Chicago, IL –As we are approaching the start of the NHL season quickly, it is time to take a look at who could stand between our Chicago Blackhawks and a return trip to the Stanley Cup. In a six part series I will be summarizing who in my opinion will be the Hawks biggest threats in the Western Conference. To open I thought I would address their long standing Central Division rival – the Detroit Red Wings.
This is one of the oldest rivalries in the NHL. Two original six teams that have been battling each other since 1926. Does hockey get any better than this? No? I thought you would agree, which is why I picked the Wings to look at first. Say what you will about them they are a perennial powerhouse not only in the Western Conference but, with a line up that would rival any to win the Stanley Cup. Detroit also has no issues with salary cap space so they will be well positioned to bring in personnel if they need to due to injuries or whatever down the stretch.
While the Vancouver Canucks have been viewed recently by the Hawks and their faithful as their primary bitter rivals, do not discount the Red Wings who potentially could be the bigger threat for several reasons. Let us not forget it was these Detroit Red Wings that knocked our Blackhawks out of the playoffs in the 2008 – 09 season. What makes Detroit even more threatening is they are a divisional foe not just a conference foe. The Hawks will face them more often than anyone else because of this. In my estimation that makes each of their meetings critical.
The Blackhawks will face the Wings six times in the 2011-2012 season. Think the NHL is not aware of this? Four of these six meetings will be nationally televised either on Versus, Fox Sports or NBC. Applauds to the NHL for capitalizing on this great rivalry, fans want more original six matchups televised and played, but that is a discussion for another blog.
The interesting point to note about the scheduling however is that they will not face each other til December 30th. All six games will be played practically in the last 3 months of the NHL season. What does that mean? Well both teams should at that point have their rosters set and jelled together by then. Most importantly, injuries could be a factor for both sides since they will be meeting so late in a long season. Equally important to note these teams could determine each others playoff births if they are close in the central division in the end. Why is it I feel that scenario could very well play out.
There is an old saying that goes something like we tend to argue or fight with those that are actually most similar to us. Nothing could be closer to the truth where the Hawks/Wings rivalry is concerned. Statistically both teams were very similar last year and the Wings only won three more games than the Hawks but what a difference those three games made. The difference between going into the playoffs as Central Division leaders or squeaking in as a wildcard. It is imperative this year that the Blackhawks win the division. If we learned anything from 2010 it is you do not want to face the toughest teams right off the bat in the playoffs.
The other similarities between these two teams last year was neither team was known for being especially big or bruising. In fact I believe both the Wing and the Hawks ranked 26th & 27th in the leagues with the fewest PIM in the league. 1 Both teams would have preferred out “skilling” you, or out skating you to bruising you. This year however, both teams have beefed up their rosters. Both teams have great captains in Nicklas Lidstrom and Jonathan Toews although I would give the Blackhawks the edge here just due to the fact the Toews will be around for much longer than Lidstrom. Lidstrom gets the edge in wily veteran experience. Both teams have a front office and coaching staff that is well established and consistent. Call this a draw.
The stats last year also show that both teams weakness was their defense & special teams play which is ironic since both teams have Norris Trophy D-men in Lidstrom and Keith. The Hawks were 12th overall on D and the Wings were 23rd in 2010 while their Offence was 4th and 2nd respectively. While the Hawks D was their weakness Detroit had much bigger issues with the Defense than the Hawks did and it was their D in the end that may have cost them a trip to the Stanley Cup finals. Also the biggest thorn in the Blackhawks side in 2010 was their PK which ranked 25th in the league and must be improved upon if the Blackhawks want a return trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Red Wings ranked 17th in PK while not stellar they were lower middle of the pack. Both teams were very good on the Power Play ranking 4th (Hawks) & 5th (Wings). 2
All of these stats are in the past and both teams have made player changes that they are hoping will address these shortcomings from last year. Detroit lost some key players in Rafalski, Draper, Salei and Osgood. In my opinion, it is Rafalski that will be the one that they will be most impacted by his departure. As already noted their defense is suspect which is why they brought in new faces of Ian White, Mike Commodore & rookie Brendan Smith. Whether they can replace Rafalski with these new defencemen will be a question that will be addressed once the season starts. The Wings like the Hawks, added some toughness, but it remains to be seen if it is enough to push them through the playoffs or if their defense has actually improved any.
Another potential weakness of the Wings is their age. As a team they are very old, but that just makes them respected and crafty. If Lidstrom can maintain his Norris trophy form the Wings will be a threat. Their offence is well positioned with Zetterburg, Datsyuk, Cleary & Franzen. The Wings schedule also looks to be favorable particularly in the beginning of the season. If the Wings did not have enough motivation against the Hawks we can also thank the hockey bible –The Hockey news for picking the Wings fifth overall and the Blackhawks to win the Stanley Cup in 2012 which should irritate the Wings sufficiently enough to target the Hawks when they play them in 2012.
The Blackhawks it has been well documented have shored themselves up with some heavy hitters. With the recent Hawks roster changes the questions are many. Will this effect them with more PIM? Can they improve their PK? If they are to make a serious playoff run this will need to be addressed as they ranked so low on the PK. The alternative is they need to not commit any penalties but that is hard to do.
The Hawks too lost key people in Campbell, Brouwer & Kopecky. Campbell’s puck handling skills out of his zone will be sorely missed, although not his huge salary. Will Duncan Keith, Marion Hossa & Dave Bolland benefit from the extra time off? Hawks fans are hoping the must needed rest will refresh these guys as it is imperative they all return to their 2009 forms. The Hawks also lost some offensive power when they went for the muscle it remains to be seen if they will have enough production down the stretch from lines other than the first line.
Last season I was fortunate enough to go to Hawks/Wings game that was played on 12/17 which the Hawks won 4-1. In a season that was marked by more low points than high points this game has to be considered the game where they played their best all year. They will need to play like this against the Wings again in 2011 to get the division title. They will need to win not only all of their home games but at least one in Detroit or win 4 out of the 6 games against the Wings. Anything more than that would be gravy. The Wings are not particularly strong in the Joe so it is essential that they steal one up in the Motor City. Last season however, the UC was not a stronghold of the Hawks either.
Let us not forget also that it was these same Detroit Red Wings who sealed the Hawks fate by defeating them in the last game of the season in 2010 and relegated them to sitting at home hoping the Minnesota Wild would pull off an upset against the Dallas Stars. I’m sure that Detroit was sure the Hawks would not make the playoffs and wanted to make certain of it. The Hawks can not afford to be in this situation again because they may not be as lucky this time around.
I believe having a strong opponent in your division regardless of sport is essential to making your team prepared for the playoffs. The Hawks and Wings can say at this point they are fortunate to have each other to gauge their competitiveness on. I for one am hoping this talk of Detroit being moved to the East does not happen as I think in the long run it will hurt the Blackhawks.
To the Blackhawks, all I will say is that since this is one of the oldest rivalries in the NHL I will look to one of the oldest cultures for guidance – China. I want to give you something to consider when facing your old adversary, the Detroit Red Wings.
“So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.” 3
What does this mean? Know your weaknesses and strengths play to them and know Detroit’s as well. Whenever the Hawks play the Wings it feels to me like Detroit always has a hidden knowledge, or maybe it is their experience that shows. It always seems like the master is teaching the apprentice, but do not despair Hawks fans because it is inevitable that one day the student will best the master. Here is to six glorious contests and here is hoping both teams have more meetings in the post season. Maybe this time the Blackhawks can return the favor of 2008/2009 and show the Detroit Red Wings an early playoff exit.
1 Stats taken from NHL website – www. NHL.com
2 Team rankings taken from The Hockey News Yearbook for 2011-2012
3. Ancient Chinese Idioms taken from Sun Tzu – The Art of War