The soaring Blackhawks
If controversial actor Charlie Sheen was asked to describe the play of the Chicago Blackhawks these days he would simply use his catchword "winning."
The Blackhawks have been winning and the rest of the league has taken notice. They are riding a season-high eight-game victory string and, after an up-and-down beginning to their title defence, the Stanley Cup champs appear to be on track to contend again.
The turnaround could not have come at a better time. The strong play coincided when head coach Joel Quenneville was released from hospital after he was treated for gastrointestinal bleeding brought on by a small ulcer and, this Friday, the Blackhawks visit United States President Barack Obama at the White House.
"We invited him [the President] to a couple of games last year with him being from Chicago," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "It will be an interesting and fun experience."
Fun is an adjective Quenneville employed when he described the atmosphere surrounding the teams these days. The day this win streak began on Feb. 20, the Blackhawks found themselves in 11th in the West, but only four points back of a playoff spot. Now they are a solid fourth and destined for the post-season.
So how did the Blackhawks turn their fortunes around to avoid becoming the first team since the 2006-07 Carolina Hurricanes to miss the playoffs the season after winning the Stanley Cup? Well, Quenneville stated that his goaltending has been strong with rookie Corey Crawford. But now he likes the balance of his forward lines, even though he has loaded Toews between the two Patricks - Kane and Sharp - and he likes his new defence pairings of Brent Seabrook with Niklas Hjalmarsson, Duncan Keith and rookie Nick Leddy as well as Brian Campbell with newcomer Chris Campoli.
"[The Toews] line has been the key for us," Quenneville said. "They have been hard to contain and their production has reflected that game-in, game-out.
"But I like the four lines we have right now. They're all working and we're comfortable using them just about against anybody.
"I think the defensive pairings have been solid as well. Nick Leddy has formed a nice pair with Duncan Keith.
"The other two have been good also and we're getting offence from the back end. Of course, Corey Crawford has been rock solid in net."
So was there a Stanley Cup hangover?
"There was probably something to that affect," Quenneville said. "We use the term fully-engaged.
"I think the guys are at that point now. We're getting that type of effort you need to have success in our league."
Stanley Cup contenders, post-trade deadline
After the NHL trade deadline was over and done with last Monday, bodog.com modified its favourites to win the Stanley Cup. The oddsmaker felt two teams specifically improved its chances due to trades. The Washington Capitals, in acquiring Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman as well as waiver-wire pickup Marco Sturm, went from 12-1 to 10-1. The Los Angeles Kings improved from 25/1 to 18/1 with the trade for Dustin Penner.
The odds for the Vancouver Canucks and the other 27 teams were not altered, but we should note that, based on the success of their regular-season campaign, the Canucks currently are the Stanley Cup favourites at 4-1 after beginning the season at 9-1. Here are the odds with five weeks to go in the regular season:
San Jose 12-1
Tampa Bay 12-1
Los Angeles 18-1
N.Y. Rangers 40-1
New Jersey 60-1
St. Louis 80-1
N.Y. Islanders 400-1
March Madness for basketball junkies means the NCAA tournament. For NHL general managers, it means U.S. college free-agent time as schools begin to get eliminated. With the help of two NHL pro scouts, here's a list of the top dozen skaters and two goalies that will be sure to be locked up in the next six weeks or so:
G Keith Kinkaid, Union College (6-foot-3, 185 pounds, age 21, Farmingville, N.Y.) - The sophomore enjoyed an outstanding start to the season and upset Yale in late January.
G Pat Nagle, Ferris State (6-foot-3, 185 pounds, age 23, Bloomfield, Mich.) - He was one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.
D Taylor Fedun, Princeton (6-foot-1, 210 pounds, age 22, Edmonton) - After scoring 10 times in his first three years at Princeton, he has checked in with 10 goals in his senior season.
D Chay Genoway, North Dakota (5-foot-9, 187 pounds, age 24, Morden, Minn.) - The offensive blue-liner played junior for the Vernon Vipers of the BCHL.
F Carter Camper, Miami-Ohio (5-foot-9, 173 pounds, age 22, Rocky River, Oh.) - He's third on Miami's all-time points list.
F Jack Connolly, Minnesota-Duluth (5-foot-8, 175 pounds, age 21, Duluth, Minn.) - He is a smallish junior, but a skilled forward who scored five goals in a game last month.
F Stephane Da Costa, Merrimack (5-foot-11, 180 pounds, age 21, Paris) - He has played for France in the past two world championships.
F Justin Fontaine, Minnesota-Duluth (5-foot-10, 175 pounds, age 23, Bonnyville, Alta.) - A linemate of Connolly's, he's scored 60 goals in his four years at Duluth.
F Tanner House, Maine (6-foot-1, 195 pounds, age 24, Cochrane, Alta.) - The Maine captain is a finalist for national awards that recognize academic achievement, philanthropy, character and community service.
F Andy Miele, Miami-Ohio (5-foot-8, 175 pounds, age 22, Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich) - He enjoyed an impressive development camp with the Washington Capitals last summer.
F Matt Read, Bemidji State (5-foot-10, 185 pounds, age 24, Ilderton, Ont.) - He has attended NHL development camps with Tampa Bay, Boston, N.Y. Rangers and Minnesota.
F Calle Ridderwall, Notre Dame (6-foot, 183 pounds, age 22, Stockholm) - He moved to the U.S. to play midget hockey in Chicago area in 2005.
F Paul Thompson, New Hampshire (6-foot, 210 pounds, age 22, Derry, N.H.) - Last season, he played on a line with Senators prospect Bobby Butler.
F Harry Zolnierczyk, Brown (5-foot-11, 175 pounds, age 23, Toronto) - Last week, he became only the fourth player in school history to be named Ivy League player of the year.
Iggy joins exclusive club
When Flames captain Jarome Iginla scored on a second-period penalty shot on Sunday, he became only the 10th player in NHL history to score 30 or more goals in 10 consecutive seasons. The others include:
15 Mike Gartner, 1979-80 to 1993-94
15 Jaromir Jagr, 1991-92 to 2006-07
13 Phil Esposito, 1967-68 to 1979-80
13 Wayne Gretzky, 1979-80 to 1991-92
13 Bobby Hull, 1959-60 to 1971-72
12 Marcel Dionne, 1974-75 to 1985-86
10 Mike Bossy, 1977-78 to 1986-87
10 Jari Kurri, 1980-81 to 1989-80
10 Darryl Sittler, 1973-74 to 1982-83
Odds and ends
When asked if rookie Taylor Hall's left high-ankle sprain that will keep him out the rest of the season will prohibit Hall from playing for Canada at the 2011 world championship, which begins April 29 in Bratislava, Slovakia, Oilers GM Steve Tambellini told us that he doesn't "think he'll be ready" by then ... Kings forward Anze Kopitar has played in 320 consecutive games, just four shy of club record set by Marcel Dionne ... The Presidents' Trophy race has turned into a turtle derby. The slippage of the Canucks (6-4-0 in their last 10), Red Wings (5-3-2), Flyers (4-5-1) and Lightning (4-4-2) have enabled the surging Bruins to make a play for top spot. Boston (7-2-1) has moved to within nine points of Vancouver with two games in hand ... The Capitals moved past Tampa Bay and into first in the division. If they can stay there they would avoid the rival Penguins in the first round. The Lightning and Capitals meet Monday in Tampa Bay ... Couple of neat goals over the weekend: after going 99 games without a goal, Canadiens defenceman Hal Gill scored his second in as many games and Buffalo veteran Rob Niedermayer ended a 66-game drought with his first of the season. The entire Sabres bench stood and cheered when Niedermayer scored in the second period on Sunday ... San Jose signed Prince George Cougars defenceman Sena Acolatse, 20, to an entry-level, free-agent contract over the weekend. Why was this important? He is the first Bay-area player signed by the local Sharks. Acolaste was born in Northern California and began playing hockey there because he was a Sharks fan before his family relocated to Edmonton when he was eight.
Games I won't miss this week
1. After a terrific start, St. Louis Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak's play has dropped off under the influence of shoulder and hand injuries. He is on the verge of returning from a 10-game absence from his latest ailment and could be ready to meet his former Montreal teammates in St. Louis on Thursday.
2. Everything has come up roses for new Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula. His club is 5-0-2 since he purchased the franchise on Feb. 22, including 3-0-1 to begin a critical seven-game road trip. The Sabres have moved into eighth spot in the East and conclude this important stint away for home in Toronto on Hockey Night In Canada on Saturday.
3. The Flames entertain Vancouver in HNIC's late game on Saturday. Since Dec. 23, the Flames have compiled an impressive 21-6-6 record compared to the conference-leading Canucks at 22-8-4 during the same period.
(Photo of Corey Crawford courtesy Abelimages/Getty Images)
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