Top 10 must-see games on the 2011-12 Chicago Blackhawks schedule

Chicago Blackhawks face off vs Vancouver Canucks in game 6, June 2011

As the days march on towards Opening Night, and the bulk of trades and free agency acquisitions have been completed; the Draft and prospect camps are over; and the opening of Training Camps are still a few weeks away; as the weeks left until the new season drop into the single digits, there's one date circled on every fan's calendar to make it through the August doldrums: the date that their team's tickets go on sale. The Chicago Blackhawks have plenty of exciting matchups to choose from this year.

Five years ago, getting 14,000 fans in the seats at the United Center would've been considered a special night. Now, after three highly successful seasons and a Stanley Cup championship, the Blackhawks boast 14,000 season ticket holders, and a waiting list that's even deeper. Hockey has become the hot ticket in town during the winter months.

But whether or not you want to catch a game live, or just mark it on your TV viewing schedule, there's certain dates on this year's lineup that you'll want to circle on your calendar. Let's take a look at the top 10 games in this year's schedule.

#10 - Blackhawks vs San Jose Sharks (@ CHI), Sunday December 11, 6:00pm CT - There's plenty of reasons to catch any of the Chicago/San Jose matchups - the top reason being in the Sharks' net, where former Blackhawk and Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi mans the pipes. Games between these two Western Conference teams are always high energy and solid entertainment. This year brings two new sparks: first, Jamal Mayers, who played last year for San Jose, is now on the Blackhawks. Secondly, Martin Havlat, who spend the past few years playing for the Wild and prior to that was with the Blackhawks, got traded to SJS this year. While this is not the first game between the two teams (that's November 23rd in California), it is the first one at the United Center.

#9 - Blackhawks vs Phoenix Coyotes (@ PHX), Tuesday October 18, 9:00pm CT; or Saturday, February 11, 7:30pm CT - Phoenix's future as a hockey market still hangs uncertainly this season. While it's just as worthwhile to tune in for the home games at the UC, the Phoenix team needs all the support it can get for its home games.

#8 - Blackhawks vs NY Islanders (@ CHI), Friday December 2, 7:30pm CT - Last season, Corey Crawford posted his first NHL shutout against the Islanders. This year, the Islanders are fielding a solid mix of exciting young talent like Calder candidate Michael Grabner as well as experienced veterans who showed a lot of chemistry late last season. Those players who signed with/re-signed with the team this summer expressed a lot of excitement about the team's future. Expect a much different performance out of the Islanders this year.

#7 - Blackhawks vs Red Wings (@ DET), Saturday April 7, 3:00pm CT - Any games between the Blackhawks and their historic Detroit rivals are worth tuning in for. Last season, the Wings edged out Chicago in the final game of the season and it looked like the Blackhawks' season was over - until redemption came in the form of a MN Wild victory over the Dallas Stars later that night. It is not the first game between these two teams, but there's a lot of rumors swirling around that Detroit may shift into the Eastern Conference starting next season. Get your Wings-Blackhawks games in while there's still eight of them (2 preseason; 6 regular season) per year.

#6 - Blackhawks vs NY Rangers (@ CHI), Friday March 9, 7:30pm CT - Any Original 6 matchup is always worth watching, of course, but the Rangers don't make an appearance at the United Center every year. From top-end goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to new team centerpiece Brad Richards,  the Rangers are always full of grit and game; this year should be no different. Blackhawks fans get to see two matchups against the Rangers this year; but this will be the first time the NYR have played at the United Center since December 9, 2009.

#5 - Blackhawks vs Stars, season opener (Friday October 7 @ DAL) and home season opener (Saturday October 8 @ CHI), 7:30pm CT - As these are back-to-back home/away openers, they're being grouped together - especially with how the 2010-11 season ended. The Stars/Blackhawks meetings last season were some of the most physical battles from last season, and Dallas walked away with the majority of the points last year - most notably in the final matchup between the two, an 0-5 loss at Dallas on St. Patrick's Day when the Blackhawks played one of their worst games of the season. As already noted in the Red Wings matchup above, the only difference between it being Chicago or Dallas that went to the playoffs was the game 82 MN Wild win over the Stars. Dallas also lost its biggest star, Brad Richards, to the NYR this season; picked up Vernon Fiddler from the Coyotes, and signed recent Cup winner Michael Ryder - not to mention also acquiring Jake Dowell, who played for Chicago last season. Expect CHI vs DAL games to be downright explosive.

#4 - Blackhawks vs Vancouver Canucks (@ CHI), Sunday November 6, 6:00pm CT - Vancouver's Captain said Chicago didn't deserve to be in the playoffs; Chicago's Captain said they needed to be exposed for what they really were - beatable. Chicago and Vancouver made history this April when the Blackhawks added their name to the short roll of teams who have come back from an 0-3 first round playoff deficit to force a game 7; and what a playoff series it was! While the Canucks might feel they "slayed their dragon" last spring, the Blackhawks-Canucks rivalry remains one of the most heated in the NHL. While the Canucks didn't have to go through the same Capocalypse that the Hawks did after their Cup run, there have still been a number of changes on the Vancouver roster. Christian Ehrhoff departed for Buffalo; Marco Sturm came aboard from the Kings. The Canucks finally have some playoff experience and are going to be anxious to prove themselves again this season. The Blackhawks are going to have a new focus in their step and learned their lessons after last season. The November 6th game is their first meeting of the season, but not their last - every single match between them will be must-see hockey.
#3 - Blackhawks vs Florida Panthers @ FLA, Thursday November 3, 6:30pm CT; and @ CHI, Friday January 20, 7:30pm CT - Perhaps the biggest news of the NHL's off season was the Florida Panthers' full-scale overhaul. It started with signing Kevin Dineen on as head coach, but Dale Tallon wasn't done there. One of the biggest buzzes to come out of the NHL Draft in late June was a trade announced in the first round that sent Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell to Florida (and Rusty Olesz to Chicago). Between the Draft and the opening weekend of free agency, Florida went on to trade for or sign a total of nine players - Campbell; Jose Theodore; Scottie Upshall; Matt Bradley; Ed Jovanovski; Tomas Fleischmann, Nolan Yonkman -- and two ex-Blackhawks, Tomas Kopecky and Kris Versteeg, both of whom were part of the Stanley Cup-winning team in 2009-10. To add a little more intreague to the mix, Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook's younger brother, Keith, got traded to Florida this summer, and one of these games could mark the first time these two brothers face each other across NHL ice. The Panthers first matchup against the Hawks in November will mark a milestone for Versteeg: he is the last of the players traded or released from the Cup-winning '09-10 team that is facing off against his ex-team for the first time; and he already played on two other teams (Toronto Maple Leafs; Philadelphia Flyers) last season. With four ex-Hawks now in Sunrise (Jack Skille being the fourth), it will make for the early November game to be quite interesting. Even more so will be their game at the United Center in January, when most of these ex-Hawks will make their first appearance at the UC with a new team. Additionally, by that time, the newly reconstructed Florida squad will have played over half a season together under Dineen - and it will be interesting to see how the team has improved in that time frame.

#2 - Blackhawks vs Boston Bruins (@ CHI), Saturday October 15, 7:30pm CT - When the 2010 Stanley Cup champs welcome the 2011 Stanley Cup champs into the Madhouse on Madison in mid-October, it is likely to be the friendliest game of the entire year. Like the Rangers, the Hawks haven't played host to the Bruins since December 2009. But this game, one of the first in the new season, will be exciting for several reasons. For starters, the Bruins have something that the Blackhawks would like back (the Cup). Then there's the amazing Tim Thomas in net once again. The Blackhawks weren't too proud of their last performance against the Bruins, so they'll want to play a lot better this time. Not to mention that Boston is now in the position that Chicago was last year: wearing the target of being Stanley Cup champions on their back. Despite all that, expect nothing less than a warm standing ovation for the Boston team as they take UC ice - for being the Stanley Cup champions yes; but for having beaten the Hawks hated rivals, the Canucks, in the Final round, even more so.

#1 - Blackhawks vs Winnipeg Jets (@CHI), Thursday October 13, 7:30pm CT - When last we saw the Winnipeg Jets, it was for a November game in Atlanta last October, and the then-Thrashers sported several players who had just received their Stanley Cup championship rings from Chicago. The Jets are still part of the Eastern Conference this season, but this will be the first matchup between these two teams under the Jets' new name/city, and it will mark the first time that ex-Blackhawks and fan favorites Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien play at the United Center since they left the Hawks. Like the Bruins game, expect this game to be as much about establishing a friendly rivalry as it is competing for season points. The Jets have also picked up some interesting players this year, like Eric Fehr, Rick Rypien, and Tanner Glass, that will help make the team more challenging to play against.


Honorable mentions:

Blackhawks vs Montréal Canadiens (@ CHI), Wednesday December 21, 6:30pm) - the holiday matchup against another Original 6 team will mark the first time the Habs have played at the UC since October 2009.

Blackhawks vs Washington Capitals, two preseason games 9/23 7pm CT (@CHI) and 10/2 4pm CT (@ WSH); one regular season game (@ CHI) March 18, 6pm CT -  The unexpected trade of Troy Brouwer to the Caps adds to the intregue around any game that involves Alex Ovechkin

Blackhawks vs Edmonton Oilers (@ Saskatoon), Tuesday September 20, 8pm CT - It's a pre-season game that currently isn't scheduled to be televised, but if you're going to be in Saskatoon for any reason on September 20th, it'd be worth getting out to see this pre-season, special-venue game.