The sprint is over. Let the Sprint Cup begin.
The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Blackhawks will start the playoffs this week with much of what has transpired the last two springs on their minds, having gone out in the first round in consecutive seasons.
The assumption here is that the Hawks will skate through the first round this time, after having their way with the Western Conference through 48 games, but getting out of the conference the next two rounds will depend on how they adjust from game to game and series to series.
With that in mind, some things to look at as the playoffs get started.
The Hawks really struggled with the beating they took from Vancouver (2011) and Phoenix (2012).
It’s no secret that teams in the West believe the formula for taking the Hawks out of their game is to pound their stars and punish their defense.
The Coyotes softened up the Hawks’ defense a year ago to the point where several players were hearing footsteps and consistently coughing up the puck.
In the Vancouver game last week, the Hawks looked meek and disinterested, and very quiet when the Canucks threw their weight around. We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on that one, since they had no motivation to play and probably didn’t feel like putting themselves in harm’s way.
Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how the Hawks respond when they face big, physical teams.
The best way to make teams pay when they take liberties with your stars is to score on the power play. Again this season the Hawks’ power play was awful. They did score a pair of man-advantage goals in two straight games 10 days ago, so there is some recent life.
The key is puck movement, north-south and east-west, and getting the penalty killers moving their feet to create confusion and shooting lanes, allowing the Hawks to get pucks to the net.
It’s as basic as it gets. If the Hawks can park someone in front of the net and stop searching for the perfect play, they have the skill to make teams pay.
Corey Crawford was really good against Vancouver last week, just as he was two years ago against the Canucks. That Crawford is plenty good enough to help the Hawks win a Cup. If that guy shows up, the Hawks are in great shape.
If the Crawford who lets in soft goals appears, Joel Quenneville won’t be afraid to give Ray Emery the net, assuming Emery returns to health.
You’re going to run into hot goaltenders in the playoffs. It happens.
But you’re also going to run into big teams that make life miserable for a skill team like the Hawks, and they have to adjust. Last year they didn’t.
The Hawks let Phoenix pound them without changing their style in their own end. When it happens, forwards have to come back deep to help and take pressure off the defense. The forwards also have to increase neutral-zone pressure to prevent pucks from getting behind the Hawks’ defense, thus setting up the aggressive forecheck.
They also let Phoenix put up a wall inside the Coyotes’ blue line without chipping pucks behind the Phoenix defense and playing the game below the circles, until the very end of the series when it was already too late.
When a matchup is unfavorable, coaches have to adjust to take advantage of a team’s personnel, and players have to follow the plan.
At both ends of the ice, Nick Leddy had a superb regular season. They will need the 22-year-old to be that good in the playoffs for the Hawks to play in June.
Worth watching will be whether Quenneville sticks with the pairings of the last month, which have worked quite well, or if he falls back on the traditional pairs of the last few years.
One big positive in the 2013 season has been the Hawks’ depth of scoring and the ability to roll four lines at just about any time. They will need some secondary scoring throughout the brutal and lengthy postseason, and players like Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg will need to chip in.
Health and luck pretty much go hand in hand. The reason the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy in sports to win is the 16 victories it takes to grab the big prize, and the incredible physical and emotional toll a long playoff run takes on a team.
There are a couple of players — namely Jonathan Toews — that the Hawks can’t possibly lose for any length of time if they’re to win it all, and that takes some luck in the injury department.
So here we go. The Stanley Cup playoffs are here after a spectacular regular season for the Hawks that means little once the puck is dropped this week.
Fasten your seat belts.
źListen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score’s “Hit and Run” show at WSCR 670-AM, and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.