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Training camp will begin immediately and the Chicago Blackhawks visit Staples center this Saturday. In the span of six days the clubs will open training camp Sunday, make whatever transactions they need to make, and the Blackhawks will head west to face the Kings. Fans in LA will be treated to a match of two of the past three Stanley Cup Champions. The Blackhawks, who were a .500 team on the road last year, will be forced to play ten of their first twelve away from United Center due to scheduling quirks. In the first week following the home opener the Kings will travel to Edmonton, Denver and Phoenix before returning home. Ready, set, go indeed. Let the grind begin.
So what can hockey fans expect from both clubs as the season kicks off? Much like the Kings who will have virtually no roster turnover, the Blackhawks return their core group of players. Following an up and down 2010-2011 season as the defending champions in which they barely made the playoffs, the Blackhawks entered last year's playoffs on a winning streak and looked to be a serious cup contender. Unfortunately they ran into a hot goaltender in Phoenix's Mike Smith and were bounced in round one. The club has had to make some hard decisions on young stars like Dustin Byflugien over the past couple of years in order to keep the central group of Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith together. They've done well to manage the salary cup and keep their core group together; unfortunately the overall depth of the team has suffered as a result.
So unlike teams like Minnesota, who have great expectations with the addition of Parise and Suter and will be forced to find chemistry on the fly, the Blackhawks and Kings have that feel of familiarity. Common sense would think that this general cohesiveness will lead to a fast start and it very likely can.
Here are a few things to watch this Saturday at Staples center.
As King Fans can attest a hot goaltender can take you to the Promised Land and that's exactly what Jonathon Quick did last season. Quick has surpassed Ryan Miller as the top US born goaltender and is poised to challenge for the Vezina year-in and year-out. Not only do the Kings have an advantage in Quick, their backup Jonathon Bernier would contend for the starting spot in Chicago. The combination of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery will be a story to watch this year. Although Crawford has a respectable regular season last year, the soft goals he let in during consecutive overtime losses to the Coyotes in last year's playoffs will continue to be a subject of conversation in the Windy City until Crawford regains the fans confidence-and his own confidence.
Take a quick look at the struggles of the Blackhawks and Bruins over the past two regular seasons and the proverbial Stanley Cup hangover has been in place. If there ever was a team that was seemingly resistant to such a hangover it was last year's Bruins-young, gritty and deep. Yet, the Bruins managed to start strong but then largely fizzled in the second half of the season. The tendency to have a post-cup winning hangover is real and frankly human nature. The typical NHL offseason is short enough as it is, even shorter when you factor in the post-cup celebrations. Of course, this wasn't your typical NHL offseason, which should bode well for the Kings. The lockout has given them the extra time to rest and prepare for this year.
With all the emphasis on Crawford and his shaky overtime goaltending versus Phoenix, the performance of the Blackhawks defensive corps last season was overshadowed. In Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook they have an experienced and elite tandem. Move past the top two though and there's a lot of youth and question marks. Keith and Seabrook have played a lot of minutes the past three seasons and the team is really in need for a young defender to step up and assume some of those minutes, especially in the case of Seabrook. Nick Leddy and Johnny Oduya are young and talented, but had their share of troubles against Phoenix in the playoffs. In the past three years the Blackhawks have gone from 3rd to 22nd in goals allowed. Toews, Kane, Sharp and Hossa aside, this Blackhawks club will continue the trend of early playoff exits until they shore up their defense.
So what to expect Saturday? Who really knows? There will be a lot of familiar faces on both sides which bodes well for an entertaining and reasonably well played game. In the end it's a hockey game and it's going to come down to goaltending. As stated the Kings clearly have an advantage there, but with no offseason you can't really rely on it. So sit back and enjoy and be happy that hockey is finally back.
You can purchase Kings Vs Blackhawks Tickets today.
By Chris Michaels
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