The Final Stretch

Chicago sports fans, it’s that time of year once again. While the Bulls have been fighting for the top spot in the East, the United Center ’s other team has been fighting for its playoff lives. After coasting into the playoffs with the NHL’s third best record last year, this year has been a struggle for the Blackhawks. Through 78 games, injuries and inconsistent play has left the Blackhawks clinging on to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Tonight’s loss has epitomized much of the team’s season to this point. At home in a must win game the Hawks found themselves up against the Tampa Bay Lightning, another playoff caliber team. Although out shooting the Lightning 31-15, the Blackhawks were unable to capitalize on their scoring chances. They competed hard and deserved points but just could not get the results. This season has been a growing experience for the Blackhawks who have dealt with adversity all season long. After this frustrating loss, the Hawks find themselves in eighth place just one point ahead of the ninth place Calgary Flames. With four games left, the Blackhawks can still climb to as high as fourth in the Western Conference but a seventh or eight place finish is more likely.  However, seeding shouldn’t cause panic. In hockey like other sports, success in the playoffs comes down to who’s hot at the right time. Last year the Eastern Conference finals featured the seventh seeded Philadelphia Flyers hosting the eighth seeded Montreal Canadiens. If the Blackhawks qualify for the playoffs, they will be as good of a bet as any to play for the Stanley Cup.

For the casual hockey fan who merely jumped on the Blackhawk band wagon and basked in the glory of a championship team, this year’s Blackhawk team may surprise you. Although ranking number one in attendance and bringing in high profits, the Blackhawks had to cut back this off-season. The casual fan may cry out in outrage and compare it to what the Florida Marlins did after their 2003 World Series win. However, unlike in baseball where teams like the Yankees and Red Sox can spend unrestrictedly in order to bolster their rosters, hockey possesses a strict salary cap. This led to an overhaul of almost half of the roster. The core of the team remains intact. The offense is still anchored with the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp. The defense is still menacing with the likes of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Brain Campbell. With these high-caliber players eating up much of the payroll, the Hawks were forced to let many of their role players go. Casualties included fan favorite, Dustin Byfuglien, (better known as Big Buff), nifty winger Kris Versteeg, the emerging Andrew Ladd, veteran leader John Maddon, enforcer Ben Eager, and Stanley Cup hero Antti Niemi. With little money and even less flexibility, the Blackhawks filled out their roster. From their minor league team, the Rockford Icehogs, the Blackhawks brought up Bryan Bickell, Jake Dowell, Nick Leddy, and starting goalie Corey Crawford. New faces on offense include, Viktor Stalberg, Fernando Pisani and Ryan Johnson. On defense, Chris Campoli and John Scott have stepped in. To mentor Crawford and compete for the starting job, the Blackhawks signed former Dallas Stars goaltender Marty Turco. With this new look team and a Hossa injury, the Blackhawks struggled early in the year. After the All-Star break, the Blackhawks picked it up and found themselves as high as fourth in the conference before an injury to leading-scorer Patrick Sharp knocked them back a few spots. With just four games left, its win or go home time for your Chicago Blackhawks.

Andy Dunk

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