Here come the Hawks.
We mean the Blackhawks, of course. Not the Atlanta Hawks or the Quincy Hawks or the fans of Ken “Hawk” Harrelson.
These Hawks wear sharp skates and carry sticks. More often than not, they smell terrible. Their elbows outnumber their teeth. Maybe.
And finally – finally! – these Hawks are about to play hockey again. They were locked out for 113 days by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners before agreeing to a new labor deal that salvaged a shortened season.
It all starts today when the Hawks go on the road to play the Los Angeles Kings. Before the puck drops, the Hawks will be forced to wait and watch as the defending champion Kings raise their 2011-12 Stanley Cup banner to the rafters.
More than two years have passed since the Hawks raised a championship banner.
They want another one.
Here’s what to know as the Hawks begin their pursuit:
1. WHO are they? For the most part, the Hawks are the same team that went 45-26-11 a season ago but were bounced out of the playoffs by the Phoenix Coyotes in a six-game series.
The core remains the same: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. The goaltenders remain the same: Corey Crawford and Ray Emery. The coach remains the same: Joel Quenneville.
The Hawks’ biggest free-agent acquisition was Sheldon Brookbank, a 32-year-old defenseman who spent the past four seasons in Anaheim. Some young players such as 20-year-old forward Brandon Saad also could play a more prominent role.
2. WHAT will a shortened season mean?
Much like the shortened NBA season of 2011-12, this year’s 48-game NHL season will feature a bunch of games in a short amount of time. Look no further than this weekend, when the Hawks will open with two games in two cities in two days.
A jam-packed schedule would seem to favor teams with the best depth. During stretches that are particularly grueling, the Hawks might need to lean on players from the third or fourth line to log extra ice time. Also, look for Crawford and Emery each to receive a fair amount of work because of so many back-to-back games.
3. WHEN will they return home?
Soon, but then they’ll head back out on the road. The Hawks’ home opener is Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues, a division rival who tends to elicit low-scoring games that feature a fight or two (or three).
The Hawks won’t spend much time at the United Center for the rest of the month. Ten of their first 12 games will be on the road before a seven-game home stand that starts Feb. 12.
4. WHERE are their main strengths and weaknesses?
On paper, the Hawks’ biggest strength will be scoring. They matched the Vancouver Canucks for first in the Western Conference with 241 goals last season, and all of their firepower returns with Toews, Sharp, Hossa, Kane, Viktor Stalberg and so on.
Once again, the Hawks seem to have a shortage of physical players who can win corner battles and protect the teams’ stars. Crawford and Emery also must improve in the net after the Hawks posted the fifth-worst save percentage (.901) in the NHL last season.
5. WHY didn’t general manager Stan Bowman make more changes?
Two seasons removed from a Stanley Cup championship, Bowman decided that the Hawks would be best served with minor tweaks instead of a major overhaul. He could have shopped Kane in the trade market or opened the team’s wallet for a prized free agent such as Zach Parise, but instead he opted for continuity.
Another first-round playoff exit (or no playoff appearance at all) could prompt big changes. Quenneville has guided the Hawks to 100-point campaigns in three of the past four seasons, but he and his players know a deep playoff run is a must in 2013.
6. HOW will they do?
Check back in a couple of months, and we’ll have a better idea.
Bottom line: The Hawks are loaded with talented players, and they absolutely should be a playoff team. And in the NHL, much like the NFL, every playoff team has a chance to win the championship if it gets hot at the right time.
But nothing will be handed to the Hawks. They’ll have to earn every point in a Western Conference that is packed with skilled teams from Los Angeles to Vancouver to Detroit and many places in between.
Here come the Hawks.
Enjoy the season.