GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Every ten games, I’ll give you an assessment of the Chicago Blackhawks. This one comes to you poolside, in Glendale, before the Hawks’ road finale against the Phoenix Coyotes. But enough about me, lets talk about them. With little time remaining in the regular season, the 45-19-6 Blackhawks are trying to round into form before the real fun starts. Here are 10 things you need to know about the last 10 games and the first 70:
10. Two words: Big Buff: The move to defense in games 69 and 70 has been stunning. So stunning, in fact, that Hawks coach Joel Quenneville might not move him back to wing, even as the defense gets some of its injured members back. I’d like to think I know Dustin Byfuglien as much as anyone and I have no shame in saying I didn’t think he could do it. At least not with just a snap of the fingers like he has. I’m not sure he knew he could do it, either. His game against L.A. was nothing short of magnificent. Yes, he led the team in shots and hits, and only Duncan Keith played more minutes, but it was simply his sound defense that was most impressive. He helped stop the bleeding after three tough losses, one night after one of their own -- good friend James Wisinewski -- could have easily created a distraction with his hit on Brent Seabrook. I mean, it was all the talk the next day, but there goes Buff getting the job done.
Here’s the lowdown we’re learning on No. 33. Nothing fazes him. He doesn’t get nervous. I guarantee you he slept the same the night before the Kings game as he did the previous 69. And he’s a rise-to-the-occasion type of player. He did it in the playoffs and now, being put in a very vulnerable position with the potential to get burned and hurt the team, he has come up big again. The downside of that laissez-faire attitude is that it’s not necessarily conducive to putting up big numbers over an 82-game grind, but you take what you can get. Quenneville sounded like a proud father who came home from a business trip and saw his kid walk for the first time. “A diamond in the rough” he called Byfuglien -- and it’s not like Quenneville throws around the over-the-top praise very often. One caution, as of this writing: it’s only been one and a half games.
9. The Hit Heard Round the World, Part I: Alex Ovechkin must feel pretty lucky after James Wisniewski went down for the eight count, but more on that in a moment. Ovechkin’s “hit” or “shove” or whatever you want to call it may not have had the same intent as Wisniewski’s, but it was darn close. What exactly was Ovechkin’s intent if not to cause some damage? In my opinion, his was not even close to “finishing a check.” Most players would have turned toward the puck as Brian Campbell sent it back to his right but Ovechkin went right for Campbell instead. It’s why I think Campbell was surprised by the hit. He was going left and the puck was going right and then comes a shove into the boards. Ovechkin knew the vulnerable position Campbell was in and did it anyway. In light of Wiz’s punishment, Ovechkin should have gotten at least two more games.
8. The Hit Heard Round the World, Part II: This controversy has so many storylines, it reads like a soap opera. Friend knocking friend out. Wedding invites canceled. General managers and coaches firing on each other. Quenneville should have fired back on Bob Murray. How about, “I’ll take care of the goaltending for our No. 1 or 2 seeded team, you make sure your Olympic-heavy squad doesn’t finish in last place.” That work for you?
I do think the punishment on Wiz was rather harsh. It’s a tough case to make, but he tried to say this was a “hockey play” and not just a brutal attack like Todd Bertuzzi on Steve Moore. I’m told, at one point, Wiz said to the league, “I’m friends with the guy, I invited him to my wedding, why would I hurt him?” The league wasn’t buying. I think five or six games would have been fair, but I’m not complaining and neither are the Hawks. I will say this: If you took a poll of Hawk players and asked what former player was most likely to do something like this, Wisniewski might be at the top of the list. Not because he’s a bad guy, just that maybe the elevator doesn’t always go to the top floor -- and I don’t say that as a criticism. Most of the time, that’s all fun and games. Not this time.
7. Upsets looming? Even though the playoffs don’t begin for another month, after 70 games, I can say with some confidence, there will be upsets this spring, big time. In fact, in my mind, they won’t be upsets at all -- not with four or even five young goaltenders manning the pipes in the West and not with the Detroit Red Wings as an extremely low seed. My editors will ask me for playoff predictions when it comes time, and I might politely decline for fear of looking like a fool. It would not shock me if the Hawks lost in the first round or went to the finals. I do think they will have another gear in them when the second season starts, so the finals are more likely than an early-round exit. Still, when you fill out your playoff brackets, remember what I told you .. and then watch the top four seeds advance.
6. You make the call: So, did the Olympics take anything out of the six Hawks who went? The eye test might tell you the four in the gold medal game have had their ups and downs. No team, obviously, played more pressure-filled games than the Canadians. Since the break ended, Keith, Seabrook and Jonathan Toews are combined minus 10. That’s more than my “eye” talking. On the other side of the equation, Patrick Kane is an even player and no Hawk forward, arguably, has played better than Marian Hossa, who is plus two. Like you, I still wouldn’t mind seeing Keith’s minutes come down in the final stretch of games. That plan may have been put on hold with the injuries to the back line.
5. Chi Town fans: Having been on the road much of the season, it’s still amazing when the Hawks get a huge Chicago turnout. And I write this before the Coyotes game, where it’s expected a major part of the crowd will be pro-Hawks. In L.A. and Anaheim, Hawks fans were out in droves as well. Other than the Canadian cities, this should come in handy once the playoffs start. Buy up those Joe Louis Arena tickets now. The Hawks have often incited the home crowd to boo, just because they’ve kept the puck in the offensive zone for long periods of time, as they did against the Kings. In fact, their puck possession game in L.A. was as good as in any game in recent memory, hence a lot of booing.
4. Just as planned: The Hawks aren’t put together to allow for a 50-goal scorer this season. We knew the production would be spread out, and that’s exactly how it’s happened. After Troy Brouwer put in his career-high 20th goal the other night, the Hawks can boast five players with at least that many. They have an outside shot at getting eight players (Kris Versteeg 16, Byfuglien 16, Andrew Ladd 15) to the 20 mark. That accomplishment pales in comparison to the Washington Capitals, who already have seven players with 20 goals or more. They actually have a shot at four or maybe even five 30-goal scorers. Wow.
3. Goaltending, again: What would a 10-game review be without a goaltending update? By now, almost no one should be confused: Antti Niemi is this close to being the man for the playoffs. You have to feel a little sorry for Cristobal Huet, not that he didn’t help make his own bed. It’s just that any success he’s had this season is going to be, if not already, long forgotten because of some of his recent shortcomings. He did have about a three-month stretch where everything went well. Soft goals and a defense that, at times, didn’t help him out, was his undoing. Then, he got sick at a critical time for him to take the bull by the horns. It kept him off the ice for nearly a week and it might help keep him off for most of the spring. He was a stand-up guy about his issues, though. Give him that much. If Niemi controls his rebounds, as he did early in the season, then he has a shot of being something special over the next few months. I still wish he would have played in Anaheim and L.A.
2. I can’t let it go: The officiating in Anahiem was beyond brutal. I’m told the refs thought Brent Sopel was diving when he got hit from behind. I think it would have been physically impossible for him to take a dive. He was in the air, ready to bat the puck, and he got hit. How would he control himself enough to take a touch and turn it into a flop, while in mid-air? I don’t think it’s possible. Then we see one “check” result in a five-minute major and game misconduct, but just a two-game suspension. Next comes a little, bitty, two-minute minor call that results in eight games? Something isn’t right here. As one league source put it to me, “Wisniewski paid the price for Matt Cooke and Alexander Ovechkin.” In other words, they came down hard on him because they hadn’t, previously, and took some criticism. I don’t know what is right and what isn’t, but the whole thing smells bad.
1. Never as bad as you think: Can you believe, through all the controversy, injuries, and sometimes poor play over the last 10 games that the Hawks sit atop the Western Conference standings? Yes, they are a .500 team since the Olympic break, but as of this writing, the San Jose Sharks have lost the first four games of a six-game road trip, five overall, and one loss was an 8-2 disaster to the Dallas Stars. Ouch. Other teams have problems, too. It’s hard to keep that in mind when you’re a fan of just one, but it might keep you saner. That’s why the playoffs are really a toss up. Everybody has some flaws. The team that can overcome them the best might determine the Western Conference winner. On to the final 10 (OK, 12) games!