The Chicago Blackhawks are about to embark on a difficult stretch during the month of January, facing tough Western Conference rivals and some pesky Eastern Conference teams as well. Some players on the team are doing fantastic, some others need work, and we have a pair of excellent goaltenders manning the nets. The Cheer The Anthem staff put their heads together and addressed these and other questions in the latest edition of our Round Table…

Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are surging lately and headed for strong end-of-season point totals. What do you see as the cause for this, and what can the Blackhawks do to keep these guys on a roll?

JEFF BARTL, Founder & Lead Writer: Remember all the concerns over Hossa’s contract, cap hit, injuries, etc.? It’s amazing how quickly a solid couple of months can rid us of all that. When the Blackhawks signed Hossa, I tried to break it down to non-hockey enthusiasts as being comparable to the Bears trading for Jay Cutler.

Given his past and reputation as a top performer around the league, getting someone like that in Chicago can only mean good. Hossa is giving us – me? – exactly what we expected on a consistent basis now. It’s not like he didn’t show it before, but it came in spurts between injuries. If Hossa stays healthy, this might be one of the best seasons statistics-wise of his career.

Sharp, on the other hand, can simply be explained as solid offensively. Yes, he leaves some to be desired in his own zone, while Hossa is a solid two-way player. However, Sharp’s ability to press the opposition with a quick first move, or stake out a spot on the ice to snipe one through traffic makes up for those defensive deficiencies. In all, these two have been special mainly because they’ve been healthy. We’ve seen all this before from both of them. Hopefully it stays that way.

TIM CURRELL, Contributing Writer: The key to Marian Hossa lighting up the joint was always having a center who can dish to him. Notice that this 8-game point streak started right around when Marcus Kruger took over at center? Mmm-hmm. Patrick Sharp has been on fire right from the start. So whatever we’re doing, don’t stop! I’m going to say 40 goals for Hoss and 50 goals for Sharpie by the end of the regular season.

JIM NAKIS, Contributing Writer: Hossa and Sharp seem to have a very touch-and-go relationship on the ice. Yes, the Blackhawks won a Stanley Cup with these two guys on a line together, but they also struggled to find chemistry in the 2010-2011 campaign. Sharp, if you will remember, did his best work with Toews and Kane last season. The difference this season is that Sharp is no longer centering that line. Marcus Kruger and Brandon Pirri are allowing Sharpie to play his own game on the left wing and that’s fine by me. Marian Hossa is on another planet right now and I don’t think it much matters where you put him. He seems determined to produce no matter what this year. All hail Hoss!

CHRIS DEME, Contributing Writer: Marian Hossa has always been a solid, fundamentally sound forward his entire NHL career, but has suffered injuries in recent seasons helping us easily forget his potential. He is tearing up in recent games for a number of reasons, the first being that the Hawks’ offense is clicking on all cylinders this season. They are currently 4th in the NHL in goals per game and have received a ton of production from their top two lines. Hoss being healthy (knocking the hell on some wood) this season has allowed him to return to form as a scoring machine. Let’s not forget that Hoss was a 100 point scorer one season with Atlanta.

As far as Sharp goes, with the exception of 2008-09 where he played only 61 games, he has improved his offensive numbers in each of his seasons with the Hawks. Tearing it up in the All-Star game and emerging as an elite scorer last season was only a preview of what Sharp is capable of. He has the potential to be a consistent offensive weapon on the Hawks for years to come.

The Blackhawks have the best kind of problem in goal right now: both Corey Crawford and Ray Emery can potentially deliver a win on any night, against any opponent. If YOU were the coach, how would you handle the current situation?

JIM: I’m riding Crawford until he falters. He should be allowed to try to work through these kinks while the Blackhawks have a little breathing room in the Central. Razor has done a good job, but I don’t want to overwork him and I simply don’t trust that hip.

TIM: This could be a personality thing: is Crawford going to get down on himself if he thinks his “starter” title has been usurped? Is Emery going to take his “backup” label as an insult given his good play? Or do we want to give Emery some regular playing time now and see if we get offers for him from a team on the bubble at the deadline (didn’t think about that one, did you)? I say give Emery every 3rd start until one of them falters, and see what happens.

CHRIS: If I were Q, I would stick with Corey right now. Corey is still our number one goalie and has played fairly well this year. He’s had moments where I’ve had to hang my head, but let’s not forget how much the defense has let him down this season. If the defense picks it up, so will Corey. Emery is a really solid backup option for the Hawks this season, playing his ass off during his recent win streak. We are entering a tough stretch of games against some quality teams, so I would let Corey take the reins. I don’t foresee him having too many issues, but it’s really nice to have a veteran guy like Emery to back him up if it does hit the fan.

JEFF: I would handle the situation exactly how Q has handled it so far. He’s giving each goaltender chunks of games to start as they find their respective necessary abilities. For Emery, it’s the chance to get on the ice and play up to his talents without overworking that surgically repaired hip. For Crawford, it’s getting him back to his form from last season, when he kept the Blackhawks in games all on his own. If it weren’t for him at times on Wednesday, the ‘Hawks may have lost that game 7-0, given how many of the Kings’ solid chances he snuffed out. Ride Crow through Monday, then give Emery a shot again Jan. 5 on the road in Philly against his former team.

Which teams do you think will give the Blackhawks the most trouble as we jump into the month of January, and why?

CHRIS: January will be a tough month for the Hawks. Their potential will be tested by many playoff-caliber teams, such as Detroit, San Jose, Vancouver, Philly, and Nashville. Their biggest challenge will be the Wings, who have been red hot as of late. The Chicago-Detroit rivalry will be in full swing, as the Hawks play three games against the Wings in the next 30 days.

TIM: I am confident that the Blackhawks can get “up” for the big games and play their best hockey against our main rivals. It’s the jump-up-and-bite-you Western Conference opponents I worry about: Edmonton and Colorado in particular. If the ‘Hawks look past those teams, we will hand over two important points in the standings quicker than you can say, “EEEEE-MEE-diately!”

JIM: The Hawks play a lot of good teams next month and Detroit is always going to be a pain in the ass. But I’m picking the home and home with Nashville as the toughest test. The Red Wings will let the Hawks play their game while Nashville gunks it up and tries to frustrate the Hawks by slowing them down. The Predators could be desperately hanging on by that point so it could be a very tough weekend.

JEFF: The stretch from the 14th on won’t be easy. I’ll be at Joe Louis Arena to watch the ‘Hawks in Detroit that day, then come home to see them host the Sharks the next night. Buffalo and Florida visit the 18th and 20th before the Predators come to town on the 24th. Hated Vancouver, which is absolutely on fire, ends the month for the ‘Hawks north of the border. If the ‘Hawks are still atop the conference come Feb. 1, watch the fuck out.

What are the aspects of the Blackhawks’ game that are going to have to improve if we hope to keep our place in the standings through January?

JEFF: Jonathan Toews cannot keep playing the same amount of minutes as Brent Seabrook, as was the case Wednesday. If you’re going to dress John Scott at forward, he’s going to have to play more than four goddamn minutes. It creates an imbalance in ice time for the rest of the forwards, and close to 25 minutes for Toews, Sharp and Patrick Kane doesn’t do good for anyone. Factor in that Toews plays plenty of minutes on the penalty kill, it doesn’t make sense. Simply, Q’s strategy with his lineup needs to improve before the who’s-who of the league start taking advantage of it.

CHRIS: If the Hawks plan on staying at the top, two major things need to happen. The defense needs to pick it up and play solid hockey. The D can’t be getting crushed by forechecking every other shift, they cannot let guys bully the goaltenders by getting behind them, and they need to make clean passes out of the zone. This has haunted the Hawks so far this year and will need to be addressed if they wish to remain at the top. Additionally, the third and fourth lines need to step up offensively. Players like Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg need to contribute. They’ve done a better job in the last several games and guys like Jamal Mayers have also stepped up their play. The Hawks have one of the strongest, if not THE strongest, top two lines in the game, but they cannot count on them to the carry the team without third and fourth line support. If someone gets hurt, the guys lower on the depth chart will need to step it up. Now is the time to start as they enter a tough stretch.

TIM: Two things: stay out of the box, and beef up the penalty kill. This is one aspect of the game the Blackhawks have let slide in the last 10 games, and it’s going to cost us positions in the standings before long. The aggressive tack the ‘Hawks took on the PK against Columbus and Los Angeles was very successful. Let’s hope that continues.

JIM: Offense clearly isn’t a problem, so keeping things tight defensively will be the key. Q needs to make sure to keep Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook fresh – something we saw him try do Monday night against the Blue Jackets. More of that, please.

Which players are going to have to kick it up a notch in order to give us a better chance of standing strong against these powerful opponents?

TIM: I’m going to call out two guys: Andrew Brunette and Steve Montador. Both of these guys have the potential to be a far bigger influence every game, and so far they have been as exciting to watch as a Murder She Wrote TV marathon. Brunette needs to get used to camping out in front of opponents’ nets, taking the abuse, and smacking in more rebounds. Bruno: think “Byfuglein.” Montador was brought in to be a top-4, stay-at-home guy who has an impact on play in the defensive zone. While leading the defensive corps with 5 goals, that’s not the kind of impact he should be having. He should be leading the team in hits (as it stands he’s not even leading the defense) and his +/- should be above a +2. At their respective salaries, we should be more impressed by both of these two — and clearly, nobody is.

JEFF: Nick Leddy and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Once a game it seems, this pair is beat bad on breakaways and caught standing around observing the action. Especially in road games at Philly and Detroit, this kind of shit can’t keep happening. I would say this falls more on Hammer than Leddy, but these two need to find their game this month badly.

CHRIS: The guys who need to step up the most are the defense and the checking lines. The Hawks need to hit more. Guys like Bickell and Hjalmarsson need to continue their recent offensive surges and start finishing their checks. The Hawks will need to wear guys out, as they play quality opponents in the coming month. The best way to do that is to take the body and get production from the checking lines.

JIM: If that Dave Bolland line continues to produce offensively the Blackhawks are going to be a bitch to play against. Sure they are going to have some tough assignments, but if they are equal to the task it’s going to make the next month a lot easier.

And finally, Patrick Kane will move back to center on a line with Patrick Sharp and Viktor Stalberg for tonight’s game against Detroit. Are you in favor of this move, and how long do you think the experiment will last this time around?

JIM: I’m all in favor of it. Kaner played his best hockey so far this year as a center and his game seems to have been a little stale since moving back to right wing. I only wish that Q would reunite him with Marian Hossa. I enjoyed watching those two freaks do their thing! I think that Q will move him back to the wing as soon as Marcus Kruger is back however.

CHRIS: I think Q is making this move to see how Stalberg does with more potent offensive players. As far as I’m concerned the experiment lasts until Stalberg cools off. I’m not sure if I support it 100%, because the problem the Hawks have had is a lack of depth. The third line was finally clicking with some chemistry, so why disrupt it?  I trust Q though. He knows what he’s doing.

TIM: Am I in favor of it? Nope. Kane was more productive at center from a points perspective, but he wasn’t playing his game, and for a sniper that’s never a good thing. As for how long it will last, there are two answers here: how long I wish it will last, and how long I think it will last. I wish that Q would change his mind before the puck drops tonight; how long do I think it will actually last — I’m with Jim, until Kruger is back in the lineup.

JEFF: Most people – myself included – had doubts about Kane playing center to start the season. After proving he could not only handle the load offensively but defensively as well, it shifted people to wonder why he was moved back to the wing. While I’m not sure the moves forcing this switch were necessary, I like having Kane in the middle – especially with good compliments like Sharp and Stalberg. Sharp can pick his spots, and Kane can make Stalberg more patient by keeping him under control with his puck-possession skills. How long will it last? Only Q knows what Q is thinking.

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