The Chicago Blackhawks
Currently the Hawks are in the middle of a six game road trip through Western Canada and the West Coast, and are riding a seven game win streak. They have earned six points in three games against Calgary (7-1), Edmonton (5-2), and Vancouver (1-0) with games in San Jose (11/25), Anaheim (11/27) and Los Angeles (11/28). They opened up the trip by offering a sound thrashing to the Flames, followed it up with an impressive win in Oil country, and played the Canucks in a hard-fought defensive game. Before they left the United Center, they handed the Sharks a OT loss in a great game that easily could have gone either way.
- Marian Hossa is playing for the Blackhawks for the first time since leaving Detroit via free agency. Hossa is now on his fourth team in three seasons, yet he's no longer a mercenary, signing a 12year deal to stay in Chicago long-term. Not to downplay it but the Hawks are very strong offensively already, adding Hossa makes them that much more dangerous. He doesn't have Kessel-type pressure on him, considering the arsenal that Chicago has, but there are high expectations for him, and the team in general.
- Jonathan Toews is a tireless workhorse, and I have no doubt that we will see him in Selke nominations in the near future. I thought the Mitchell hit would have slowed him down a bit, or made him fearful, at least for a little while, but that hasn't been the case, he's bounced back nicely. A well-rounded player and a perfect selection for Captain as one of the three faces of the franchise.
- Patrick Kane has allowed his offseason infraction to focus him solely on hockey. Either that or the kid's so goddamn gifted that it hasn't looked like its phased him whatsoever. Pure offensive threat every time he has the puck.
- Cristobal Huet has rebounded from poor performances to being solid in his last few games. He holds the fate of the Blackhawks destiny with his play this season. Of course Antti Niemi has looked strong in his relief outings, and earned the shutout on Sunday with his solid play against a very good Canucks team.
- John Madden has proved to be one of the best pickups in free agency this season. His play as a defensive checking center is unparalleled, and is just as good on the kill.
- Dustin Byfuglien's game as a power forward gets better and better every game. He's a big pest to the opposition and specifically their goaltender with his size taking up space around the crease. His shooting has improved, and when he doesn't have the puck he's going to the net hard every time on the rush. It would be sad to see him go as a casulty of signing the big 3, but that's the cap era for you.
- While I'm not convinced the D corp is flawless, it is pretty solid. Keith leads as a core member of the team, with Seabrook and Barker as solid hard-nosed defenseman, and Campbell as the puck moving, offensive minded defenseman. And then it gets hazy. Hjalmarsson has been a steady surprise, but Hendry is not ready, and the wheels are falling off of Sopel. They're leaning on the top four pretty hard, and it'll get harder in the postseason.
- The depth on the team is what amazes me most. Its a nicely assembled team with young skill guys (Versteeg, Brouwer, Bolland), and gritty enforcers/agitators (Eager, Burish). It will be hard to keep this roster together after this season with 10 restricted and 4 unrestricted.
The Blackhawks went to the Conference Finals last season, only to be knocked out by the previous Stanley Cup Champions the Detroit Red Wings. I'm a big believer in suffering a big loss in order to be hungry enough to want it the next season. To me, this is the best chance Chicago has at a winner, they are going to have to sacrifice too many lambs to keep their "core" and the lineup will be revised dramatically before next season. I don't see it getting better.
The San Jose Sharks
The Sharks are 6-1-3 in their last 10 games, are undefeated at home (7-0-2), and leading the Western Conference with 36 points (Chicago is 2nd). With 16 wins in 25 games played, you have to consider the Sharks previous season with 53 wins and 117 points, and then realize that they can have as great a regular season as they want, but the only question is postseason success. The Sharks know that they're going to be in the postseason, and all that this time in between determines is where they're going to sit. Last season they sat in first, played the eighth seeded Anaheim Ducks and got beat in six games. This is a team with something to prove.
- Dany Heatley is no-doubt an elite goal scorer with great hands and a hell of a shot. Heater, now paired up with Joe Thornton, the NHL's most elite setup man, have become the most dangerous combo since Hull 'n Oates. Heatley is a 50 goal scorer on his own, now with Jumbo, who knows what he's capable of.
- Patrick Marleau is one of the most capable all around centers in the game today. He can score, pass, win draws, play defense, kill penalites, and add skill to the power play. His speed creates so many opportunities, whether at even strength or short handed, he can easily scoot around the best defensemen. Doug Wilson won't know what he's lost until Patty is gone, if he doesn't hold on to him.
- Add those three together and you have a deadly line, McLelland's put them together once or twice.
- Evgeni Nabokov has looked very focused this season, even more so than last season, but once again it was in the postseason when the wheels fell off. He played in 62 games last season plus 6 in the playoffs, and more than likely was overplayed even though he would prefer to play every one. McLelland will need to pull the reigns back towards the end of the season when the post is assured.
- Setoguchi/Pavelski/Clowe is a solid, well-balanced line on its own, and still provides McLelland with plenty of potential mixes with the aforementioned three.
- Malhotra/Ortmeyer/Nichol a refreshed crop of veterans that has more skill and speed than last years third line. Ortmeyer and Nichol have chemistry carried over from Nashvillle, and Malhotra has fit in nicely to the lineup.
- Blake and Boyle are to the Sharks as Pronger and Niedermayer were to the Ducks in their Cup run. Vlasic is a solid young defenseman, and Huskins can play but the corp gets a little suspect after that. Doug Murray is absolutely atrocious on a pair of skates, so the Sharks will have to rely on Joslin and Demers as their third pair.
We've talked up the Sharks but we should calm down until we see what they're made of in the post. San Jose is the gang of grisly veterans running out of opportunites to obtain a ring, while the Hawks are a team of right now, with a bright future of promise ahead of them. We'll see if this game tells us anything about their immediate futures.