My Blackhawks are in trouble.
After leading the NHL (or being close to it) most of the season, they've fallen four points behind a very good St. Louis Blues team in the Central Division of the Western Conference. The Blues have been systematically and intelligently rebuilding for some time, and I feared this moment might come sooner rather than later: the Hawks are not assured of supremacy even in their own division.
True, the Hawks have scored 13 more goals than the Blues thus far. But the Blues have allowed 28 fewer. It's no secret that Corey Crawford is a good, but not elite goalie, whereas both Brian Elliot and Ryan Miller of the Blues clearly belong in the elite category (it's too soon to say how Antti Raanta is going to turn out; his 2.40 GAA is .10 higher than "Crow's," though his 12-2 W/L differential is clearly better, and I have the sense that he has more raw talent). In any case, team defense has been terrible, and whoever is between the pipes will need more help than he's been getting.
At least in the playoffs last year, Bryan Bickel played the role Dustin Byfuglein played for the 2010 champs. Maybe he will again this year. But so far, he's been pretty much of a non-factor. And at the trade deadline, General Manager Stan Bowman chose to stand pat, a move that reminds me uncomfortably of the Hawks' characteristic posture during the Bob Pulford era (though in Bowman's defense, it should be said that I and many others were all over him for making the same decision before last year's Stanley Cup season, wanting him, among other things, to find an upgrade for Crawford- who, together with the departed Ray Emery, won the Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the league.
It's far too soon to panic. But right now, I see the Blues rather than the Hawks as favorites not only to win the division and the conference, but the Stanley Cup. Our team D has to improve drastically, and we've got to be more physical, especially in the slot.
Somewhere down the line, I have feeling the Hawks and the Blues are going to have an epic playoff confrontation. Until now, the rivalry has been pretty much one-sided; folks in St. Louis see the Hawks as their arch rivals, whereas the Blues have never really been seen that way in Chicago (we've been too busy prior to this year despising Detroit). But ff we're not careful, come late June the Cubs will only have won one more World Series than the Blues have Stanley Cups!
Maybe we should have hung on to Antti Niemi, even if it meant losing Hjalmarsson. After all, elite defensemen are easier to replace than elite goalies.
Or not. What do I know? Bowman has won two Cups in four years for the Hawks. I haven't won any.
Here's hoping he knows better than I do.