. The Hawks first line of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Artemi Panarin has performed brilliantly during this stretch, personally accounting for 18 of the team’s 35 wins with clutch goals. Patrick Kane is having a career year leading the NHL in goals, assists, points, and power-play goals; third in the league in plus-minus value. After a long, hot summer, where Patrick Kane was staring at the deepest, darkest abyss of his 27 year existence and a slow start to the season where he was facing the wrath of fans; Kane has resurrected himself with a vengeance, reviving the team with a 27 game point streak, breaking the American NHL record; all the while placing himself in contention for the Ross and Hart Trophies, especially the latter.
Hawks team captain Jonathan Toews has always supplied the leadership and the calm surety on the ice. He is second in the NHL in game-winning goals and has set up his line-mates with seamless wizardry but the real surprise is rookie Artemi Panarin. Undrafted by the NHL, Panarin was signed by the Blackhawks as a free agent from SKA Saint Petersburg in the KHL (where he had excelled). Panarin is the second leading scorer on the Blackhawks and should be considered a prime candidate for the Calder Memorial Trophy.
Goalie Corey Crawford has been having career year as well, ranking high in all the key goal-tending categories and leading the NHL in shutouts. He has been ignored even though he backstopped two Stanley Cup wins with his net-minding but this season he will not be ignored any longer. If he is not a candidate for the Vezina Trophy then there is something wrong with the selection process.
The Blackhawks are atop the Central Division and the Western Conference and are only three points behind in the President’s Trophy stakes (if Chicago does win the President’s Trophy it would be head coach Joel Quenneville’s third such win, tying him with Alain Vigneault—only Scotty Bowman has won more President’s Trophies). During the Blackhawks revival, Joel Quenneville has surpassed the late Al Arbour for second place in NHL career coaching wins. He is looking to become the first head coach to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since Scotty Bowman did in 1997/98. He is trying to become the eighth NHL coach to win four Stanley Cup titles—the last man to do that was Glen Sather in 1988/89. Indeed Joel Quenneville is looking to surpass Glen Sather for the number four spot according to my rating system (in my book Bench Bosses: the NHL’s coaching elite—I know, I know, shameless plug—I have Quenneville ranked fifth) but Quenneville is guaranteed to add at least six plus points to his coaching value which allow him to surpass Sather this season quite easily. If Chicago wins the Central Division title then Quenneville will add another four points to his ledger thus widening the gap between him and Glen Sather.
During the revival Hawks GM Stan Bowman extended Quenneville’s contract for the remainder of the decade—he could scarcely do otherwise. Coach Q and the Blackhawks continue to ascend to newer heights but in the City with Big Shoulders the Blackhawks have the strength and the talent to do so. The hockey world is in their hands—all they have to do is squeeze hard.