Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews has been cleared for contact after sustaining a concussion in February. Will he be a difference-maker for a young, streaky, yet talented Chicago Blackhawks club? Time will only tell.
Where do we begin with these Blackhawks?
When the postseason begins, of the projected eight teams in the Western Conference playoffs, only the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks will have used rookies in over 200 games. Chicago has been forced to use a variety of youngsters because of injuries and suspensions this year, and have received outstanding contributions from kids like Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger and Dylan Olsen.
But rarely is a roster that has yet to finish puberty around in early June.
While the 2010 edition of the Blackhawks might be a great example of kids leading a Cup run, this Chicago roster must have their horses on the ice to make a deep run into the postseason.
Despite having the franchise's best record in March since 1990-91 (10-2-2) without their captain available (and with Duncan Keith suspended for the final four games of the month), the Hawks absolutely must have Jonathan Toews healthy once the postseason begins. And with news that he's been cleared for contact, having him back is now a realistic possibility.
Toews was in the conversation to join Evgeni Malkin in Las Vegas for the presentation of the Hart Trophy before suffering a concussion during the Hawks' ugly nine-game losing streak. Through 59 games, Toews had scored 29 goals and added 28 assists while being at the top of the league in faceoffs. He is on the short list of best players on the planet, and was having his best season with Chicago.
To the Hawks' collective credit, Chicago has survived without Toews. Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa have earned every penny of their respective paychecks and have picked the team up through an incredibly tough second half schedule. And the rookies have made a major impact.
The player that continues to surprise teams this season has been Viktor Stalberg. Chicago acquired Stalberg from Toronto in the trade that sent Kris Versteeg north after the Hawks won the Cup in 2010, and he underwhelmed last year. But with increased opportunity this season, Stalberg has blown away his previous career bests in every statistical category, and has scored 21 goals (six of which have been game-winners). Stalberg has been skating regularly in the Hawks' top-six since Toews went down, and figures to stick there when Chicago's captain returns to action.
Chicago's special teams continue to be an issue, but they've shown improvement in every other aspect of the game. During Keith's absence, they allowed an average of 25.8 shots on net per game. After being called out by, among other, Nashville coach Barry Trotz at the end of the nine-game losing streak, Chicago's forwards have been more active in the defensive zone and have shown a new commitment to blocking shots as well.
There is no question the Blackhawks have the top-end talent to win the Western Conference. And they have surprised many in and out of Chicago that their young depth has been able and willing to compete with (and beat) many of the top teams in the league in the last five weeks.
But as Patrick Hoffman pointed out in his Boston Bruins postseason comments, it's all about consistency once we get into April. For Chicago, that means consistent play and consistent health, starting with their captain.
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