One Minute Remaining: Taking Heart
A season that started on a hopeful note for Blackhawk fans got derailed in a four-day span in late October.
Is it possible to survive when you lose your leading scorer, your top playmaker and your #1 goalie? Well, even though the team staged a comeback with new coach Denis Savard to finish December at .500 and only one point out of a playoff berth for the first time in three seasons, the strain on the team's depth proved to be too much in January.
Injuries are a part of the game and affect every team. Although that's an easy excuse, I want you to look at the overall picture. Last month when the San Jose Sharks were at the United Center, I spoke with former Blackhawk great and now Sharks GM Doug Wilson.
He told me his team was in much the same position three years ago.
"We had a lot of young players, failed to make the playoffs and finished last in our division," Wilson said. "The next season we bounced back to win the division. I think that the Hawks have a lot of very promising young players and are poised to make a good run in the coming years."
I feel those are encouraging words from a respected GM. But in a game decided many times by inches, you have to add that magic intangible "chemistry"!
Look at this season's playoffs. Defending Stanley Cup champ Carolina and the team that pushed them to the 7th and deciding game, Edmonton, have pulled out their golf clubs.
Last year, Pittsburgh finished 29th, only one point better than last place St. Louis. This season -- with young stars Crosby, Malkin, Staal and Fleury -- they finished with over 100 points. On the flipside, Philadelphia went the other way to finish with the worst record in the league after compiling 101 points last year.
Chicago dressed 25 new players this season and 27 last year. Players lost to injuries totaled 350 games this season compared to 306 in 2006. Those statistics spell the difficulty in getting "team chemistry."
With regard to special teams, the Hawks ranked 3rd in penalty killing on home ice and in the top half of the league overall, which they also achieved last year. However, the power play finished at the bottom for the second straight season and was a disaster at the United Center.
Against playoff bound teams, 14 of the Hawk losses came by one goal while another nine lone-goal defeats were at the hands of squads that failed to qualify for the post-season.
There were positive improvements over last year, which I think bode well for the future. But again, simple improvements are needed that are easier said than done -- like the power play, more scoring, getting more production from the 2nd line and, yes, more scoring!
I feel we have one of the best young defensive corps in the NHL with Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Cam Barker, Dustin Byfuglien and Danny Richmond, plus the healthy return of Jim Vandermeer and James Wisniewski.
There's no doubt the offense built around a healthy Martin Havlat will be the key to a return to the playoffs and eventual contention for the Stanley Cup. GM Dale Tallon knows what to do and it's no easy task.
The emergence of Patrick Sharp and free agent Jeff Hamilton's success, plus a healthy Tuomo Ruutu and a full season with Jason Williams, are a solid foundation.
By winning the #1 pick in the June NHL draft, can that potential choice, plus rookies Jonathan Toews, Jack Skille, Troy Brouwer and Dave Bolland, among others, make the jump from college and the AHL the way Rene Bourque did last year before injuries curtailed his play this season?
As a long-time Hawks fan, I want to take heart from the words of Doug Wilson about the things he sees in future Blackhawk players.
Wouldn't it be great for our young players to make the same kind of leap that the young Pittsburgh stars have done for the Penguins?
Harvey Wittenberg served as the Blackhawks' Public Address Announcer from 1961 to 2001 and is currently a contributor to chicagoblackhawks.com. Buy Harvey's book -- Tales from the Chicago Blackhawks.