‘Hawks, Caps have that Stanley Cup look

As we approach the NHL’s Winter Olympic break, the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks rank among the top teams in the league.

The Capitals sit atop the Eastern Conference a full 10 points above the New Jersey Devils while in the Western Conference the Blackhawks are second overall to the San Jose Sharks by only three points.

Heading into 2009-10, the Capitals and Blackhawks were considered potential Stanley Cup contenders and have played up to expectations so far. It’s possible they could be on a collision course to meet in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals.

Both are among the top offensive teams in the league, with the Capitals leading all clubs in goals per game and power-play percentage while the Blackhawks are fourth and sixth, respectively, in those categories.

But defensively, the edge tilts considerably in the Blackhawks’ favor. They’re second in goals-against average, have given up the fewest shots per game and possess the fifth-best penalty kill. The Capitals, meanwhile, are 11th, 20th and 19th, respectively.

Both clubs are led by exciting young superstar forwards; the Capitals by Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Blackhawks by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

The Capitals defense is led by high-scoring Mike Green while the Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith appears the leading candidate to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman this season.

These two clubs are often singled out for their exciting play, drawing comparisons to the fast-paced style of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers and the Pittsburgh Penguins of the early 1990s.

Both are also coming off strong playoff performances in 2009. The Blackhawks surprised many by marching to the Western Conference final while the Capitals fell in a thrilling seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

But wait

A Blackhawks-Capitals final would be a marketing dream for the NHL, but it’s by no means a certainty.

Regular season and prior playoff success is meaningless if it can’t be carried over into this year’s playoffs, and the Capitals and Blackhawks could face a tough slog this spring.

Critics singled out goaltenders, specifically Washington’s Jose Theodore and Chicago’s Cristobal Huet, as their weak link, casting doubt over the ability of Theodore and Huet to carry their clubs deep into the playoffs.

The Capitals’ defensive game could be an issue considering how much teams tighten up that aspect of their game in the postseason. Potential playoff opponents will attempt to emulate the stifling checking system used by the Detroit Red Wings to shut down Chicago’s high-flying offense in last year’s conference final.

Washington could once again find the defending champion Penguins, their long-time playoff nemesis, standing in the way again this spring. The Devils and Buffalo Sabres could also prove to be stiff competition.

In the West, the Blackhawks might end up facing a veteran Sharks team determined to shake its playoff “choke” label once and for all, while the rising Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings could become formidable opposition.

The possibility of injuries and slumps also hold potential to derail the Capitals and Blackhawks. Upsets at the hands of lesser opponents is a real danger should they take such teams lightly.

Still, the Blackhawks and Capitals carry themselves with a swagger most of their rivals appear to lack this season. Winning isn’t just talent but also attitude and these two teams appear to have plenty of the latter to mix with the former.

While expectations are heightened for both teams this season they’ve so far risen to the challenge. They’re not saddled by emotional baggage like the Sharks nor face the burden of defending a championship like the Penguins.

The road to the Stanley Cup is the hardest to travel but at this point in the season, the Capitals and Blackhawks could be best equipped to handle that journey.