The Chicago Blackhawks prepare for a high-paced season

The CBA has been hammered out, the MOUs have been signed, and teams across the NHL welcome fans back into their buildings starting on Sunday as training camps open for the league.

Jonathan Toews with coach Kenny McCuddenIt's long overdue for a lockout that should not have happened to begin with. While the fans eagerly flock back - as the league knew they would - they should not be taken for granted.

In Chicago, a number of Blackhawks supplemented by players like Mike Brown (TOR), Al Montoya (WPG), Ben Eager (EDM), and Troy Brouwer (WSH) have been skating at least three times a week since the lockout began. Kenny McCudden, skating and skills coach for the Chicago Wolves (AHL), has worked with the players at least once a week throughout the winter, as have a couple of the coaches from the Chicago Steel (USHL).

This week, as the rest of the team trickled back from overseas, the practices have been taking on a new urgency, fueled by the shortened training camp to come.

Saturday evening was a frenzy on Twitter, as fans and reporters alike awaited confirmation of the MUO being signed, which would signal the lockout was finally, officially over. Word broke at 10 p.m. EST - game on, time to drop the puck.


2011-2012 SEASON RECAP

The Chicago Blackhawks face a challenging season for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the shortened season means all games will be intra-conference in the ultracompetitive West.

Raffi Torris injured Marian Hossa in Game 3 of the playoffs last springLast year, the team ended the 2011-2012 season on a sour note. Although the team easily cruised to a playoff berth with 101 points, that was only good enough for sixth in the West, which put them up against the determined Phoenix Coyotes in the playoffs. The CHI-PHX series saw five overtime games, and then Phoenix sealed their first playoff series win since 1987 in a 4-0 blowout in game six.

The Blackhawks seemed crushed under the Coyotes brutal forecheck, and the team as a whole seemed gutted for the rest of the series when Raffi Torres took out Marian Hossa in Game 3 with an illegal head check that landed Torres with a 25-game suspension. Torres later appealed, and four games were removed from the sentence. He still has eight games to serve when play resumes. Corey Crawford's performance in the playoffs was spotty, with two games directly lost to soft goals, but in the end, the Coyotes were simply the more determined team in the series.



There was not much movement on the Blackhawks roster over the summer. Veteran players like Sean O'Donnell and Andrew Brunette were not re-signed. Chicago picked up two D-men, Sheldon Brookbank and Michal Rozsival, and the hunt continues for a strong second-line center. TSN's Bob McKenzie tweeted tonight that the Blackhawks may try Dave Bolland, who usually centers the third "checking" line, in the second line role.

Nick Leddy during warmups for Rockford IceHogs 12/31/12While the AHL has been active and loaded with younger NHL players on two-way contracts, it cannot be said that it was possible to witness NHL-level play in the AHL on a nightly basis. However, it should have helped a number of players to have had that extra playing time at the AHL level.

Chicago's AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, have bounced up and down in the standings. While they have at times graced the top of their division, they currently stand at 10th overall in the West/2nd in the Midwest, with a 19-17-1-1-/0.526 record, in what is proving to be a competitive division this season.

At times, the IceHogs have looked like a combination of players who were half trying to prove their worth, and the other half looking like they were killing time until the NHL resumed. Considering that a larger number of their players have put 2-3 seasons in together, there were some nights where they were challenged to find chemistry, often deflating after giving up an early goal to the opposing team.

One of Rockford's worst problems is that their players often pass the puck without confirming that their intended target is going to be in the place they intend to pass to. As a result, the IceHogs are repeatedly guilty of poor communication on the ice coupled with terrible turnovers, some of which have led directly to goals for the opposition. This same behavior happened on the Blackhawks last season as well; the coaching staff should work to see it gets eliminated this season - for both teams.

The current call-ups from Rockford are not surprising: gritty pest Andrew Shaw, enforcer Brandon Bollig, puck-moving defenseman Nick Leddy, and forward Marcus Kruger. While many expected Smith might be called up, news has broken that he was injured in a game this week (injury/extent unknown) and his timing is unknown at this time.



The lockout had benefits for Blackhawks players. Marian Hossa, who was removed on a stretcher from Game 3 vs. Phoenix, has fully recovered from his concussion and injuries and looks to be back to form. Concussion issues plagued team Captain Jonathan Toews this summer as well; he saw a specialist in Atlanta, and he, too, is fully healthy and ready to go. Daniel Carcillo has healed from his leg surgery and has been cleared to play.

The only team member that did not clear team physicals yesterday was defenseman Steve Montador, who also has been suffering post-concussion problems. Although previously cleared to play, Montador suffered setbacks once more.

A number of Blackhawks played overseas during the lockout: Patrick Kane with EHC-Biel in Switzerland, Bryan Bickell with Orli Znojmo of EBEL (Austria), Viktor Stalberg split time between Sweden and the KHL, Niklas Hjalmarsson played in Italy; and Michal Roszival and Michael Frolik were in the Czech Extraliga, though not on the same team.

Kane shared a line in Switzerland with Tyler Seguin (BOS), playing the wide-open European style which compliments his style. The European players saw more ice time on their Euro teams, which hopefully will translate to more confidence on North American ice.

Overall, the Blackhawks will be returning to the ice with a highly experienced core which has been together for several years, seven healthy defensemen, and Crawford and Emery back between the pipes. At the informal practices this week, Crawford admitted he had not ended the season on a high note and that he was looking to prove himself this year.

After last season's terrible early exit from the playoffs, the Blackhawks are under renewed pressure for a deeper run in the playoffs this year.

At first glance, the Blackhawks' schedule might seem punishing: they play 10 of their first 12 games on the road, their annual February road trip while Lady Gaga and Disney on Ice occupy the United Center (not to be confused with the annual November "Circus trip").

In fact, the Blackhawks open the season in the brightest spotlight in the league, as they will face off vs. Los Angeles at the Kings' home opener and banner raising. Surely nothing will feed the internal fires more than watching a conference rival raise their Stanley Cup banner -- and one that was able to bring its entire roster back, unlike the Blackhawks in 2010. Two seasons ago, the Red Wings put the tarnish on the Blackhawks' opening night, and Chicago will look to return the favor this season.

From there, Chicago will have their first meeting - and chance for redemption - versus the Phoenix Coyotes, before returning home for their own opening night. They'll play the Stars, Blue Jackets and Detroit on the road before returning home for a game against the Wild, then will not be home for two weeks as they work their way through the NW and Pacific divisions.

Winger Bryan Bickell stated in an interview earlier this week that road trips mean team bonding. This may turn out to be an advantage to the Blackhawks, as most of the players haven't been together for months, and training camp is short. The flip side to this is that with the heavy duty, far-West travel schedule up front, the bulk of travel for the rest of the season will be close to home, and many of those one-and-dones.

What this translates to is that the Blackhawks have several good long stretches at home, and, as this promises to be a high-paced, grueling season, combined with the team's health, means there will be no excuses to start the season. The team has to come out at the top of their game; there is no room for lengthy losing streaks this year.

If this week's practices are anything to go by, the Blackhawks are anxious to start the season and redeem themselves. It should be an exciting season for Chicago fans.