COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With the NHL season set to resume following the All-Star break, here are five things to look for in the second half from the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. They’re 26-20-4, tied for the seventh seed in the Western Conference with 56 points. The top eight teams make the playoffs.
5. Schedule: It’s not the 20 road games versus 12 homes games that should concern you; it’s where and when those road games occur. The Hawks open the second half with a six-game trip played in four time zones. It’s hard to get on a run with that kind of scheduling. Later, they go to hockey meccas Montreal and Toronto, plus visit Washington -- and the White House -- before ending the season with a home-and-home set against Detroit. Fortunately for the Hawks, there is only one game left out West after the six games following the All-Star break. The Hawks will be done with all the Western Canadian teams plus Southern California and Denver. But back to back action could be an issue as they go Phoenix/Dallas, Pittsburgh/St. Louis, Florida/Tampa bay, Washington/San Jose, and Detroit/Boston -- all coming up in the second half of the season. Almost none of those games are sure things.
4. Goaltending: Compared to other issues, Hawks goaltending might be near the bottom of the list of problems, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be something to watch in the final 32 games. Corey Crawford limped into the All-Star break with some sub-par performances, so how he starts the season again will be important. If it was just a three-game slump, there shouldn’t be a problem unless he has another one later in the stretch run. Marty Turco could still be heard from as a “slump buster” so don’t count out his potential to contribute. There is still some unknown with Crawford -- especially in crunch time of a playoff race -- but so far, he’s given up very few weak goals until that recent stretch before the break.
3. Star gazing: The Hawks’ stars have to carry the team better than they have through the first 50 games. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp get a pass; they’ve done their part. But most everyone else has been inconsistent. Marian Hossa might have passed Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in this regard. Hossa needs to get back to dominating and not just for a shift or two. He went the first seven games of the season as the best player in the world. If the Hawks could get top five out of him, for 20-30 games, they’ll be much better off. If Keith and Seabrook can simply be solid but not spectacular, that bodes well for the stretch run also. Kane needs to light it up once in a while 5-on-5 and continue his fantastic playmaking when the Hawks have a man advantage. Nowhere more than penalty killing do the Hawks need their stars to show they can play the game the right way. Way too many chances have been given up with the key players on the ice. A small improvement in that category will go a long way to the Hawks making the playoffs.
2. Chemistry: The Hawks are still looking for it. It’s been well documented how much they lost coming off last season, and while they’ve gained some of it back over the course of the first 50 games, they still have a ways to go. Seeing Dustin Byfuglien interact with his former teammates at the All-Star game reminds how integral he was in that respect. No other current or recent former player could “cross lines” like Byfuglien and bring a room together. A six-game road trip, like the Hawks endured on the circus trip, might bring the room even closer. But for now they appear to have lost too much flavor in the room and it has carried over to the ice. Someone needs to galvanize this team and challenge themselves the way they did a year ago.
1. The trade deadline: How bold and financially creative will general manager Stan Bowman get before the Feb. 28 deadline? He’s more than intimated he is interested in upgrading at center, defense, and fourth line though it might be easier to accomplish in reverse order. A bold move would be for a second-line center. It might cost Jeremy Morin and some top draft picks, but it would assure the Hawks of making the playoffs. On defense, think of a player such as Columbus’ Marc Methot, who is having a decent season. The Blue Jackets will more than likely be sellers, and he’s a restricted free agent making only $1 million per season. It might be easy getting a fourth line “disturber” but not as easy getting the right one. Jarko Ruutu should be available as Ottawa will be holding a firesale soon. If the Hawks want to make that run, Bowman needs to step up to the plate -- if he can find a dance partner.