Every 10 games I'll give you an assessment of the Blackhawks just as the coaches do internally. After 70 we've entered the final phase of the regular season, and though much is still in doubt, after a great run to improve to 38-24-8, the Hawks have proven they are still a team to be reckoned with. Here's what you need to know about the last 10 games and the first 70.
10) The Run, Part II: The last 10-game assessment asked the question if the Hawks were finally on the run many have been waiting for all season. After that stretch, followed by a 7-1-2 record in this one, the answer is, it's definitely here and continuing.
More than anything, the run has been defined by a cliché: hard work.
After Stan Bowman talked so much about keeping the core this past offseason, some wondered if it was the right core to keep as the team struggled early. But when the games became important, that core stepped up its work ethic, and in turn, its skill and talent took over.
Game 70 was a great example. The key players earned power plays against San Jose because they worked and skated hard. For example, Jonathan Toews had a step on a defender when Chris Campoli fired the puck around the boards to him. Toews drew a penalty. They scored on the power play for the same reason. Patrick Sharp skated hard out of his own zone and received a pass while flying into the offensive zone to set up Marian Hossa for his second of the period.
Hard work plus skill equals a big night, and a big run, for the Hawks.
9) Optimism: As impressive as the victories have been, more interesting has been the point streak. At least one earned in 15 of the last 17 games, including at least one in nine of this latest 10-game segment.
It's important because the Hawks have seemingly turned a corner from earlier in the season when they couldn't manage to play good hockey in crunch time. Getting a late third-period goal to extend a game to overtime in the playoffs can be the difference between winning and losing a series. Same can be said with keeping a game tied when things are breaking down and looking bleak. An intermission and regrouping for the extra period can be the difference. They've re-learned how to play in the clutch, led by goalie Corey Crawford.
8) The Hoss: Marian Hossa is back, earning 13 points over the last 10 games, but his run goes further back than that. Healthy, in sync, and mostly playing with a true center has helped Hossa.
He'll have to make do while Dave Bolland is on the mend, but there's always the power play, as evidenced by Game 70 when he scored twice.
Hossa also revealed he wasn't happy with his sticks until recently. Players are nearly maniacal about their equipment, see Duncan Keith's skates for evidence. A deviation to length or curve to the blade can throw a player off. It's well known Hossa uses one of the longer sticks in the league, so it's already unique for that reason. Hopefully, for the Hawks' sake, he got a large batch of the "good" ones. They are 22-5-3 when Hossa gets at least a point and 14-0-1 when he gets two or more. Translation? Opponents can't stop both Toews' line and Hossa, so when he's going good, good things will happen for the Hawks.
7) Hammer Time: Niklas Hjalmarsson is coming off arguably his best game of the season, and he's returned to form despite not practicing lately. He admitted he tried to make up for a poor start by at least blocking some shots, which earned him praise and some bruises. Still hurting, he's backed off the shot blocking but turned up his game. His point total won't wow anyone this year, but in his case, his plus/minus rating tells the story of his play. Forget about just the last 10-game segment, he was a minus player just once over the last 17 games. After a plus-3 on Monday, he's plus-14 for the season. That's a far cry from a minus-9 in November.
6) Captain, my Captain: Dale Tallon was right years ago after drafting Jonathan Toews. He claimed he would go down as one of the great Blackhawk captains of all time. He's on his way, and now MVP of the league is starting to creep into the conversation. His point total has risen to where the talk can start to be serious.
He reached a career high in just 70 games. He has 71 points in 68 games played. It will be hard to beat Daniel Sedin of Vancouver, especially if he's the only player to reach 100 points. But if the season ended after 70 games, Sedin, Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay and Toews should be finalists for the Hart trophy. His plus-25 is tops among all candidates. No forward has won the MVP without finishing one or two in scoring since Mark Messier in 1992. Hart Trophy or not, the phrase "won't be denied" comes to mind when thinking of the center's play.
5) Bowman's Moves: Without a lot of money to work with, Stan Bowman has hit home runs with smaller type pickups. They've been small in name but big in contributions.
Chris Campoli is doing what the Hawks said he would with his style: Fit right in. The more games he's played the more comfortable he's looked. With the loss of Brian Campbell, he's been counted on even more, including on special teams. That's not something you could say about the man he replaced, Nick Boynton.
Michael Frolik has also looked better with games under his belt, and with the loss of Dave Bolland, his ability to play center has allowed Patrick Sharp to remain at wing. That's huge.
But the most important pick-up wasn't even a trade. Any team could have picked up Ryan Johnson. In fact, as he was rehabbing an injury this summer there were several interested. But he wanted a chance at a Cup after playing for playoff flameout Vancouver. As he put it, "If you can't beat ‘em, join ‘em." Since Johnson returned to the lineup after a bell ringing, the Hawks have gone 9-1-2. His 63.2 winning faceoff percentage jumps off the page and has been a major key.
4) Winning Ugly: It's not a phrase associated with the Hawks much this season. They'll undoubtedly be a time when they need to win one they don't deserve or one by getting dirty. Can they do it? Most of the victories in the recent stretch have been "pretty."
They've worked hard but how many have they grinded out? Without a banging third or fourth line it might be hard to do, and a playoff series against a team like Calgary might not come down to speed and skill. This is where Jake Dowell, Tomas Kopecky, Bryan Bickell and Troy Brouwer have to step up.
3) The Competition: It's starting to dwindle. The Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets have fallen further out of it over the last 10 games, which leaves eight spots for 10 teams. Plenty will sort itself out over the next 10 days. The Hawks take on Dallas, Phoenix and Anaheim during that span. All are fighting with them for a playoff spot, or seeding. In fact, a regulation win over the Stars on Thursday becomes important for tie-breaking purposes, though an overtime win still puts them in good position if the teams end up with the same amount of points. A loss would give the Stars an edge.
2) Tie-Breakers: In the ultra-competitive Western Conference, tie-breaking scenarios could come into play. There is a new twist to the tie-breaking system which eliminates the importance of shootout wins. If two teams are tied in points, the team with the most non-shootout wins, including overtime victories, will be the higher seed. If that win total is the same, then head-to-head points earned is examined next. If teams have earned the same amount of points against each other in their season series, than season goal differential is the final tie-breaker. The Hawks would easily win that one over anyone close to them in the standings. In fact, only top seeded Vancouver has scored more while giving up less than the Hawks.
1) Bolland Woozy: Though Tampa Bay's Pavel Kubina got the NHL's attention during Game 68 when it suspended him for three games for delivering a blow to the head of Dave Bolland, it still didn't get the national attention it deserved.
As the general managers convene for meetings, they need to get tougher with hits like these. Why not go to the extreme and dole out 10-20 game suspensions? Players will think twice before going high, and if it's accidental, replays will show it.
There was nothing accidental about Kubina's hit, and with no timetable for Bolland's return, it puts a serious hole in the middle of the ice as the playoffs near. Don't forget who did one of the great defensive jobs in recent playoff memory just a season ago. It was Bolland. Ask the Sedins and Thorntons about that. His loss come spring could be huge, though it's still too early to hit the panic button. Then again, Pittsburgh was probably thinking the same thing at one time about Sidney Crosby.