Count me among the many who expected the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to take a step back this season. Sure, they'd still make the playoffs because that's not all that tough in the NHL, especially in the Western Conference where there are two fewer teams than in the East. But I certainly didn't expect the Hawks to be one of the league's best regular-season teams and a top Stanley Cup contender again after losing the likes of Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp, among others, off last year's team for salary-cap reasons.
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But clearly GM Stan Bowman knows what he's doing (other than giving Bryan Brickell a big extension a couple of years ago). In the trade for Saad, Bowman landed gifted second-line center Artem Anisimov. He has solidified that position, which has been a weak spot on the Hawks for years. Anisimov has 15 goals and 10 assists and has helped second-line right wing Patrick Kane get off to the best start of his career. The Hart Trophy favorite leads the NHL with 29 goals and 69 points. Bowman also got Russian KHL player Artemi Panarin on a low-cost, low-risk two-way contract, and he's your Calder Trophy favorite with 43 points (16 goals).
Last week, Bowman made sure to keep his incredibly successful head coach happy by signing Joel Quenneville to a three-year extension. He deserved a monster raise with those three Cups, and the $50 million deal that Mike Babcock got from the Maple Leafs this past offseason changed the financial landscape for coaches across the NHL.
The Hawks enter Tuesday's game at Nashville on an 11-game winning streak, which has tied the 2012-13 team for the longest in franchise history. They haven't lost since a 2-1 defeat at home to Carolina on Dec. 27 that dropped Chicago to 20-13-4. The Hawks were 13 points behind Central Division-leading Dallas then. Now Chicago has a three-point cushion atop the division and leads the West with 66 points. If you are wondering, the NHL record winning streak is 17 games, set by the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Chicago is back up to the second-favorite at Bovada to win the Stanley Cup at +500, behind only Eastern Conference-leading Washington (+400). The Hawks are now +300 favorites to win the West. The team has quality wins over Pittsburgh (twice) and Montreal (twice) during the streak. But Chicago has had a fairly beneficial schedule. The Blackhawks are just -110 favorites for Tuesday's game at Nashville. They are 2-1 vs. the Preds this season but lost the only meeting in Tennessee, 5-1 on Dec. 10. It should be said that No. 1 goaltender Corey Crawford, having his best season, got that night off.
The schedule gets much tougher for Chicago after Tuesday. It visits Tampa Bay on Thursday night in a Stanley Cup Finals rematch; the Hawks beat the visiting Lightning 1-0 in overtime on Oct. 24. The next night, Chicago goes to Atlantic Division-leading Florida; Chicago beat the visiting Panthers 4-3 on Oct. 22. And then St. Louis visits the Windy City in an NBC national TV game on Sunday night. I don't expect Chicago gets through that Florida Swing with the winning streak intact, however.
Here are some other games to watch this week:
Dallas at Los Angeles, Tuesday: The Kings are -135 favorites at BetOnline , and this could well be the Western Conference Finals matchup if it's not Blackhawks-Kings. I have little doubt that L.A. gets there through the very easy Pacific Division. The Kings are +350 to win the West and Stars +475. Los Angeles tied up one of its best players over the weekend in signing center Anze Kopitar to an eight-year, $80 million extension. He was also named the NHL's Third Star of last week with seven points in three games. Dallas is scuffling a bit, having dropped three straight and is 1-4-2 in its past seven. This is the first meeting between these teams this season.
Vancouver at Boston, Thursday: The Canucks got some bad news in that star Henrik Sedin is likely out until after the All-Star break with an upper-body injury that came courtesy of a first-period hit from the Islanders' Mikhail Grabovski on Sunday. Grabovski received a five-minute major for boarding and a game misconduct but no suspension. Sedin has nine goals and 28 assists this season. Expect some payback on Grabovski on March 1 when the Canucks see the Isles again. Boston thinks it might have center David Krejci back for this game. He has been out since Dec. 27 with an upper-body injury. Krejci practiced with the team Monday for the first time since then.
Anaheim at Washington, Friday: The Ducks continue to limp around near the bottom of the Pacific Division and on the fringes of the playoff race but still haven't made a major shakeup of the vastly disappointing team. There has been some talk the team was looking to acquire young Jonathan Drouin, the No. 3 overall pick in 2013, from Tampa Bay as Drouin has requested a trade and is currently in the AHL. Anaheim was involved in a trade with Pittsburgh over weekend, but I don't think it solves the team's offensive problems. The Ducks got forward David Perron and defenseman Adam Clendening for forward Carl Hagelin. Perron scored in his Duck debut Sunday, a 3-2 loss to the Kings. The Capitals might clinch the Metropolitan Division by mid-February as they have a 17-point lead entering the week. They are going to be the East's top seed barring an epic collapse. The Caps could get back defenseman John Carlson here. He has missed 11 games with a lower-body injury. Carlson had six goals and 27 points in 34 games prior to the injury.
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