Two years removed from a Stanley Cup and one year off a riveting seven-game first-round series loss to the Vancouver Canucks, the Chicago Blackhawks are right back in the postseason, ready to make another deep run. They might be the No. 6 seed in the West, but that's simply by virtue of playing in the ultra-competitive Central Division, which sent four teams to the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Jonathan Toews is out for the time being, and nobody seems to know his trajectory for return. It's the biggest question heading into the playoffs for the Blackhawks, and we asked Matthew Killion from Blackhawks blog Second City Hockey to help us break down the entire situation facing the club.
1) What's the biggest reason you have confidence in the Blackhawks heading into the postseason?
Despite the Hawks earlier struggles, they seem to have found their footing as a team. The team isn't far removed from their 9-game skid but they've found a way to finish off the season on a somewhat high note. In their last 20 games, they managed to grab 28 points.
And they've managed to do all of that without Toews, the most important player on the team. They even managed a good record with Keith out of the lineup when he was suspended. They've still got some warts but they look like a team that's building confidence and could be dangerous a dangerous matchup. Even the giant question mark in goal seems to have answered itself with Crawford playing much better lately and removing any doubt who the Hawks #1 is.
2) What's the biggest question mark surrounding Chicago heading into the playoffs?
The health of captain Jonathan Toews, no doubt. Toews has missed the last 22 games due to a concussion. He was cleared for contact about a week ago and has been practicing with the team but said he hasn't felt like himself on the ice and problems keep coming up. He's hopeful for a return for the opening game but the Hawks have had a problem with treating concussions all year. This isn't Toews' first concussion problem either and as we saw with Crosby, they only seem to get worse as they add up. The Hawks have managed to put together a nice streak without him but one has to wonder if they can keep it up. Toews is the Hawks' fiercest competitor and will be invaluable to the team if he can return healthy.
3) If there's one player on the Blackhawks that will have a breakout playoff campaign, who will it be?
Viktor Stalberg has been having a quietly great year for the Hawks. He's always had the speed to be a star but lacked the hands to fully utilize his talents. That's changed this year. He's put together his first 20-goal season and has done it all with almost no time on the power play (not that the Hawks power play has been all that impressive... but that's another story). He provides the secondary scoring behind stars like Hossa, Sharp and Kane that is desperately needed for a playoff run. He's always had the speed but has recently found a way to use both his size and hands to his advantage. His play along side Marcus Kruger and Patrick Sharp could be one of the Hawks most dangerous weapons.
4) When all's said and done, Chicago's playoff chances hinge on...
I hate to use a copout but there isn't simply one thing that this team needs to be successful. I mentioned the health of the captain and that is certainly a major factor but there are a few others as well. While Corey Crawford has improved since his struggles early on he still hasn't fully earned back the fans' confidence. While he's certainly kept the Hawks in close games lately he hasn't taken the step further to show he is capable of really stealing a game when the Hawks skaters aren't up to the job. With improved play all around him though, hopefully that's not needed. The special teams are also a bit of a disaster as well. The Hawks ended the season with the 26th ranked Power Play and the 27th Penalty Kill. They've struggled all year when up or down a skater and haven't shown much signs of improving.
5) Give a prediction. How far will the Hawks go in these Stanley Cup Playoffs?
As much as I'd like to say that this team could go all the way to the finals, I still think there are a few too many limiting factors. I can see them taking down the first round but after that the future gets a little cloudy. We have a saying at Second City Hockey though -- "We have Toews and you don't". If he can return to form, he'll be chomping at the bit. If not, yikes.
For more on the Blackhawks, check in with Second City Hockey.