New Year Preview: Blackhawks Will be Road Warriors in January

After ending the 2009 portion of the season with one of the best records in the NHL, the Blackhawks will be tested to begin the new calendar year.

The Hawks will not see second place Nashville again during the regular season, but will get a stready dose of the Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues in the coming months. January begins with the Hawks heading to St. Louis, where the Blues fired head coach Andy Murray the morning of the game. St. Louis has struggled offensively this year, and the Blackhawks will face them with a new voice on the bench.
The Hawks will then play all four of their January home games in a six-game stretch, beginning with the Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild. In the middle, the Hawks will travel to Boston and Minnesota before coming home to host the Ducks, again, and the Blue Jackets.  Both Anaheim and Minnesota have struggled this year, but the game in Boston will be another test for the Hawks against an Eastern Conference power. So far this year, the Blackhawks are 8-1-1 against the Eastern Conference, with their most recent game being perhaps their best as they beat the Devils 5-1 on New Year’s Eve.

After the Hawks host Columbus they hit the road for two tough weeks. Starting in Columbus to finish a home-and-home series (with an off-day in the middle), the Hawks will then travel to Detroit, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton, San Jose and Carolina before the calendar rolls over to February. The Oilers and Hurricanes are struggling right now, but as Detroit could have a few of their injured players back and should be skating hard after being embarrassed on their home ice just before Christmas.

The game in San Jose on Jan. 28 could go a long way in determining home-ice advantage in the Western Conference. The Blackhawks have won two of the three meeting so far this year, including a ridiculous blow out win the last time the two played in northern California. The Sharks came into the United Center and stole a win despite being outplayed for most of the game in December, and will be looking to put together a strong stretch of games before almost half of their roster goes to Vancouver for the Olympics.

The flight from San Jose to Carolina will be a long one, as the Hawks cross the country to finally play a bad Eastern Conference team. The Hurricanes might be the worst team in hockey right now, and might move a veteran or two before that game happens.

Injuries could be something to watch for the Blackhawks this month as well. Niklas Hjalmarsson was hit in the ear on New Year’s Eve and will miss the first game of the near year; with the heightened concern surrounding concussions in the NHL, any injuries involving a player’s head will receive extra precaution. If Hjalmarsson misses extended time, it will be Jordan Hendry that steps into his place. The other injuries to keep an eye on are those of Dave Bolland and Adam Burish. Both hope to be back with the team after the Olympics in March, and Burish has already started skating on his own. If, and when, these two key players come back will only make the Blackhawks stronger down the stretch.

Something else to watch for is potential player movement in January. The rumor mill will certainly be working overtime, as it always does, but the NHL has a blackout on trading during the Olympics. Because the Winter Games end just a few days before the trade deadline, there might be more player movement in January than normal. As long as teams continue to show interest in veteran Blackhawks like Cam Barker, Dustin Byfuglien, Patrick Sharp and Brent Sopel, and as long as the reality of the Hawks needing to move salary before next season exists, there will be rumors involving the Blackhawks. If the progress from Burish and Bolland is encouraging, GM Stan Bowman might be able to pursue a deal during the season to open up a spot on the roster for both.

January will be an interesting month.

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