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updated: 1/12/2013 10:23 PM

Five keys for Blackhawks season

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  • Nobody will be under more pressure this lockout-shortened Blackhawks season than goalie Corey Crawford makes a glove save as Blackhawks players hold an informal practice at Johnny's Ice House.

       Nobody will be under more pressure this lockout-shortened Blackhawks season than goalie Corey Crawford makes a glove save as Blackhawks players hold an informal practice at Johnny's Ice House.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Patrick Kane works out for the first time with his Blackhawks teammates during an informal practice at Johnny's Ice House.

       Patrick Kane works out for the first time with his Blackhawks teammates during an informal practice at Johnny's Ice House.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 

Even after two straight first-round playoff exits, expectations are high for the Blackhawks as they get ready to report to training camp.

That means pressure, starting with the load of it on the shoulders of coach Joel Quenneville, who, according to various reports, is on the hot seat despite being just two seasons removed from winning the team's first Stanley Cup since 1961.

"Regardless of our situation with this weird setup with this season, the way things have gone the last two years I think we're looking at being a little more under the microscope, little more under pressure to perform and especially do well when the playoffs come this year," captain Jonathan Toews said Friday on the "Carmen, Jurko & Harry" show on ESPN 1000.

"There are things that you learn from losing in the first round to Vancouver two years ago and last year. No one saw it coming to lose in six games against Phoenix.

"But now is the time to learn from those experiences and really understand why that happened and put our best foot forward and go make this happen this year."

Here are the five keys to the season for the Blackhawks.

1. Goaltending

Forget about Quenneville. Nobody is under more pressure than Hawks No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford, who needs to rebound from a severe case of the sophomore jinx.

Crawford had his bright moments last season, but in the end he was judged on the 2 soft goals he allowed in overtime in Games 3 and 4 against Phoenix in the playoffs.

"I feel like I need to redeem myself a bit," Crawford told reporters last week. "If I want to be here in the future, this year is definitely huge for me."

If Crawford falters, Ray Emery is no answer as a backup. Perhaps Rockford's Carter Hutton will get a shot along the way.

2. Special teams

The power play was 26th and the penalty-killing 27th last season in the league. Both areas need to improve dramatically.

Defenseman Michal Rozsival was signed as a free agent and could help on both special teams. Finding a big body to stand in front of the net on the power play is vital. Bryan Bickell, Viktor Stalberg and Andrew Shaw all likely will get a shot to be that guy.

Patrick Kane is a real key to the power play. He had only 4 goals and 12 points last season on the power play and needs to be more of a factor.

3. The defense

It became Hawks fans favorite topic last season: What's the matter with Duncan Keith?

The short answer is tired legs. Keith has played a lot of hockey the last few seasons, and he is a smallish guy to begin with. His ice time needs to come down from the 26:53 he played last season.

That likely played a role in his dropping to 4 goals and 40 points. He needs to be back around 10 and 50.

Brent Seabook carried the defense last year when he finished plus-21. He was the only physical force back there.

General manager Stan Bowman tried to fix his size problem on the blue line by signing free agent Sheldon Brookbank, who is 6-feet-2, 200 pounds and tough. Johnny Oduya was brought back, though some have wondered why.

Niklas Hjalmarsson can block shots with the best in the NHL but for some reason has been involved in trade rumors. Don't get it.

Nick Leddy had his solid moments at Rockford during the lockout but was struggling at the end. Let's hope he was simply bored.

4. Second-line center

Not Kane again. He would rather stay at right wing.

Patrick Sharp would prefer to play left wing.

Marcus Kruger likely will be given a shot to be the second center, but can he be offensive enough?

Dave Bolland has second-line skill but is one of the most effective checkers in the NHL and thrives in that role on the third line.

Free agent Jason Arnott is available, but does he have enough game left at his advanced age to play second-line minutes? He did have 17 goals last season for St. Louis and is physical.

5. Big enough?

Having Daniel Carcillo and Shaw for the full season should help from a physical aspect, but they aren't the biggest guys around.

Brookbank was a nice addition and will help fill the size void, but he doesn't put the fear of God into anyone. There are no Bob Proberts on this team.

tsassone@dailyherald.com

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