Jonathan Toews (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
The Blues beat the defending champion Hawks for the first three games of their clashes this season. But Wednesday night, Chicago showed they're still the team to beat come playoff time.
We in THN’s editorial department like to engage in some friendly wagering every now and again. Nothing financial, of course; we’re much crueler than that. So when associate editor Ronnie Shuker and I realized one of us (read: me) liked the defending-champion Chicago Blackhawks to finish ahead of the St. Louis Blues and the other thought the converse would be true, we laid out the stakes: if the Hawks ended the regular-season ahead of the Blues, Ronnie (a devoted health freak) would have to eat the greasiest, nastiest, most delicious burger I could locate; if the Blues finished ahead of Chicago, I (a devoted carnivore) would have to consume the most nutritional, least-environmentally-unfriendly smoothie-from-hell Ronnie could whip up with his fancy blender.
With only 12 games remaining in the Blackhawks’ season and Chicago trailing the Blues (who have a game in hand) by six points and seven wins, I’m preparing myself to down a sawdust, kale, flaxseed and assorted legumes smoothie in a few weeks. But as the Hawks showed Wednesday night in their thorough 4-0 thumping of St. Louis, all roads to this year’s Stanley Cup championship still go through Chicago.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock knows this is true. After their loss – St. Louis’ first in four games against Chicago this year – he spoke like a veteran who understood his team’s real test is just beginning.
“They’re the Stanley Cup champions for a reason,” Hitchcock said. “They know when to turn the temperature up…(t)hey're getting ready. And it's up to us to get ready.”
There are reasons to be concerned for the Hawks, of course. Losing Patrick Kane (likely for the rest of the regular season) doesn’t make their task any easier, and they’ve only gone 5-4-1 since the Olympic break. However, this is a veteran team that has the ability to ramp up their play and expectations when the games really begin to matter.
That’s what veterans mean when they talk about learning how to manage themselves during a punishing 82-game campaign. What began as a marathon is now turning into a hard charge toward the finish and the best teams usually find their best stride at this time of year.
Nobody is saying the Blues can’t make the jump themselves and get past Chicago and the rest of the stacked Western Conference. They’re determined, more experienced and expertly coached.
But you do have to respect the team that’s done it before. The team that’s still got Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith on it. The team that’s still in its prime.
Until further notice, the Hawks are still the team to beat.