Every 10 games I'll give you an assessment of the Chicago Blackhawks, just as the coaches do internally. No one could have thought they would be 31-23-6 and on the outside of the playoff picture looking in after 60 games, but they are. Here's what you need to know about the last 10 games and the first 60:
10) The Run: Is it finally here? Did games 59 and 60 solidify that notion? The Hawks hadn't won back to back games since Jan. 16 and 22, so it's possible. More than that, they've earned points in six of seven. Forget about a winning streak, the Hawks haven't had many point streaks this year because of their inability to get close games to overtime. It will be especially painful if they miss the postseason by a point or two. The Hawks are still in decent enough position, so if they just continue to gather points they should be ok. A 10-out-of-11-point streak, as much as a few wins in a row, would do wonders in the standings. The Hawks still have nine of their remaining 22 games against Eastern conference teams, including five in a row. No less than at least a point in nearly all nine, if possible, is critical.
9) The Lines: The last 10 games have seen major movement among both Hawks' forwards and defensemen, and for now it seems to have paid off. There was no question moving Patrick Sharp back to wing was the right move, and it may have been overdue. That line, with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, is poetry in motion. Skill, hockey instincts, and a smoothness about their game, make them dangerous and fun to watch. The jury is still out on whether pairing Dave Bolland with Marian Hossa is a winner, but again, it was necessary to try. Hossa has displayed signs of his former self but not enough. A subtle change in recent days has Bryan Bickell paired with those two, and Michael Frolik dropping down, and that looks to be a good move as well. Other than the top line, the other three are looking a little more interchangeable in terms of the matchup. Ryan Johnson could be a huge key. The Hawks had been getting killed in the faceoff circle, it basically lost them Game No. 58 against Columbus. Johnson and Toews can take every important faceoff when Johnson is dressed. With Johnson's return two games ago from injury, the Hawks have evened up their draws on the season. Bolland should be nowhere near the faceoff circle in the Hawks' zone, when they're killing a penalty.
8) Defensive Pairs: Nick Leddy has been huge. He's allowed Hawks coaches to have a balanced group on the blueline. The halo seems to have disappeared from the Keith/Seabrook duo, and while they'll still have their moments together, there is no guarantee they'll be a pair again this season. Who would have thought when Keith won the Norris Trophy that he'd be paired the following season -- during crunch time -- with a 19-year old just out of college? Leddy might give Hawks' brass more than a moment of pause when it comes to their top four defensemen -- and how much they're paid -- going into next season. Will Keith, Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson all be back? (Jassen Cullimore still has more points than Hjalmarsson this year!) It's not a sure thing either way. For now, the defense is improving and Leddy plays older than his teenage looks.
7) Seabrook's Deal: General manager Stan Bowman recently reiterated his desire to sign Seabrook, and for all intents and purposes declared him part of the core. But it hasn't happened yet. That's noteworthy. Also noteworthy is the silence coming from Seabrook's camp. His agent, Steve Kotlowitz, has been quiet, and Seabrook has only made casual references that intimate all isn't going along amicably in the negotiations. He'll be here through Monday's trade deadline -- that much we know. He's a restricted free agent so the Hawks won't have to do anything with him unless he gets an offer sheet this summer. Bowman said the negotiations don't change week to week based on his play, but that doesn't mean they don't change in Seabrook's mind. He's taken over the lead in points among Hawks' defensemen. In fact, he and Duncan Keith are having similar years and everyone knows what kind of contract Keith signed. Among defensemen in the league, Seabrook is 18th in scoring, 15th in ice time, third in hits and 26th in blocks. And remember, this is considered a down year for both Seabrook and Keith.
Brent Seabrook is one season away from unrestricted free agency. Are the Hawks willing to pay him Duncan Keith-type money?
6) Kaner: The near obsession over Patrick Kane's off-ice habits, which popped up again recently, is borderline pathetic. He's been the same since he entered the league and he hasn't had a bad year yet. And now he's turned up his game another notch. His play makes other betters. That's not a notion you can say about many players -- certainly not teammate Marian Hossa these days. Kane's fundamental ability to make a play, whether that is kicking the puck to his stick, making a tape to tape pass, or snapping a perfectly placed shot, makes him invaluable -- and untradeable. If you think he's having a down year, most players would take a point-per-game pace as a career season. For him, it's just ok.
5) Power play/Penalty Kill: The power play is near the top and the penalty kill is near the bottom of the league, and sometimes you wish those ranking were reversed. In fact, it's a nice hockey debate. Which would you rather have? A top ranked power play or penalty killing unit? After watching this season, it feels like the answer should be penalty kill. It seems more demoralizing to give up a power play goal than it is inspiring to score one. The Hawks have gotten slightly better on the kill, but they continue to give up good shooting lanes to the point man. The power play has been helped by some sudden success, during the last 10-game segment, by the second unit. Dave Bolland has stepped up his offensive game while Brian Campbell and Duncan Keith have had more to say on it as well.
4) The Schedule: As much as it was an enemy early in the year, it should be helpful down the stretch. One last game in Phoenix and the Hawks don't have anything in a time zone that isn't Central or Eastern. That makes a difference. So does playing nine out of 22 against the east. In close games, the Hawks can play it safe, making sure they get at least a point out of those games. Giving an Eastern Conference opponent an overtime point is no big deal. Yes, playing Detroit three times and Tampa Bay and Phoenix twice, along with Boston won't be easy. But consider the Hawks should have more to play for than the Wings or Lightning. Detroit could be locked into a position by the final weekend -- when the teams play a home and home set to finish the season -- and may be taking it easy. Hopefully a trip to the White House in the midst of the playoff race will inspire the Hawks and not distract them from their goal.
3) The Competition: No Hawks' fan could have thought their team would be fighting with the Wild, Ducks, and Stars for a playoff spot. The Hawks are better than those teams, though 60 games haven't said so. The Ducks may be without Jonas Hiller right now, but they have 10 of their next 12 at home, including seven in a row. And one of those road games is down the street in Los Angeles. The other? Against the reeling Avalanche. Speaking of the Kings, they're finishing a 10-game road trip in Anaheim on Wednesday and then play six in a row at home. Later, they have a five game homestand. Dallas also has a long homestand coming, seven straight. Calgary and Minnesota, both with a playoff spot currently, have more brutal schedules. The Flames still have to go to southern California once and the Wild finish the season with three of four on the road, and still have one trip that takes them from Nashville to Dallas to Vancouver and, finally, San Jose. That's brutal.
2) Trade Deadline: Stan Bowman has made one deal which the jury is still out on. Michael Frolik has looked a lot like Jack Skille in the early going. Some speed, some skill, but no finishing touch. It's only been a handful of games so it's too early to judge the two-time former 20 goal scorer. He has been more effective since dropping down to a lower line in games 59 and 60. Bowman still has one more move in him, for that penalty killing defensemen he and the Hawks covet. It will be a smaller name but could pay off huge if the PK improves even slightly. Names still being talked about include Ladislav Smid of Edmonton and Matt Hunwick of Colorado. The deadline is Monday.
1) Leadership: It almost always pops up in these 10-game reviews, and why not? It's as important as anything that happens on the ice. The Hawks were challenged again in that department when Joel Quenneville went down with an ulcer missing games 57-60. It was a seamless transition to assistant Mike Haviland, who hasn't looked out of place. There hasn't been a moment where you might think ‘that wouldn't have happened if Q were here.' Kudos, of course, to Toews, who in Haviland's words, has had to “lead” more this year than ever. Intermission speeches can get old, but from all accounts, when the captain speaks, the team responds, as they did in a critical second period in Game 60, down 2-0 to St. Louis. That kind of leadership will be needed more than ever in the final 22 games.