It's March 6th, and we're talking about the Chicago Blackhawks for the first time all season. Is this real life?
Last (truncated) season's Stanley Cup champions are hosts for the Columbus Blue Jackets. A former divisional rival, we in the Arch City have seen enough of the Blackhawks to last a lifetime. On both the good and bad side, there has been remarkably little change.
Rocky Wirtz is still the majority owner. Stan Bowman is still the general manager. Joel Quenneville is still the head coach. The superstars - captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Nick Hjalmarsson and now goalie Corey Crawford - are all signed to contracts that expire no earlier than the end of next season. Keith is locked up until 2023! So the Blackhawks we've seen are the Blackhawks that we're going to see, largely.
There area couple youngsters, forwards Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw, who are starting to make their place among the aforementioned Big Names. The kids surely will be useful to Bowman and Quenneville as the current incarnation of the Blackhawks dynasty (and with two Cups within four years, I'm willing to call the Blackhawks a dynasty) runs its course. However, that's neither here nor there regarding tonight's game.
The Blackhawks are the top scoring team in the NHL, outpacing the number seven Blue Jackets by nearly a half a goal a game. While defense isn't their strong suit comparatively, they're still ranked higher in goals against than the CBJ.
This is a really, really, really good team. They are beatable, as their recent 4-4-2 stretch suggests, but a win over Chicago will require a full game of focus and intensity.
Top scorers in the Windy City are:
- Forward Patrick Kane (27 goals, 37 assists, 64 points)
- Forward Patrick Sharp (29 G, 32 A, 61 pts.)
- Forward Jonathan Toews (22 G, 37 A, 59 pts.)
- Forward Marian Hossa (24 G, 26 A, 50 pts.)
- Defenseman Duncan Keith (3 G, 46 A, 49 pts.)
No word on who the starting goaltender is tonight for the Blackhawks. I'll presume it's going to be Corey Crawford, who is 23-11-10 in 42 starts with a 2.33 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. When you have scoring assistance like that listed above, I guess you can be "just ok" in net.
WHY THIS GAME IS IMPORTANT:
The trade deadline has passed over us, and nothing earth-shattering happened. The Blue Jackets team that rampaged through the back part of December and January is whole (recall, Marian Gaborik was injured during that stretch). Let the March to the Playoffs commence.
And who better to (re-)establish your bona fides against than the defending Stanley Cup champs? Sure, they're behind the St. Louis Blues in the Central right now...but can you look at this team and say that this is an easy mark? No way. If anything, it justifies Columbus fans' ongoing assertion that the Central was insanely difficult and the combination of St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville and Detroit made it almost impossible for the Blue Jackets to gain any organizational traction. Now that we're free of those teams (and with a better roster, granted), look at where the CBJ are: In playoff position. Not by a lot, granted, but in playoff position.
This is a great measuring stick game as the playoff race begins in earnest. Go on the road and see if you can steal one from the Blackhawks. It's both a coach's dream and nightmare. It's a dream in that it represents a challenge for the team to play a near-perfect, 60 minute game before a boisterous opposition crowd. It's a nightmare in that the opponent happens to be the Blackhawks.
So let's see if they can pull it out. The CBJ are already 3-1-0 since the Olympic break, and I believe they need to go 3-2-0 in every five games in order to be around the playoff qualification line. I won't cry if they lose, but it sure would do wonders for the team's confidence if they won...!
WHO I'LL BE WATCHING:
Presuming that they'll play (not a guarantee), new defenseman Nick Schultz (from Edmonton, but a longtime Minnesota Wild who played under Todd Richards) and forward Matt Frattin (from Los Angeles) are worth keeping an eye on.
More important to me, though, is Artem Anisimov. Arty had a goal in every game since the Olympic break...playing on a line with Marian Gaborik. Was Anisimov's success due to Gaborik - perhaps using Gaborik as a decoy to draw defenders away or just having Gaborik to feed him the puck? I guess we'll start to find out tonight, as R. J. Umberger slots in for Gaborik. Cross your fingers, and pay close attention when Arty's line is on the ice.
YOUR FOX SPORTS OHIO BROADCAST INFORMATION:
We're back in the Western Conference tonight, meaning that we get a bit of a late start. Nothing like the "use toothpicks to keep your eyes open while resetting the coffee IV drip" late start of the West Coast games, though...just the Central Time Zone.
- Brian Giesenschlag's CBJ magazine show, "Blue Jackets Slap Shots," airs at 7PM.
- Brian and Dan Kamal bring you the "Blue Jackets Live Pregame" at 7:30PM.
- The puck drops at the United Center at 8PM, with Jeff Rimer and Bill Davidge on the call.
- Brian and Dan return immediately following for "Blue Jackets Live Postgame" with postgame interviews, insight and analysis.
It'll be a fun night of hockey ahead! Enjoy the game, everyone!