7:29 PM CST, March 7, 2013
There's no point assigning letter grades to the Blackhawks now that they've reached the halfway point in the truncated 48-game season.
Straight A's across the board.
Even the marketing team and virtual unknowns behind the scenes have performed at a Stanley Cup championship level, evidenced by a tasteful yet brief ceremony to acknowledge Marian Hossa's 1,000th game Tuesday night before playing Minnesota.
So here's a 24-karat request — a suggestion actually — for the Hawks as they begin the back nine of the regular season this evening in Denver. Relax just a smidge. Take a few deep breaths and recognize the Presidents' trophy and a couple dollars afford only a CTA bus fare.
Joel Quenneville's 21-0-3 club has nothing left to prove against Western Conference opponents. The Hawks undeniably are the class of the conference and the only two obstacles that can preclude a second trip to the Cup finals in four years are injuries and mental fatigue.
The ouchies are the biggest concern. Hossa was a late scratch with the flu Wednesday and missed the 3-2 win over Colorado.
Maybe that's all it was, but when a player spends several months reciting his ABCs after a concussion from a brutal hit like the one Hossa incurred last spring, there always will be cause for concern when he's absent or gets drilled in the melon.
Patrick Sharp, victimized by a nasty Avalanche sandwich in the third period Wednesday, needed assistance getting off the ice. While Sharp has been a bit snakebitten, he is a versatile, poised veteran, without whom the Hawks' chances would be diminished significantly.
My humble suggestion to Coach Q — with all due respect to a cat with 645 career wins, seventh most in league history — is to back off the ice time for his most valuable assets.
The Hawks are blessed with depth. Ride it. There's no good reason for Duncan Keith to lead the league in minutes played. Keith's playing time has been reduced recently and that should continue.
That hasn't been the case for Hart trophy candidate Patrick Kane, who's been double-shifting a bit and logged a team-high 22:15 of ice time against Colorado.
Gritty Jamal Mayers has played in only 12 games. With 24 games in the next 49 days, ample doses of Mayers, Bryan Bickell (who is this guy all of a sudden?), Michael Frolik, Marcus Kruger, Sheldon Brookbank and Steve Montador would be a good thing.
Before the lid was lifted on the season, the Blackhawks suggested they were willing to use the farmhands in Rockford. Do it. Ready or not, here they should come to lighten the work load a bit for the most integral components to a run at hockey's Holy Grail.
Brandon Bollig and Jimmy Hayes are big bodies and Hayes has shown flashes of offensive spark when he's been given the opportunity. Now is the right time to give him more.
All observers appreciate the Hawks' "play every game like it's you're last" work ethic, but that approach has the potential to burn out a hockey team before the second season commences. The best regular season in club history was in 1990-91, but their league-best 106 points were easily forgotten when the eighth-seeded Minnesota North Stars popped the Hawks in six in Round 1.
Finishing first matters more in June than in March. The only parade in the spring is for St. Patrick's Day.
Special contributor Dan McNeil hosts "The McNeil and Spiegel Show" weekdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on WSCR-AM 670.
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