When superstar Patrick Kane was injured Feb. 24, more than a few people knocked the Chicago Blackhawks down a peg or two in their rankings of Stanley Cup contenders.
Not me. Even though Kane isn't expected back from a broken left clavicle until the time the Western Conference Final is played, I think the Hawks have more than enough talent and experience to win their third championship in six seasons. And Wednesday night, in a terrifically-contested 1-0 win over the powerful New York Rangers, Chicago demonstrated one of its core strengths, and one of the biggest reasons they were my pre-season pick to win the Cup and remain so today: they can beat you any way you want to play.
To earn a victory against the Blueshirts, the Blackhawks needed rookie goalie Scott Darling to turn aside all 25 shots he faced Wednesday at Madison Square Garden and earn his first career NHL shutout, but Chicago is quietly the league's second-best defensive team (averaging just 2.21 goals-against per-game) and made his job easier. And the Hawks also don't care what venue they're in: they've got nearly as many road wins (21) as they do at the United Center (22) this year. And Kane's injury hasn't given them reason to mope or find excuses not to thrive: they've won seven of nine games while adding veterans Kimmo Timonen and Antoine Vermette to the lineup. (Neither player has been a big factor since being acquired, but the Blackhawks didn't acquire them to be night-in, night-out difference-makers; they brought them in to make contributions once the post-season begins.)
The Hawks' depth is such that former star center Brad Richards – who scored the game-winner against his former team Wednesday – is averaging less than 15 minutes per game. When you can turn to the incredible talents of captain Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad, among others, the pressure for any individual player to produce is lessened significantly. They've been able to challenge for the Western Conference's best record despite a sub-par year from Patrick Sharp and now have gone two weeks without Kane's contributions and looked none the worse for wear. And since Kane's injury, the Hawks have shut out two teams, won three one-goal games, and scored four or more goals in three of those wins.
If Chicago can stick around until Kane comes back, they should be the odds-on favorite to win it all. But even without him, they've got as much ability as any team out there.