Patrick Sharp said he was surprised the Blackhawks’ first-round series against the Nashville Predators didn’t start today.
“I was getting ready to go,” Sharp said of the Friday start date. “But it’s all right. It gives us time to tune up our sticks and skates and make sure everybody is ready to go.”
So as the pucks drop for other playoff teams tonight, here are five things to be concerned about and five reasons to believe in the Hawks:
FIVE REASONS TO BE CONCERNED
5. The wild, wild West
Seven of the eight playoff teams in the Western Conference reached the 100-point plateau. Last year, only seven total had at least 100.
It isn’t the first time it has happened — seven teams reached 100 in the West in the 2006-07 season — but it’s a sign that things are more competitive than usual.
The Predators don’t have a player with more than 51 points — and had an even goal differential — but still finished with 100.
4. Surprise, pressure factors
Few anticipated the Hawks would advance to the conference finals last year. But they did, and expectations increased because of it. They’re considered a favorite now and won’t have the benefit of surprising teams anymore.
”Last year, fans and media people in Chicago were so excited that we just made the playoffs,” captain Jonathan Toews said. ”This year from Day 1, there have been expectations and pressure for us not only to get back to where we were last year, but beyond that. We know anything less is a disappointment.”
3. Campbell concerns
Coach Joel Quenneville is comfortable with his defensive pairings as the duos of Duncan Keith-Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Seabrook-Niklas Hjalmarsson found chemistry.
But Quenneville would be the first to tell you that he misses having Brian Campbell’s offensive flair at his disposal. Campbell broke a collarbone and rib on March 14. It’s possible the defenseman will return in a few weeks.
”He’s starting to skate,” Quenneville said. ”We’d love to see him.”
2. Inexperience in goal
Antti Niemi’s play figures to be the hottest topic now, during and after the postseason. He has never played in the NHL playoffs and went 0-2 in the postseason last year in Rockford.
But the Hawks have expressed nothing but confidence in Niemi, who went 6-0-1 down the stretch.
”It feels good to hear what they’re saying, that they’re confident in me,” Niemi said. ”It gives me more confidence and makes me feel good.”
1. The power play
Quenneville made it clear a week ago that the Hawks’ biggest concern is their power play. The Hawks are 3-for-32 in their last 10 games, and their 17.7 percentage simply needs to be better. Special teams are crucial in the playoffs.
”We always know the focus is on special teams going into the series and the little things that can lead you to taking advantage of the other team,” Quenneville said.
FIVE REASONS TO BELIEVE
5. Olympic benefits
The Hawks always have preferred to look at the bright side of having six players in the Olympics. With all of them healthy, the benefit of playing in big games, as Patrick Kane, Toews, Seabrook and Keith especially did in the gold-medal game, will only help.
”The experience of playing for Stanley Cups or playing in the playoffs, it’s all similar in a lot of ways,” Quenneville said. ”The mind-set of going into big games and playing in prior big games can help you relax or help with your preparation.”
4. More inexperience in goal
Niemi isn’t the only goalie in the West getting his first taste of the postseason. Five of the eight goalies slated to start, including Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, have not played in the playoffs.
”You look around the league, there’s not too many [teams] going into the playoffs with guys that are proven or guys that have that playoff experience,” Quenneville said. ”Last year we had a lot of young players that didn’t have playoff experience but did very well. I don’t think it’s any different for a goalie.”
3. Added experience
The additions of veterans John Madden and Marian Hossa have given the Hawks more voices to hear out and more players to count on in the playoffs.
Madden, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, has played in 112 playoff games. Hossa, often seen as a mercenary for playing for three different contenders in three years, has 31 goals and 76 points in 98 games.
”We feel like we got a great team here,” Hossa said.
2. The ”team” mentality
Toews couldn’t believe all the questions he was getting about Niemi and the team’s confidence in him Tuesday. After all, there’s more to a hockey team than who’s in net.
”I’ve never been asked so many questions about our goaltender,” Toews said. ”We’re very confident he’s going to do a great job just like everybody else in this locker room. We’re all ready to step up our game, and we understand it’s going to take a bigger effort from everybody if we want to win Game 1 on Friday and anything beyond that.”
That ”we” approach has been a team trademark all season.
1. Last year helps
They’re still a young team, but the Hawks learned what it takes to make a deep run in the playoffs last season. They also learned what it feels like to be eliminated by a rival. All of it helps, Quenneville said.
“You learn through a series how you handle things, how you approach games, how they prepare, how starts to games are important [and] taking care of yourself in between games and in between series,” Quenneville said.