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Blackhawks Tue Jan 27 2009

Midyear Marks for the Hawks

Tomorrow sees the unofficial start to the 2nd half of the Blackhawks season (the actual halfway point was the Jan. 16 game against the Rangers), as the team begins a season-high 8 game, 3-week road trip through the Western U.S. and Canada, as well as Atlanta and St. Louis before returning home for a Valentine's Day battle with the Dallas Stars.
While the grueling stretch will be a test for one of the league's youngest teams, after losing their last 2 home games before the All-Star break, it could also provide a chance to refocus and build a stronger team identity for the upcoming playoff run.

In fact, with only 2 of their next 14 games at the United Center and an 11-8-3 road record (compared to 14-4-5 at home), the next month could very well determine not only the team's postseason seed, but whether they make the playoffs at all. Though the Hawks currently sit at fourth in the conference with 58 points, only 7 points seperates them from the 8th spot. An extended losing streak could put the team in the thick of the race come March.

Cutting through the feel-good story of the hockey's resurgence in Chicago and the hype of the Winter Classic, here's a chance to take a look at exactly what went right and wrong for the Hawks in the first half of the season.

While the team has improved in both zones under the tutelage of Coach Joel Quenneville, the biggest reason for their strong first half is special teams play. After a few abysmal years in the cellar of powerplay rankings, the Hawks are making team's pay at a 21.1% clip, good for 9th in the league. A major reason has been the team's signing of defenseman Brian Campbell to quarterback the powerplay, and he's posted half his 30 points with the man advantage. Their penalty killing units have been equally up to the task, preventing goals 82.8% of the time, currently tenth-best after finishing 17th last season. With the increase in obstruction calls since the lockout, strong special teams have been a hallmark of good teams, and the Blackhawks have finally built a team that adapts well to the new NHL.

Forwards

Offensively, things are continuing to click as the Blackhawks are scoring at a pace of 3.28 goals a game, fourth-best in the league and an improvement on last season's 2.82 goals per. The young forward corp has continued to grow and the Hawks are able to roll a solid three scoring lines. While sophomore phenoms Jonathon Toews and Patrick Kane still garner the lion's share of attention, the third line of Martin Havlat, Dave Bolland and Andrew Ladd has been the team's most impressive this season. Kane and Toews have had solid sophomore years and are currently first and third on the team in points, though both have struggled at times with the increased attention from opponents. Patrick Sharp has continued to put the puck in the net, leading the Hawks with 21 goals, and rookie Kris Versteeg will merit some consideration for the Calder Trophy if he continues his pace. Dissapointments include Dustin Byfuglien, who should be using his body and getting in front of the net rather than showcasing his slow skating, and Troy Brower, who tends to be invisible when on the ice. While Brower doesn't call attention to himself, the team has enough talented forwards in Rockford who are worth a look. Also, although Sharp has proved servicable playing out of position, finding a skilled veteran center should be a priority for the team before the March 4 trading deadline and allow Sharp to shift back to his natural wing.

Defense

The team's blueliners have also stepped up, where they are currently fourth in the NHL, giving up only 2.38 goals per game, a full half-goal less than last season. This is due to the continued growth of Duncan Keith, who makes a solid case for team MVP thanks to his large amount of ice time and strong +23 plus-minus, and Brent Seabrook, as well as Campbell, whose positioning and ability to play offensively helps limit any backend liability. Aaron Johnson proved himself a capable stablizing presence on the blueline and James Wisniewski's return will also help shore up the D. The team has struggled to find a solid third pair, and though Matt Walker has given the team a physical presence at times, both he and Brent Sopel have been brutal more often than not. Though the defense may look good on paper, there's still some troubles in controlling the puck and breaking out of the zone consistently that needs to be improved upon.

Goalies

After signing Cristobal Huet this summer as a free agent, most assumed Nikolai Khabibulin would be out the door. However, Khabibulin's $6 million contract proved a tough sell, and the Hawks began the season with the most exepnsive goalie tandem in the NHL while tying their hands due to bumping up against the salary cap. After Huet got off to a horrendus start, the pairing seemed ready to ruin the season, but both goalies have responded to the every-other-game rotation with strong numbers. Huet and Khabibulin are currently 7th and 11th in goals against average and 10th and 7th in save percentage, respectively, and the improbable has worked - so far. With Khabibulin a free agent at the end of the season, GM Dale Tallon may still try and find a taker as the trade deadline nears, but will the change in chemistry and the increased starts for Huet take a toll? Despite his numbers, Huet struggled in the playoffs for Washington last season, while Khabibulin has won a Cup. Of course, if Tallon keeps both goalies, how does that affect a possible playoff series? Come postseason, teams often ride the hot hand and establish a clear starter. How the goaltending situation plays out in the second half will definitely be something to watch, but the formula has worked better than anyone imagined so far.

Intangibles

When coach Denis Savard was fired after a 1-2-1 start and the team in disarray, the promise begun last season looked to be unraveling quickly, but coach Quenneville's experience and discipline has helped mold one of the league's youngest team into one of its best. And with fans packing the United Center rafters night after night (the Hawks currently lead the league in attendance, averaging an astounding 22,495 a game), the excitement is definitely back in the Madhouse on Madison. Between the allure of the Winter Classic at Wrigley and revitalized fanbase thanks to owner Rocky Wirtz and president John McDonough, a franchise-record 8-game winning streak, and the double number 3 retirement of Pierre Pilote and Keith Magnuson, the first half of the season has been one of the most memorable in Blackhawks history. Of course, none of the achievements will matter without a strong playoff performance and possible Stanley Cup championship, but for the first time in nearly 20 years, it's not just pure imagination to think that.

 
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