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2013-14 Chicago Blackhawks Preview

<p>Even if the Blackhawks are able repeat as champions by finishing on top in 2013-14, the club will be hard pressed to beat its start from last season. While some teams struggled to find consistency at the start of the lockout- shortened campaign, Chicago went 24 straight games (21-0-3) without a regulation loss to begin the season. It was the best start to a season in NHL history and the league's third-longest streak without a regulation loss.</p>

Even if the Blackhawks are able repeat as champions by finishing on top in 2013-14, the club will be hard pressed to beat its start from last season. While some teams struggled to find consistency at the start of the lockout- shortened campaign, Chicago went 24 straight games (21-0-3) without a regulation loss to begin the season. It was the best start to a season in NHL history and the league's third-longest streak without a regulation loss.

The Blackhawks were forced to part ways with some players from its most recent championship, though the roster upheaval wasn't nearly as great as it was following the club's 2010 championship. Still, general manager Stan Bowman knows better than anybody that tough decisions need to be made under a salary- cap system and he has earned Chicago's trust when it comes to making those calls.

It's been well over a decade since the Detroit Red Wings were the last franchise to win consecutive titles in 1997 and '98, but, on paper at least, the Blackhawks have an excellent chance at ending that trend in 2014.

FORWARDS - After the Blackhawks won the title in 2010, Bowman cleaned house by letting players like Antti Niemi, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg go, but without that roster purge the 2013 championship season may not have been possible.

Bowman's goal over the years has been to keep Chicago's core group intact. Guys like forwards Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, defensemen Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson and goaltender Corey Crawford have been identified as key pieces, while other talented assets have been deemed expendable.

While Chicago's strength is in its impressive group of star forwards and defensemen, Kane is one individual who deserves the most credit for the Blackhawks' title run. Kane's off-ice behavior and supposed partying ways earned the winger much criticism before the 2013 season, but by the end of the campaign the talk was all about his on-ice play.

Kane tied with the team lead in goals (23) during the regular season and also paced the team with 55 points. He was even better in the postseason, notching nine goals and 10 assists en route to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Toews, meanwhile, struggled in the playoffs, scoring only three goals to go with his 11 assists. Fortunately, the Blackhawks tremendous depth up front means it can survive an average postseason from its captain and still lift the Cup.

Sharp and Hossa are sometimes lost in the shuffle up front for the Blackhawks due to the star power of Kane and Toews, but both players are essential to Chicago's success. Sharp only played in 28 games during the regular season due to injuries, but he led the club with 10 goals in the postseason.

Hossa, an efficient two-way player, recorded 17 goals and 31 points in 40 regular-season contests before adding seven goals and nine helpers to the championship cause. However, Hossa did suffer an upper-body injury in the pre- season and could miss the start of the season.

One player who made himself some money with his clutch play in the postseason was physical winger Bryan Bickell, who signed a four-year, $16 million deal this summer to remain in Chicago. The 6-foot-4, 233-pounder had nine goals and 14 assists in 48 games during the regular season but then exploded for nine goals and 17 points in 23 playoff contests.

Winger Brandon Saad turned heads as a rookie in 2013, posting 10 goals and 17 assists in 46 games and he could eventually work his way into Bowman's list of essential assets.

One potential big loss for Chicago this season is the departure of former second-line centerman Dave Bolland. Although he scored the game-winning goal in the clinching battle of last spring's Stanley Cup Finals against Boston, Bolland was dealt to Toronto on draft day for a three picks.

In the absence of Bolland, Marcus Kruger expects to move into the second-line pivot spot. The 23-year-old Kruger had four goals and nine assists in 47 games last year.

The Blackhawks also dealt enforcer Daniel Carcillo and fellow forward Michael Frolik over the summer and allowed forward Viktor Stalberg to depart via free agency. Some of those losses could hurt Chicago this season, but the roster turnover shouldn't be nearly as damaging as it was following the 2010 championship.

DEFENSE - While Chicago's impressive offense was ranked second in the NHL (3.10 GPG) during the regular season, the club's top-ranked defense was even better, allowing a minuscule 2.02 goals per contest.

The bad news for the rest of the NHL is the Blackhawks are returning all seven of their primary blueliners for 2013-14.

Keith is the workhorse on the back end and led the club in ice time per game during the regular season (24 minutes, 7 seconds) and in the playoffs (27:37). The 2009-10 Norris Trophy winner recorded three goals and 24 assists in 47 playoff games and chipped in 13 points (2G, 11A) in 22 postseason tilts.

Seabrook, Keith's longtime defensive partner, had an up-and-down season in 2013, but he saved his best hockey for the playoffs. His best postseason moments came in overtime, as he notched an OT game-winning goal against Detroit in Game 7 of the second round and beat Boston with another in Game 4 of the Cup Finals.

Hjalmarsson is the unsung hero of the Chicago blue line, but head coach Joel Quenneville knows his value. The physical Swede was second only to Keith in terms of ice time for the Blackhawks in the postseason.

The depth continues with Hjalmarsson's partner Johnny Oduya, who finished just behind Chicago's big three with an average ice time of 22:44 in the postseason. Oduya also was second behind Keith in scoring by defensemen in the playoffs, notching three goals and five assists.

At the bottom end of the rotation is the pairing of Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival, and Sheldon Brookbank is another option should either Leddy or Rozsival get injured.

GOALTENDING - One of the reasons Bowman allowed Niemi to walk in the summer of 2010 was his belief Crawford could be a No. 1 goaltender. In 2013, at 28 years of age, Crawford finally made believer out of everybody else.

When Chicago bowed out in the opening round in back-to-back postseason in 2011 and '12, Crawford rightfully took a big chunk of the blame. However, he silenced the critics last spring by going 16-7 with a 1.84 goals against average and .932 save percentage.

Crawford's terrific postseason came on the heels of his best regular season as an NHL backstop. He formed a deadly goaltending tandem with backup Ray Emery and went 19-5-5 with a 1.94 GAA over 30 games.

Emery, who was 17-1-0 with a 1.94 GAA in 21 games last season, left this summer to sign a free-agent deal with Philadelphia and Chicago opted to bring back veteran Nikolai Khabibulin to serve as Crawford's backup in 2013-14.

The 40-year-old Khabibulin previously spent four seasons as Chicago's starter beginning with the 2005-06 campaign, but he is coming off a down season. The Russian netminder lost his starting job in Edmonton to Devan Dubnyk and went 4-6-1 with a 2.55 GAA in only 12 appearances.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Blackhawks will likely receive stiff competition from St. Louis and Minnesota for this season's Central Division crown, but Chicago still enters this campaign as the team to beat out West. As recent history has told us, it's no easy feat repeating as Stanley Cup champions, but if anybody can pull it off its Quenneville's Blackhawks, the first team to win multiple championships following the locked-out season of 2004-05. This is unquestionably a playoff team, but whether or not the dreaded "Stanley Cup Hangover" stops Chicago short of another title remains to be seen.

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