There are few things that the Blackhawks love more than the Stadium Series outdoor games. Last season, they participated in the Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals, which ended in a loss. This year, as they head into the State of Hockey, they will be looking to set that right with a win over the struggling Minnesota Wild.
The Hawks are without Marian Hossa (injury), and Marcus Kruger (injury) this year, but they still have a number of tools in their arsenal. Those include a Captain, who is the epitome of clutch, one of the best players in the NHL this season, a solid Vezina Trophy candidate, and one of the top rookies. That is just scratching the surface. For Blackhawks fans, there is a lot to look forward to as Chicago has been one of the best shows on ice for much of the season.
Here are some of the key players that always seem to make their mark on the biggest stages.
Few players in the league today are capable of putting their entire team on their back the way that Jonathan Toews has throughout his career. If you need a goal in a big game, number 19 is the one that the Blackhawks look to. That was never more evident than in game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Anaheim Ducks last season. Toews stepped onto the ice on a mission and scored two goals in the first period that looked more like a show of will than a simple goal.
The Ducks never recovered in that game as Toews single-handedly ripped the heart from their collective chests. Of course, he laid the groundwork in a game five loss as he victimized Frederick Andersen twice to tie the game. They lost in overtime, but Andersen was not the same dominant goaltender after that, and the Blackhawks took advantage as they came back to win the last two games.
Toews has a nose for the spotlight, and while many might find it uncomfortable the captain is driven by it. The bigger, the better as far as Toews is concerned. As the leader of the Blackhawks, the team takes their cues from Toews, and each of them has learned to battle on the big stages by his side. Whether they are a long standing veteran or a young gun learning the game from one (or many) of the best.
The Bread and Butter Line
You can’t talk about the Blackhawks and not mention the Bread and Butter Line. They are one of the hottest lines in the NHL and have been consistently producing all season long. The line currently boasts two of the top scorers in the league with Patrick Kane leading everyone with 83 points and Artemi Panarin tied for fifth with 57.
For his part, Artem Anisimov is currently second in shooting percentage at 18.95 percent. He is also sixth in scoring amongst his teammates behind the likes of Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Toews, Panarin, and Kane. The real feat for Anisimov is that he has found an undeniable chemistry with his wingers, and it shows every time they throw a leg over the boards.
This line is loaded with individual talent that would undoubtedly thrive on their own. However, they are absolutely dominant when they come together on the ice. At times, they look like a passing clinic as they play keep-away with the puck in the offensive zone. Almost toying with opponents before they go in for the kill.
Any one of the three is capable of lighting the lamp, and at the end of the day, it makes little difference to them as they collect their points in droves.
Panarin and Kane are the perfect bookends to Anisimov, their hard working centerman. The two wingers fire at will and Anisimov is there to collect any rebounds that he either deposits into the back of the net, or redistributes for his linemates to keep the play alive. What few people realized of Anisimov is that he plays a very cerebral game. He manages to stay ahead of the puck which leads to numerous scoring opportunities and breakaway chances that he is always prepared to capitalize on.
The trio each has their own style, and skill set but they work in perfect complement to one another. They are always fun to watch, and they will be ready to put on a show for the Fans in Minnesota. Love them, or hate them (as they will undoubtedly in Minnesota) this trio is about as entertaining as it gets in the NHL.
Big Game Crow
Corey Crawford has been outstanding nearly all season, and he is another player that seems to thrive in big games. He has had many a highlight reel save, but none could better summarize his play this season than this sequence in Montreal last month. Crow put on a goalie clinic midway through the third period denying a barrage of shots in close range.
He has had some missteps (the Nashville series last season). However, it is not about how hard you fall, but how quickly you get back up again. Crawford proved that he was up to the task as he dominated in the rest of the Playoffs last season.
He could have easily let the bad starts in Nashville take over, but instead Crawford stood tall. He withstood all the criticism and heckling that came his way after that series, listening to everyone question his resolve, and whether he could take the team to the Stanley Cup Final; Let alone win one without the dominant defense of the 2010 and 2013 teams.
He never gave the criticism much thought as he continued to stand tall against the best the Minnesota Wild, Anaheim Ducks, and Tampa Bay Lightning could throw at him.
The Blackhawks and Crawford swept the hottest goaltender in the league in Devan Dubnyk. Withstood the brute force of the Ducks with several games that took multiple extra frames to decide. And finally, he kept the electrifying offense of the Lighting to one goal in three of their four wins on the road to the Stanley Cup. Crawford even capped it off with a shutout victory as the Blackhawks raised the Cup on home ice.
For Crawford, the return to Minnesota is a big one. He will be looking to put up a great effort after a couple of tough outings and silence the hecklers who will without fail be chanting ‘Craw-ford’ from the first drop of the puck. In the state of hockey, he is public enemy number one and he lives for the hatred that opposing fans throw his way.
For years, the talk has always been about Duncan Keith, and it has been well deserved. He is still the top dog on the Blackhawks blue line, but Brent Seabrook has really proven himself to be worthy of equal praise this season. Keith was Seabrook’s defensive partner for many years. However, Seabrook has thrived away from Keith as he has seen ice time with two rookie defensemen in Trevor van Riemsdyk and Erik Gustafsson.
Seabrook has already surpassed his career high in goals with 11, and with 21 games remaining, it is possible that he will top his assists (39) and points (48) totals, but it won’t be easy. Whether he accomplishes that milestone or not, it has no bearing on the type of season that he has had.
Seabrook’s biggest test came early in the season when he had to take up the mantle for Keith who he went down with a knee injury. He flourished under the pressure of carrying an already thin defensive corps while driving the next generation of Blackhawks blueliners to the next level.
A born leader, Seabrook has been the steadying force for those around him. He never appears to falter even as the team is under siege in their defensive zone, and he is always the man you want at the top of the circle to rip a slap shot that makes even the most steadfast of goaltenders brace for impact.
His clutch performance in the Blackhawks triple overtime game against the Nashville Predators in the first round of last season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs was a clear display of his ability to perform under tremendous pressure.
Seabrook was rewarded with a massive extension that many have balked at, and it does invest a lot of cap among the core players of Seabrook, Keith, Toews, Kane, Hossa, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Crawford. However, the formula has been working, and Seabrook has been a huge part of the teams successes.
Shaw in Mutt-Mode
Andrew Shaw is having a great year as he has already put in his best career number for assists (20) and should eclipse his previous career best in points (39) at the rate that he is going. He is having the time of his life on the top line with Toews and Hossa (before the injury), and it has been paying dividends for Shaw and his linemates, who had struggled before he found his way back to their line.
Shaw finds himself in uncertain territory as he is the subject of many trade rumors and could quite possibly become the latest casualty of the ever shrinking cap come summer. Though, that hasn’t stopped him from making the most of his time with the Blackhawks. The hope is that his gritty play and heart will be enough to keep him in Chicago, and there isn’t a fan in an Indianhead sweater that hopes for anything less.
His presence is undeniable. Shaw is a player you love to have on your team and hate to play against. Despite his small stature (by hockey standards), he plays a big game. He stands tall in the crease, grinds in the corners to win board battles, and can play in any role coach Joel Quenneville throws at him. That alone is enough to make him a tough player to part with under any circumstances.
Not to mention the fact that the Blackhawks would really prefer not to have to play against him. Ever.
For Shaw, as one of several restricted free agents time could be running out, but he has made the best possible impression on the team, their front office, and especially the fans. If there is a way to keep him in the red, white, and black, you better believe they will be looking for it. In the meantime, Shaw will do what he does best.
He will fight until he achieves his goal, and then keep fighting.
Just as he did in the Blackhawks triple overtime battle in 2013 against the Boston Bruins. He will always be remembered for proclaiming his love of shinpads as he deflected the game winner past Tuukka Rask in their game 1 marathon.
If this is the end of the road for Shaw, expect him to leave it all on the ice as he writes the next chapter in his story. I, for one will be rooting for him to stick around. This team will not be the same without Shawzy.
The Stadium Series in the State of Hockey
As the Blackhawks enjoy a couple of days off and a well-earned visit to celebrate their Stanley Cup win at the White House, the city of Minneapolis has been gearing up for what I expect will be a top-notch spectacle in front of fans that know great hockey.
Miss any of today's ceremony at the @WhiteHouse?
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) February 18, 2016
While the Minnesota Wild are battling to get back into the wild card race, they are still a very good team that can come out and put on a good show in front of their hometown fans. Last week saw the dismissal of Mike Yeo, who was lucky to earn a stay of execution when the team was in a similar position last year. As you might recall, a single move at the deadline (acquiring Devan Dubnyk) turned their fate and salvaged their season earning them a playoff spot.
Unfortunately, they were swept out of the second round by the Blackhawks after dominating the much favored St. Louis Blues in the first round. However, that loss should fuel the team to right their own wrongs from last year. With their shot at the playoffs dwindling, they are a team with nothing to lose, and that is always a dangerous combination.
— NHL (@NHL) February 17, 2016
Kristi is a long time hockey fan who grew up in, and around hockey rinks across the United States and Canada. A native Chicagoan, Loucks has always been an avid Blackhawks fan. Kristi also covers the Chicago Cubs and writes suspense thrillers, when not covering the Chicago Blackhawks. Follow Kristi on twitter @louckske