NHL Handicapping: Blackhawks as Top Stanley Cup Contender?
by Trevor Whenham - 2/14/2013
The Chicago Blackhawks have unquestionably gotten off to the best start in the NHL so far. Through 13 games they have yet to suffer a loss in regulation. They sit at 10-0-3, which gives them 23 points — the best in the league, and a massive seven-point lead in the Central Division. Most people expected the Blackhawks to be solid this year, but no one expected them to run away with things. Oddsmakers are buying in, though — the team is now the 13/2 favorite to win the Stanley Cup, solidly ahead of the Penguins at 8/1.
When a team gets off to such a strong start, the obvious question is whether they can keep it up. Will they maintain their strong play, or are they going to crash back to earth? Let’s take a look:
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Short season - Normally you wouldn’t get too excited about what a team does through 13 games. That’s just a drop in the bucket of a long season. In this bizarre season, though, 13 games is more than a quarter of the way through. In relative terms, then, the seven-point lead they have at this point in the season is the equivalent of having an 11- or 12-point lead a quarter of the way through a regular season. In other words, it’s not insurmountable, but it is definitely comfortable. The short season definitely works to the benefit of a team that gets off to a strong start because their chances of maintaining it are much higher.
Road strength - By far the most striking thing about this team so far is that they have played 10 of their 13 games on the road already and are 8-0-2 on the road. They will only play 24 road games all season, so they are close to halfway through. Playoff teams need to win at least half of their road games during the season to be a viable threat. At this rate the Hawks could have that taken care of by early March. Playing so many road games early also means that they will have a disproportionate number of games at home later on — 60 percent of their remaining games are home games. The home-ice advantage is significant in Chicago, so this is a massive advantage for this team — and a key reason to believe they can sustain their play.
Offensive depth - The first of three major factors for playoff success — and continued regular season success — is consistent offensive production. That requires two things — talent and depth. The Blackhawks have both. Patrick Kane is playing the best hockey of his career. Jonathan Toews is at a point a game and playing great. Hossa and Sharp are playing very well, too. Those are four players as good as the top player on most teams in the league. Add that to solid complementary pieces like Bickell and Stalberg, and this is a team that shouldn’t hit prolonged scoring slumps.
Corey Crawford - the second factor for success is an elite goalie — or at least a goalie playing at a sustained elite level. I have doubts about Ray Emery as the backup over the long term, but Corey Crawford is unquestionably the real deal. He has proven himself over the last two years, and he’s playing better than ever before. He has been resilient and reliable, and the team will feel good about having him between the pipes.
Duncan Keith - The final, and perhaps most important, factor for success in the playoffs and leading to them is an elite defenseman. That has always been important but has been increasingly significant in each passing year. In Duncan Keith the Blackhawks have one of the very best defensemen in the whole league — a truly elite player. When the Blackhawks won their Cup Keith was a rock, and he’s better now. To add to the riches, Brent Seabrook is an elite-level player who would be the top defender on most teams as well. Defense isn’t a concern here, and it is yet another reason to believe that this team is a legitimate favorite to win it all this year.
Coaching - Joel Quenneville is a very capable coach. He has twice taken a team to the conference finals, and he won the Cup with these Blackhawks in 2010. I’m a little concerned because he has lost in the first round each of the last two years. They probably shouldn’t have lost either series and definitely shouldn’t have lost to Phoenix last year. This start is a clear sign that Quenneville and the team can still be on the same page, though. I’ll remain nervous until the team shows up at full force for their opening playoff series, but Quenneville is, at the very least, not a reason to doubt this team.
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