x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Blackhawks are finding form in time for Stanley Cup defence

The champions are looking on target to defend their title in the play-offs.

Corey Crawford, in goal for the Chicago Blackhawks, has impressed in his rookie year. Getty Images
Corey Crawford, in goal for the Chicago Blackhawks, has impressed in his rookie year. Getty Images

Injury to Crosby has opened up the MVP race

After months of uncertainty, it appears the Chicago Blackhawks are going to be able to give an honest defence of the Stanley Cup they won last spring.

That is to say, the Hawks finally look on course to qualify for the play-offs after a slow start and a mediocre middle. Nothing like an eight-game winning streak to help turn things around in a hurry.

Chicago's challenges this season have been well-documented: salary-cap issues forced a dismantling of their championship roster in the off-season, with both goalies and most of the support crew offloaded for cheaper players and unproven prospects. The core of star players remained, and the Blackhawks tried to augment by promoting from within and sprinkling in a few financially-friendly free agents.

But the chemistry was not there in the early going, and Marian Hossa missed the first couple months after surgery. Not to mention, every opponent had its "A" game at the ready when going up against the champions.

It was not a smooth transition from cup parade to regular season marathon, especially when it became evident that Marty Turco, the veteran goalie imported from Dallas, was not the answer in net. The Hawks have placed their trust in Corey Crawford; a risk, but the rookie has passed the test thus far, and he is just as proven as Antti Niemi was at this point last year.

Led, as always, by Jonathan Toews, their captain, the Blackhawks have climbed the standings in the West and have the inside track on the No 4 seed (and home ice in the first round).

They are unlikely to catch Detroit for the division title but their recent charge has lifted them above the fray in the West, where eight teams are battling for the final four play-off spots.

Chicago's surge means they will not have to over-rely on the likes of Toews, Hossa, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in the final weeks of the regular season, a bonus that will pay off in well-rested star players in the play-offs.

The NHL has not had a repeat champion since the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998, and the cold, hard, financial fact that the Blackhawks have lost their star-calibre depth does not bode well.

Then again, they still boast a dozen bodies who were part of last year's title-winning team. Their go-to guys are young; their endurance should not falter. Better yet, their star players have exhibited the ability to deliver in the most crucial moments.

The Blackhawks abound with big-name types, yes, but more importantly they abound with big-game types. They proved it last June, claiming Chicago's first cup since 1961.

No, they might not win it all again this season. But with the all-star roster that remains, it will not be another 49-year wait in the Windy City.

PREVIEW

Players of the week
• Jonathan Toews, Chicago. The Blackhawks captain collected five goals and an assist in four games.
• Carey Price, Montreal. The Canadiens goalie stopped 113 of 116 shots, recording three wins and a shutout.
• Jarome Iginla, Calgary. He had four goals and seven points in three games in his usual late-season blaze.

Teams of the week
• Chicago. The Blackhawks won four in a row to run their unbeaten streak to eight.
• Montreal. With four consecutive victories, they are in the race for a division title and maybe even top spot in the East.
• Edmonton. The Oilers are likely to finish last for a second straight season, but give them credit for three straight wins.

REVIEW

Duds of the week
• Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles. The Kings goalie allowed eight goals in five periods of play.
• Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers have dropped four in a row, including a 7-0 blowout against the Rangers.
• Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay. Stamkos, above, is in the running for MVP, but not with weeks like this: three games, zero points, minus-4 rating.

Games of the week
• Vancouver at San Jose, Thursday. The first-place Canucks visit the streaking Sharks in a potential conference final preview.
• NY Islanders at New Jersey. The Isles and Devils are the two hottest teams in the East since the calendar flipped to 2011.
• Chicago at Washington, Sunday. It is always exciting when two star-laden teams like the Hawks and Caps get together.

sports@thenational.ae