Three Keys to Blackhawks' First Round Chances

Who has to step up in order for the Blackhawks to break two-year playoff losing skid?

The Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild will help kick off the 2013 NHL playoffs on Tuesday night at the United Center, but before the puck drops between these future divisional rivals, Madhouse Enforcer has three keys to success for the Hawks as they try to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

The Third Line

Back during that Cinderella Cup run, the Hawks benefitted greatly from the play of their third line. Led by Dave Bolland, the line, featuring Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg, did a tremendous job of stopping the top lines of the Canucks, Sharks, and Flyers en route to the title.

This season’s incarnation of the checking line is a bit different. Yes, the group has some grit with Andrew Shaw at center and Bryan Bickell on the wing, but Viktor Stalberg is more of a pure offensive weapon than Versteeg or Ladd were, and Bickell’s wrist shot is arguably the best on the team.

So not only will this line need to provide some physicality when the Hawks run up against a tough team like the Wild or the Los Angeles Kings, but they will also need to score their fair share of goals to take some of the pressure off the top two lines.

Corey Crawford’s Confidence

Going into the playoffs, there has been more discussion about whether or not Corey Crawford is a goaltender capable of bringing his team to the promised land than on any other subject. His performances have been dissected in every way imaginable, but to his credit, he is maintaining a quiet confidence heading into the postseason.

The real challenge is going to come when Crawford has a bit of a stinker, which is inevitable at this time of year. Will he be able to shrug off a bad game and come back strong the next night, or will the bad game, and the resulting negative attention cast in his direction, cause him to falter? The answer to this question will have a big impact on whether or not the Hawks can live up to their status as Cup favorites.

Playing Smart Hockey

The Blackhawks’ power play hasn’t been all that great this year, but in the other area of special teams, the penalty kill, the Hawks have been tremendous. Led by the exploits of Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik, this team utilizes an aggressive style when attacking the puck carrier when they’re down a man, and that could definitely frustrate teams.

The problem in relying on the penalty killers to do their job is that it takes ice time away from the guys that the Hawks will need to score goals in order to win. Yes, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa see their fair share of penalty killing time, but Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp do not, and taking those kinds of offensive weapons out of the action is something the Blackhawks cannot afford to do.

The Prediction:

The Wild are more than capable of stealing a game or two in this series, but with an exhausted Niklas Backstrom and an injured Jason Pominville (who will not be in the lineup for Game 1), this team simply can’t compete with the Hawks’ speed and aggressive defense. Saying that a team will sweep another is definitely unrealistic, but look for Chicago to close out this series on home ice in a five game triumph.

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