Retooled Blackhawks are rolling toward division title, perhaps a Stanley Cup

Hot and not

CrawfordCorey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks
Crawford continued to roll right along with his team, standing on his head to stop 38 of 39 shots in a 4-1 win against the Nashville Predators. The Blackhawks have now won a franchise-record 12 straight games, and Crawford has a nine-game streak of his own going.

BobrovskySergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets
Bobrovsky's return from injured reserve did not go well. He allowed five goals on 27 shots in a 6-3 loss to the Washington Capitals, and has now won just once since late November.

Are the Blackhawks the clear Stanley Cup favorites?

Pierre LeBrun@Real_ESPNLeBrun: Few people picked the Chicago Blackhawks to repeat as Stanley Cup champions this season, but would you pick against them now? I picked the Anaheim Ducks, as did many others. Hey, I'm human. My Chicago pick worked out a bit better last season, but given that the NHL hasn't had a repeat Cup champ since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings, people tend to be weary of repeat efforts, the toll a Cup run takes on a team and the short summer that teams get after a Cup run. It's just very difficult to do, especially in a case like this in which the Hawks turned over a third of their roster for salary cap reasons. Hey, it's what they do. Can we agree Stan Bowman will win GM of the Year? He brings in all these young guys -- notably outbidding 20-plus teams to get Artemi Panarin from Russia last May -- and after spending the first half of the season finding cohesiveness and chemistry, the Hawks are now going to run away with the Central Division after winning their 12th straight game Tuesday night, a 4-1 decision against the Nashville Predators? Can they repeat? It won't be easy, because you know the Los Angeles Kings are going to do their thing in the Western Conference, too, but I'm sure many people will be revisiting their Cup picks and get back on the Chicago bandwagon before the playoffs begin in April.

Craig Custance@CraigCustance: They do look pretty great, eh, Pierre? One of the benefits to Bowman's approach in running the Blackhawks and constantly bringing in a group of young, new faces is that there will always be a group of players on the team that hasn't gone through that long grind, that is fresh and wants to taste the success that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have already tasted. That these players always seem to work their way seamlessly into important roles is a credit, not only to the front office, but to the culture in Chicago created by Joel Quenneville and Toews, the captain. You mentioned Panarin, who was a great addition. What about Artem Anisimov? There's a case that he was as important as any offseason addition, filling a vacant role at center behind Toews that has plagued Chicago for years. Anisimov scored another goal last night and is closing in on 20 for just the second time in his career, and there's a ton of games left this season. I'm not willing to change my preseason Cup pick from the Washington Capitals to Chicago just yet, because the Blackhawks' path ahead to get there will be as tough as any team's, but this group is poised to do great things again.

Scott Burnside@ESPN_Burnside: Pierre you are right as rain, as usual, and I agree that Chicago is poised to run away with the Central, but winning the division doesn't guarantee anything. Still, I can't get over how dominant Patrick Kane continues to be. He scored on a breakaway and added an assist against the Preds, and now has matched his career high with 30 goals before the All-Star break has even arrived. Assuming Kane stays healthy, the only discussion about the Hart Trophy will be who else should be on the final ballot and get a trip to Las Vegas to watch Kane pick up the hardware. He is poised to win his first MVP award and become the first American-born player to win the scoring title. Speaking of hardware, is it time we mentioned Duncan Keith in terms of the Norris Trophy? Yes, he missed almost a month with a knee injury, but he has 30 points in 39 games and is averaging 25:29 in ice time per night. Keith is once again a key player on the power play, penalty kill and at even strength for the NHL's hottest team. Three of his seven goals have been winners. Throw in a potential nod for Marian Hossa as a Selke Trophy finalist, Joel Quenneville as a possible coach of the year finalist, Corey Crawford in the middle of the Vezina Trophy discussion, and Bowman and Kane could have lots of company in Vegas this year. Especially if some of them are needed to carry the Cup to Vegas.

Joe McDonald@ESPNJoeyMac: For some reason, I'm forgetting which team I picked to win the Central Division this season. Oh, right, the Minnesota Wild. When I looked at the Central back in September, I calculated into the equation how much hockey the Blackhawks have played since winning the first of their three recent Cups back in 2010. I didn't think the Blackhawks would repeat as Cup champions this spring, and as well as the Hawks are playing right now, I still don't believe they will defend their title. Still, I love watching this team play and I wish there were more like them in the league. From an organizational standpoint, Bowman and Quenneville have the Midas touch. It also helps that the Blackhawks' roster is loaded with talented, experienced, hard-working players. But there's a reason it's been nearly 20 years since a team repeated as Cup champions. It is just such a difficult feat to accomplish. After Chicago's 12th consecutive win Tuesday, Kane described Corey Crawford as the "best-kept secret" in the league. Is Crawford the best goalie in the league? No. But he is the perfect player to have between the pipes in Chicago, and goaltending wins championships. This season, however, the league will crown a winner other than the Blackhawks. All the hockey they've played in the past few seasons will finally catch up to them in the playoffs and hamper their ability to win. My preseason choice to win the Cup was the New York Rangers, but if I had to pick a team right now it would be the Capitals.

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