Every sports team, at every level, has a list of goals they set for themselves throughout a season. For a team like the Blackhawks, they probably have, shockingly, more than “One Goal,” but rather a list of goals that start with simple, broad goals like having a winning record each month, improving their power play scoring, winning faceoffs, and playing strong defense. As the calendar moves along, though, there begin to come specific goals. Professional athletes generally won’t say they focus on one team or week on the calendar, but any Blackhawks player has had this week circled since July.
Twice, in one week before Christmas, the Blackhawks get to play the hated Detroit Red Wings for the first time since early October. Sunday will be the first time the Wings come to Chicago this year.
For decades, the Blackhawks have watched as the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. Painfully, Chicago fans watched as Chris Chelios raised the Cup over his head in the hated Detroit sweater. These are two Original Six franchises, the only two in the Western Conference, who have hated each other for as long the franchises have existed. Indeed, seconds after the National Anthem ends on Sunday night, you’ll know exactly how Blackhawks fans feel about the visiting Wings.
In the 2008-09 season, for the first time in 15 years, the Blackhawks got close to challenging the Red Wings’ stranglehold on the Central Division. The up and coming Blackhawks, in the first playoff appearance for most of the players on the youngest roster in the NHL, streaked all the way to the Western Conference Finals as the fourth seed, knocking off heavyweights from Calgary and Vancouver along the way.
But in the Conference Finals, it was Detroit. Big Brother was waiting, and the youth of the Hawks finally failed as the deep, experienced Red Wings eliminated Chicago.
In July, however, Detroit found themselves in a strange position. Their leading goal scorer, Marian Hossa, left for greener pastures… in Chicago. So did Tomas Kopecky. Goalie Ty Conklin left for St. Louis, and Jiri Hudler made the biggest move, heading to Russia for the year. Detroit wasn’t as deep any more.
Meanwhile, the Little Brother in Chicago added Hossa, Kopecky and veteran center John Madden to an already-stacked offense. Could the balance of power in the Central Division be headed south and west a few hours?
Back on Oct. 8, the Hawks lost in Detroit 3-2 in the first of a string of poor performances from Cristobal Huet. With Hossa in street clothes after summer shoulder surgery, the veteran Red Wings dominated the Hawks in a game that looked too familiar for comfort.
Which is why, on Sunday, the red hot Blackhawks host the Red Wings in a game that is absolutely a must win.
Detroit is a tough team to break down because they keep winning games despite their inability to stay healthy. They will be without a list of players that sounds more like a Western Conference All Star lineup than an injury report: Johan Franzen, Henrik Zetterberg, Valterri Filppula, Dan Cleary, Jason Williams, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and Andreas Lilja will all be in street clothes.
And yet the Wings had won four in a row before losing to Dallas on Saturday night. In that game, the Wings got some help back from the IR, as Darren Helm returned from a wrist injury to play 19 minutes.
The Blackhawks come into Sunday night’s game in first place, at the top of the Western Conference, with a Huet playing exceptionally well in the net and an offense starting to click with a healthy Hossa scoring as regularly as his salary would indicate he should. They’re 6-2-0 in December, and have only allowed more than two goals in three of the eight games.
What makes Sunday a must win for the Blackhawks is simple: just like Michael Jordan’s Bulls needed to step on Isaiah Thomas’ Pistons and make a statement, so now the Blackhawks of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Hossa must take the next step in their maturation with an emphatic victory.
Yes, the Red Wings are the most injury-plagued roster in the NHL. But that’s precisely why the Hawks must handle their business. Allowing a team without nine of their top players to sneak out of the United Center with a victory would do as much to perpetuate Detroit’s stamp on the division as it would keep the the Big Brother-Little Brother mentality in the two locker rooms.
The Blackhawks must take care of Detroit at home on Sunday.