CHICAGO – The Chicago Blackhawks head into the NHL’s Olympic break in prime position to defend their Stanley Cup title.
Now comes the part that really matters.
The Blackhawks (35-11-14) were shut out for the first time this season when they lost 2-0 at Phoenix on Friday night.
But their six-game trip leading up to the break included impressive wins at Los Angeles and Anaheim that helped them move within three points of the NHL-leading Ducks.
“It was really important before getting the two weeks off. You always want to go into the trip with a little momentum and gain some points before you have a long break like that,” goaltender Corey Crawford said after the loss to the Coyotes.
Led by high-scoring Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks lead the league with 207 goals. They have shown the ability to win all kinds of games and have played their best against some of the NHL’s top teams.
But there are some concerns for the last part of the season. Here are five things to watch for the Blackhawks with just 22 games left in the season:
OLYMPIC EFFECT: The Blackhawks have 10 players headed to Sochi, matching Detroit and St. Louis for the NHL lead. The list includes five of the team’s biggest stars: forwards Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, to go along with defenceman Duncan Keith.
It’s more high-intensity minutes for a group of players who shouldered much of the load during Chicago’s run to the title last year. How they come out of those Olympic games could have a dramatic effect on the rest of the season.
“We are happy for the guys and it is a great accomplishment and we will be rooting for them,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I just think the concern is how are they going to come and how are they going to feel when they get back to the team and the lineup. We will keep an eye on that going through the stretch.”
Hossa, who turned 35 last month and will play for Slovakia in the Olympics, is a particular concern. He was hampered by a back problem during the Stanley Cup, and Quenneville smartly gave him more rest in the run-up the break.
SECOND-LINE CENTER: Michal Handzus, Andrew Shaw and Brandon Pirri each have taken a turn at second-line centre, but it remains an issue.
Pirri was recalled from Rockford of the AHL on Jan. 27 and then sent down after he went scoreless in four games. It looks as if it could be Handzus’ role for now.
It’s unlikely that touted prospect Teuvo Teravainen will be ready in time to help the Blackhawks this season, so general manager Stan Bowman could take a long look at the trade market ahead of the March 5 deadline. He added some depth on Thursday night by acquiring Peter Regin and Pierre-Marc Bouchard in a trade with the Islanders.
WHERE’S BRYAN BICKELL: Bickell stepped up during last year’s playoffs, finishing with nine goals and eight assists. The big post-season led to a new four-year contract for the rugged forward.
Everything was in place for a big season for the 27-year-old Bickell, but the first part of this year has been a struggle. He hits the Olympic break with eight goals and two assists in 43 games after missing time with a lower-body injury and getting benched at one point by a frustrated Quenneville.
The Blackhawks need Bickell to return to what he does best; providing a strong, physical presence right in front of the net. Getting the 6-foot-4 winger back on track before the playoffs is one of the biggest keys for Chicago down the stretch.
MISSING POINTS: For a team with so many accomplished scorers, the Blackhawks have been awful in games decided in overtime or a shootout.
Chicago is still looking for its first OT win of the season, dropping each of its six games that were decided in the extra session. It has five wins in 13 shootout games, and its 14 losses in overtime or shootouts leads the NHL.
That’s a lot of points to leave on the board in the bunched Western Conference, where the road to the Stanley Cup finals assuredly will be more difficult than the East. All those overtime and shootout losses could come back to haunt the Blackhawks at the end of the season.
WHO’S IN GOAL: The Blackhawks began the season with a goaltender tandem of Crawford and Nikolai Khabibulin. Then Crawford and Khabibulin got hurt, clearing the way for rookie Antti Raanta to prove he was ready for the NHL.
Raanta stepped up while Crawford was out and is 12-2 with a 2.40 goals-against average at the break. Crawford, who was sidelined by a lower-body injury for about a month, also appears to be rounding into form after a slow start.
With Khabibulin probably out for the rest of the season following right shoulder surgery, it’s likely going to be Crawford and Raanta in goal the rest of the way. But Raanta has made only four starts since Crawford returned, and Quenneville might need to spread out the work over the last part of the season to make sure his top goaltender is fresh for the playoffs.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap