When it comes to teams like the Chicago Blackhawks who come into every season with high expectations, the regular season is nothing but a warm-up act for the postseason. For the Hawks, the real test begins now.
The team is down in St. Louis getting ready for the start of a playoff run that they hope will result in their second consecutive championship and third title in five seasons. Hoisting the Stanley Cup again would not only give the Hawks those impressive marks over the past several seasons, but would also make them the first repeat champions in the NHL since the Detroit Red Wings won back to back championships in 1997 and 1998.
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In many ways, the gauntlet that the Hawks would have to travel through to get to that promised land is even tougher than it was last season. The Hawks had home ice advantage throughout the playoffs last year, and it ended up proving crucial as they closed out their first three series on United Center ice. They won’t have that luxury this year thanks to their third place finish in the Central Division, and starting off the postseason on the road against a team that went nearly an entire season without losing a game in regulation against a Central Division foe is going to be a daunting task.
Helping the Hawks as they prepare for a playoff run is the fact that they have gotten back both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane from injury. Both players missed the final games of the regular season, Toews with an upper body injury and Kane with a leg ailment, but both have been skating since last week and are expected to be in the lineup when the puck drops on Thursday night.
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The infusion of talent into the lineup is going to have a ripple effect on the rest of the Hawks, as it will allow Joel Quenneville to tinker with his lines to the degree that he likes to do. Using the team’s full depth to his advantage, Quenneville will try to exploit some of the health issues that the Blues are having at the forward position, as TJ Oshie and Patrick Berglund will both be out of the lineup for St. Louis in Game 1 of the series.
Amping up the speed among his forwards and rolling four lines capable of scoring will make for an interesting challenge for a Blues team that has struggled to score goals lately, and if they can’t adjust quickly to the Hawks’ aggressive style, they could be in for a world of hurt once things get started.
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All of that being said, the Hawks know that they don’t have the luxury of cruising into the playoffs on a tidal wave of momentum like they did last year. Chicago had basically steamrolled everyone in their path as they won the 2013 title, losing only seven games in regulation as they romped through the regular season. This season, the Hawks have struggled at times, including a three game losing streak in late March, but they will try to use that experience with adversity to their advantage as they begin the long and arduous slog through the Western Conference on Thursday night.
In all likelihood, this ride will be a bumpier one for the Hawks and their fans if the team is to repeat its successes from a season ago, but if one is being totally honest, playoff hockey is always a grind, so this year will be no exception.