In the Wake of the News
6:25 PM CST, January 11, 2014
Thank goodness for Michal Handzus.
The Blackhawks center made Slovakia's Olympic hockey team last week but lost his job skating on the second line with Patrick Kane, good enough to keep up with his countrymen but not Kaner.
His demotion came because Handzus did what the rest of the NHL has yet to do this hockey season: slow down Hart Trophy candidate Kane. At the time coach Joel Quenneville announced Marcus Kruger as the team's new No. 2 center, Kane had yet to score a goal all season at full strength with Handzus on the ice.
As a result, the Hawks faced a midseason crisis everybody desperately needed. Perhaps this can pique their interest until the next invention of adversity.
This is what has qualified as concern for the Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews will wear No. 16 for Team Canada in the Olympics because veteran Jay Bouwmeester of the Blues has seniority and will don Toews' familiar No. 19 sweater. Yes, the Blues get the best of the Hawks again.
Otherwise, nothing negative has happened at 1901 W. Madison St. to warrant much more than a shrug. In a way the demoted Handzus, who played a vital role in winning the 2013 Stanley Cup, represents the perfect Hawks player for this year — he will be remembered only for what he does in the playoffs.
Without the first of Quenneville's countless line changes of 2014, nobody might think anything is wrong with the best team in the NHL. No, that is not a typo for those who stayed up past midnight watching the NHL Network. The Hawks have 10 Olympians, the same as the Red Wings and Blues, and five players with 15 or more goals. As outstanding as Kane has been, Patrick Sharp entered the weekend with more goals after a recent tear that included two hat tricks in five games. Defenseman Duncan Keith never has looked stronger. Brandon Saad has emerged as such a two-way force his general manager, Stan Bowman, described him to ESPN.com as "a young Marian Hossa.'' When goalie Corey Crawford went down with an injury, rookie Antti Raanta contributed to the last manufactured controversy by going 11-1-3 in Crawford's place.
Meanwhile, Toews steadily leads a team so easy to take for granted in Chicago.
Regardless of what the standings say, no team in the league can match the Hawks' combination of speed, skill and strength when they are healthy and engaged. Whether it's mid-January or mid-June, don't expect that to change. Even the best coaches cannot control injuries, but Quenneville knows from experience how complacency looms as an opponent as tough as any team in the Western Conference.
"I don't think it has been an issue in the past here,'' Quenneville said correctly.
But it was easier to avoid for the Hawks after winning the Cup in 2010. The massive turnover that summer made developing chemistry the biggest priority that season. The continuity on the top four lines from the 2013 title makes staying mentally sharp the key to this one.
"We can be a little bit better, but I don't think it's the type of group that's satisfied with being ordinary,'' Quenneville said. "We're motivated on a daily basis.''
Subtly, Quenneville takes care of that. When asked about Crawford, for example, Coach Q struck a balance between praising a guy who overcame a groin injury and reminding Crawford he can improve. And he can.
"He has had stretches where he has been OK. I think that consistency he had last year, he hasn't quite got there yet,'' Quenneville said. "But we expect him to.''
When the Hawks play the Oilers on Sunday night at the United Center, it will mark the 48th game of their season. At this point last year, the Hawks were completing their compressed regular season and preparing for a playoff run. Nobody worried about mental or physical fatigue. Nobody gave a thought to relying on youthful, vibrant personalities such as Brandon Bollig to break up the monotony.
"This next part will be the hardest to get up for, (but) there's definitely a group of younger guys, fresh guys, who need to bring more excitement, and we've talked about that,'' Bollig said. "Looking forward, that's going to be one of our focus points, maybe more off the ice to keep everybody ready, happy and having fun.''
Whether posing with puppies for charity calendars or giving a fan from Australia a guided tour of the dressing room, the Hawks have a knack for doing that in their down time. The challenge now is keeping the games fun through what one Hawk called the "doldrums.''
"We're not going to be great every night,'' Quenneville said.
A hockey city that has celebrated two Cups in four seasons understands.
Until the playoffs, that is.
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