For a team that always inspired confidence in the end, the Chicago Blackhawks spent a large part of this season getting picked apart by everyone in spitting distance. There were so many noticeable flaws, from the lackluster power play to the poor zone clearing, that they often dictated discussions that would inevitably end with the grand question: "But are they good enough to win the Cup?"
In the first two rounds of this year's postseason, the Blackhawks gave us a resounding answer. This team isn't just good enough to win its third Stanley Cup in six seasons, it's arguably the favorite after dismantling the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild in surprisingly easy fashion. Star power rises above all in the NHL, and right now, nobody has more of it than Chicago.
That second-round series against Minnesota wasn't supposed to be a sweep. Everyone said this was the best Wild team in years, that things would be different from past playoffs where the Hawks ended their season. Devan Dubnyk was on an absolute roll, how would they solve him?
In retrospect, it feels kinda funny wondering whether the likes of Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp would get their goals against Dubnyk. Of course they would. This is the postseason, and the Blackhawks have shown they don't care who they're playing, when they're playing or what they're playing for. They're going to come at you, and you better be good enough to take the punches.
And right now, I don't know if anyone across the league looks like that. Obviously anything can happen in the playoffs, which are the wild wild west of hockey, but right now, the Blackhawks are basically Billy The Kid. They're the biggest, baddest dude around, and there's not room in town for anyone else.
Is anyone really scared of the Anaheim Ducks or the Calgary Flames? The latter is one of the weakest teams to reach the playoffs, and the former hasn't been able to roll over them. Sure, the Ducks are a great team and a series against them isn't to be dismissed, and the Flames have Johnny Hockey and some admittedly awesome locker room chemistry.
And yet, the Hawks completely dismantled Anaheim in their final two meetings of the regular season, both 4-1 wins. Calgary rode a ridiculous performance from Jonas Hiller to a win over the Hawks in their first game, but Chicago won the final two. Regular season matchups aren't everything -- Minnesota won its final two games vs. the Hawks then lost four straight -- but if you're talking about the teams that are perfectly built to challenge Chicago, Anaheim and Calgary don't qualify.
The Eastern Conference is a similar story, where the favored New York Rangers are close to being eliminated by a surprisingly hot Washington Capitals team. Now the Tampa Bay Lightning look like the scariest team in the East -- maybe the scariest team outside Chicago -- as they near a series win over the Montreal Canadiens. Tampa Bay feels like one of the few teams with the firepower to go blow for blow with Chicago if the chips fall properly.
But all of it adds up to the Blackhawks feeling like the team to beat. None of these other teams has won a Stanley Cup recently, and some of them have significant playoff stumbles in their recent history. Tampa Bay's current group has never been this far in the postseason. If Washington reaches the Eastern Conference Final, it'll be Alex Ovechkin's first trip in a storied career. On an experience level, it's Chicago and then everyone else.
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So while the Blackhawks have proven they're flawed, it's not like they're awaiting a line of unstoppable juggernauts. There's no facsimile to last year's Los Angeles Kings, a team that could match the Blackhawks in almost every respect. Now, Chicago feels like the least vulnerable team in a field full of them, even without Michal Rozsival. The difference between the Blackhawks' best guys and other teams' has consistently been huge. Kane hasn't even hit his stride yet apparently.
None of this is to dismiss the other teams, or what the Blackhawks have remaining in front of them. Winning a Stanley Cup, even with a special group like this one, is no easy task. Even if we're calling them the favorite, I wouldn't recommend gambling your life savings on a win. The Blackhawks have shown they're the team to beat, however, and this may be the last time that happens for a while depending on how the cap purge goes.
Chicago knows this is a last hurrah of sorts, and that key faces from the locker room will be gone next year. Maybe Rozsival has already played his final game with the team, which would be an undeniable shame. Luckily, the Hawks are playing like this is the last chance, and right now, that makes them the most dangerous matchup in the postseason. Again.