Coming off of a Stanley Cup, it's hard to ask too much of your team in the following season. Your team has just reached the metaphorical mountain. It's a blissful feeling that can't truly be expressed in words, and one that I'm sure many are familiar with. It almost feels greedy to ask for more.
Naturally, you now expect to experience this every year, even if what you see when you watch now is different. You tell yourself and your family and friends, that you have a gut feeling that leads to the promised land, but can't measure it otherwise. A seemingly impossible difficult mission to win consecutive Cups eats away at you, whether it's realistic or not. Your expectations have either clouded your judgment or made you rightfully confident. There are two sides to the coin. With the playoffs on the way, I don't know where I lie on this scale when it comes to these Hawks.
After all, there hasn't been an NHL team to successfully repeat since the 1997-1998 Red Wings. Save for actually winning the Cup, there probably isn't a more difficult accomplishment in this league. Too many factors come into play like injuries, fatigue, personnel losses, and the cliche "puck luck" in the randomness of this sport. Pulling off a repeat has so many dominoes that need to fall in the perfect place at the perfect time.
Just look at the last time the Blackhawks tried to defend the Cup. This was a squad that had to roll with the shell of Michal Handzus as it's second line center throughout the season. They really couldn't roll four lines on a consistent basis and that eventually came back to bite them. It took a transcendent performance from Patrick Kane, an extremely out of place Andrew Shaw in as the eventual second line center, and the meteoric rise of Brandon Saad, just to take the Kings to seven games in the 2014 Western Conference Final. Then when it seemed like they would complete the miraculous comeback, a shot bounced off of Nick Leddy in the perfect place like a heartbreaking dagger, ending sweet thoughts of history. Hockey can be oh so cruel.
We come to the same beginning of the fairy tale for this edition of the Hawks. The regular season should now theoretically be a fleeting memory. Still, Chicago's ongoing title defense with the playoffs on the horizon this Wednesday, has been anything but perfect. I have to admit it can be a nagging thought that has had me waver.
There's been historic performances from Kane, Corey Crawford and others. There's been stretches where they've looked completely unbeatable, like their 12 game winning streak in December and January. Definitively, every bit the defending champion.
On the other end, there's been the kind of hockey and play that we aren't used to around these parts. You had a February and March slump highlighted by listless losses to the Stars and Kings, where this team looked dead and gone. A defense that at times has been in shambles with really only two reliable guys in Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson, will do that to you. Much of that winning streak was Crawford just being an unbreakable wall.
One can't help but think that some of that disappearing act we saw was fatigue as well. The core guys like Toews and Seabrook have played more games in the past seven years than anyone else in the NHL. Playing deep into May and June eventually has a toll paid. With that kind of mileage, when you start searching for that extra gear to flip the "switch" Hawks fans have become used to, it might not be there and that's a cause for concern. At what point, does it begin to wear on them?
The underlying numbers aren't kind either.
Laugh it off all you want, but possession hasn't been as stellar throughout the season as it normally is for the Hawks. They've also allowed more high danger scoring chances than in year's past, and haven't scored as many five on five goals as you'd expect a Cup contender to do.
The Hawks will also have an incredibly daunting road to repeat. It doesn't get much tougher than a possible slate of St. Louis, Dallas, Los Angeles and whoever the East champion will be. Yes, it's the playoffs so you're playing the best teams, but there won't be a cakewalk break series where you can catch a breath, like the sweep of the Wild in the second round last year. Each and every series will be a battle that takes its toll on a team already a little weary.
This is inherently and obviously a weaker team than previous eventual Cup winning iterations in Chicago. Everything I've seen should be telling me to ignore my gut, work through my clouded judgment, and pick against them. I'll admittedly be bummed out if they don't repeat after pushing all their chips in but I'll also recognize how far they came. It's unreasonable to expect the glory every time out. There's a reason no one has repeated since 1998.
Yet I still inch towards confidence and see a way they could pull through. Call me naive or a homer, it doesn't matter. It feels foolish to dismiss this Hawks team. Of course, as I said, things have to break in the perfect fashion.
Crawford has to regain his form and be impeccably sharp. Seriously, he has to be a Conn Smythe candidate if this team is to have any Cup aspirations, I don't think anyone will disagree. Even with the proper pairings, the defense can occasionally leave something to be desired. Crawford will probably have to steal a series or two, which he is very capable of and has done in recent years.
Once he returns from his suspension, Keith will have to play superman and ironman at a very high level, logging likely close to half an hour a night in the postseason. He is also more than capable of this and will be quite rested. Brent Seabrook can't have the defensive lapses he regularly had this year. Maybe a solid skater paired with the veteran like Keith can help him here (this would continue to have a solid pair of TVR and Hjalmarsson together), but regardless Seabrook still has to put in a better effort in his own end if this team has any prayer.
Otherwise, the forward crop and talent is there for playoff quality checking and puck movement. The ice is about to get tighter and shorter, and the Hawks are at least well equipped to deal with that change offensively.
And if you look at history, it's probably going to take a superhuman effort by someone to eliminate this team. It took multiple knockout punches to even weaker versions of the Toews-Kane era Hawks. Look no further than the 2011 team decimated by the salary cap pushing the eventual Western Conference champion Canucks to seven games, or the 2014 version forcing a game seven against the champion Kings after going down 3-1 in the series. You better be able to close, otherwise these Hawks will find a way. Just ask the 2015 Ducks.
Above all, they'll probably have to get a bounce here or there like any champion. A sure overtime winner for an opponent will have to hit the post. A subsequent overtime shot from the point into a mass of bodies will have to bounce in the right spot for a Hawk to slot the puck in. I won't name them, but I'm sure you can think of a few examples of these kinds of plays that went in the Hawks' favor in last year's postseason. That's just the nature of this game, no matter how annoyingly cliche that sounds.
These may sound like thoughts that have kind of become a crutch and undoubtedly have also been said before, but it doesn't make them any less valid.
The Blackhawks proved to us last year that they had the "switch" and could flip it at a moment's notice. They proved all of the critics wrong on the way to the summit. While the past few months have my eyes telling me to be realistic, somehow my gut eats away at me yet. Can they do it again?
Even if it's a weaker switch this time, I still get the sense it's there.
Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer for Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.