12:06 AM CDT, April 26, 2013
Another Presidents' Trophy banner will be raised to the rafters of the United Center next fall. With their victory Wednesday night in Edmonton, the Blackhawks ensured home ice throughout the playoffs, a distinction that can be dubious.
Ask Vancouver fans, who saw their Canucks cop the honor last season only to be dumped in Round 1 by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Kings. It was the second straight top regular-season finish for Vancouver, which lost to Boston in the 2011 finals.
I still feel a pit in my stomach when I look at the Hawks' other Presidents' Trophy banner, which they earned with 106 points in the 1990-91 season. It is a reminder of a regular season that produced enormous entertainment. And hope. Hope that morphed into insufferable disappointment.
A first-round exit courtesy of the North Stars sullies the good times from when Mike Keenan's Hawks were the NHL's elite. That upset serves locally as Exhibit A on how irrelevant the Presidents' Trophy truly is.
That team didn't possess the skillful artistry this one does. The '90-91 Hawks were physical up front and solid defensively, beginning with goaltender Ed Belfour.
What sent that club to the golf course early wasn't a lack of toughness or scoring punch. It was the absence of discipline when Minnesota's irritants attempted to get under their skin.
Those Hawks had depth, but they weren't going to advance with Chris Chelios and Dave Manson — a formidable defensive pairing — watching from the penalty box. Captain Dirk Graham also took leave of his senses and got suckered into the stupidity.
The North Stars won the series 4-2 and went on to win the Campbell Conference before succumbing to Mario Lemieux's Pittsburgh Penguins in the Cup finals.
Joel Quenneville's Blackhawks won't lose in the playoffs because they lose their minds. The Hawks, who've been the hunted since they hit the midway point without a loss in regulation, have demonstrated a don't-strike-back demeanor when feisty opponents got in their grille.
So what's to keep the NHL's regular-season best from a second trip to the finals in four years? Let's examine.
Getting bullied: There was little doubt what Vancouver had in mind when the Canucks handed the Hawks what Quenneville called the worst loss of the year Monday night. The only honest way to describe what happened is to suggest the Hawks looked intimidated.
The best approach against a keepaway-style team like the Hawks is to keep them off the puck. Stand them up rudely at the blue line and take bodies into the boards. Outhit and outhustle.
That's how St. Louis has taken the Hawks off their game, but the Blues don't possess the offensive punch or goaltending to beat the Hawks in a seven-game series.
If the Hawks can get out of their own end quickly and pass as crisply as they've demonstrated they can, they shouldn't be disrupted by a team that relies solely on a physically aggressive approach.
Patrick Sharp: The 2013 season has not been kind to the right wing, who returned Wednesday from a shoulder injury he aggravated two weeks earlier.
Sharp said he "thought the worst" late in the third period when an Oiler collapsed on his knee, but after grimacing and limping to the bench, he returned to make a hustle play and score an empty-netter in the 4-1 win. He paid for it, too, getting knocked into the cage by a frustrated Edmonton defender.
If the Hawks are going to win it all, Sharp has to be healthy and productive.
The power play: As well as the Hawks played in their first 46 games, their production with the man advantage has underwhelmed. Consistently.
Some of it is bad luck. Jonathan Toews must lead the league in posts hit. Sometimes goaltenders answer the challenge.
Lately, however, the Hawks have been tentative, making too many passes instead of just letting it rip and attacking the net. When goals are a premium in the postseason, they have to be better on the power play.
Getting Sharp back on the point should provide a spark.
Goaltending: As a tandem, Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have been the NHL's best.
Crawford, however, has had some shaky moments in the last month, and Quenneville may not have the luxury of Emery if his No.1 plays poorly. After missing five games with what is believed to be a hip injury, Emery started the Edmonton game but skated gingerly to the bench and didn't finish the first period.
What does all of this mean? Nothing. This is hockey. More than in any sport, what we see in the regular season consistently goes out the window.
Just like the relevance of a banner for the Presidents' Trophy if it's followed by a first-round exit.
Special contributor Dan McNeil hosts "The McNeil and Spiegel Show" weekdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on WSCR-AM 670.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC