As the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Blackhawks can boast that all roads to the Cup lead through Chicago. The Hawks, however, have skidded in the second half of the season and are ripe for the picking in the post-season.
Of all the likely first-round matchups already shaping up for the playoffs, Chicago over Colorado looks like the easiest to call. The others – Canadiens-Lightning, Rangers-Flyers, Sharks-Kings – all appear to be pick ’em series.
Not so with the Avalanche-Blackhawks who have been headed for a showdown in Round 1 for a while now. Even if the Avs hold onto second spot in the Central Division, few pundits will pick them to upset the Hawks.
But be not so quick to count out this plucky Colorado club, nor feel so safe to put unconditional faith in the defending Stanley Cup champions.
That’s because after its 4-3 win Friday night over the Columbus Blue Jackets, Chicago is still just 9-8-1 since the Winter Olympics. The Avalanche, meanwhile, are 12-5-1 since the Sochi Games and 4-1-0 against the Blackhawks this season. In those five games against Chicago, Colorado has scored 17 goals, though averaging 40 shots against per game, proving it can run-and-gun with the high-powered Hawks, who have the best offense in the NHL.
Chicago’s recent trend downwards has actually been happening since Jan. 1. In 2014, the team is just just 16-12-8. After a late Stanley Cup run last season, a short off-season and a regular season in which all of their big guns played at the Winter Olympics, the Blackhawks look like they’re fatiguing. An upstart team like the Avalanche, with a bevy of speedy young players, is perfectly placed to take advantage of that.
And then there’s the fact Chicago’s two stars, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, are injured. Both are supposed to return in time for the playoffs. But is it realistic to think Toews, who hasn’t played since March 30, and Kane, who hasn’t played since March 19, can simply step right back into their superstar modes at a time when the intensity, speed and physicality of the game ramps up?
Add all this up and Chicago is primed to be upset. The Avalanche actually remind one of the 2008-09 Blackhawks who surged to a 104-point season after missing the playoffs the season prior. Those Hawks went all the way to the Western Conference final before falling to the Detroit Red Wings.
Now, the Avs wouldn’t get past the Blues, but they’re good for an upset over the Hawks, who will likely be heavy favorites even if they finish third in the Central. Chicago has the experience, but if the second half the season is any indication the Blackhawks just don’t have the legs.
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