Blackhawks lead dissolving division

By Gregory Cappis

Captain Jonathan Toews is keeping his team atop the Central Division in its last year of existence.

The NHL agreed to realign the league into four conferences of seven or eight teams, starting next fall. This will cut down on travel and develop more heated rivalries between division foes. The announcement was made on Dec. 5 during the Blackhawks meeting with the Coyotes.

As highlighted by the game against the Coyotes, the Blackhawks are led by Toews, who is leading the league with 17 goals, as of Dec. 7. The recent transition of Patrick Kane from center to Toews’ right wing sparked the Hawks’ offense that night.

“I thought [Kane] had an outstanding game,” said Head Coach Joel Quenneville at his postgame press conference. “[He] had a lot of puck possession. Toews [had] a quick stick around the net. That line was efficient.”

Efficient may be an understatement. The duo scored all of the Hawks’ goals that evening. Toews scored the first two goals, one on an assist from Kane. Then, he found the young winger on a backdoor pass to tie the game at three before the close of the second period. Chicago lost 4-3 on a shootout.

“[We are] disappointed with the start, but it was a good comeback [and a] good point,” Quenneville said.

The Blackhawks had to battle back after goalie Corey Crawford gave up three goals within the first 22 minutes of the game, prompting Quenneville to swap out Crawford for Ray Emery. On Dec. 7, Crawford told reporters his play has been inconsistent, and he is working on his performance with goalie coach Stephane Waite. Emery started against the New York Islanders on Dec. 8.

With Emery between the pipes, the Hawks hope to get a better start than they’ve been getting so far this season. In their first 30 games, they scored first only one-third of the time and are 9-0-1 in those games. Quenneville said he hopes to generate some enthusiasm with the change in netminders.

First-year Blackhawk Daniel Carcillo has been changing it up with opponents all season. He had a brief stint on the top line with Toews and Kane to protect the highly-skilled stars against physical opponents, such as the St. Louis Blues.

A rivalry has been heating up between Toews and St. Louis Blues winger David Backes. The two wrestled each other during the Dec. 3 game. Gloves were dropped but no fight ensued. Last year, Backes and Toews scrapped, which is still the only fight of Toews’ career.

The Blackhawks-Blues rivalry is destined to become red-hot next year because the teams will be in the same conference. Under realignment, conference opponents will play each other five or six times each year. The Stars, Red Wings, Blue Jackets, Wild, Predators and Jets will join the Black hawks and Blues in what is now being labeled as Conference B. The top four teams will make the playoffs. They will have two rounds between them before heading to the semifinals and then advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The change in conferences was imminent after the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Manitoba to form the Winnipeg Jets once again. The league’s restructuring will most likely alter the Blackhawks annual West Coast November “circus trip.”

Since the finale of this year’s long road trip, the Blachawks are 2-2 as of Dec. 7. They play 15 of their next 20 games at the United Center, 1901 W. Madison St., where they are 8-2-3, and look to add to that record with their captain at the helm.

“Toews has been hot lately,” Quenneville said. “Kane complemented him in a lot of ways.”