Blackhawks
AP

Blackhawks want to take the Penguins' place at the top again

When the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted their second Stanley Cup last June, the Blackhawks were well ensconced in their offseason, one that was way too long for their liking. Even after a frustrating and brief postseason, some of the Blackhawks couldn’t help but notice what the Penguins did.

“It was a pretty impressive run,” Corey Crawford said. “A lot of injuries, too. I feel like they had a lot of guys hurt for a long period of time. It was a good run or two runs for that team. We definitely want to be the next team.”

Saying that is one thing. Pulling it off is quite another.

The Blackhawks have lost a few key players from their core and are trying to rebuild their bottom six to what it used to be. There are question marks on defense. And the young guys who made their debuts last season, including Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz, have to take that next step and become contributors throughout the regular season and beyond.

“We’re going to need them,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We had a number of young guys who came in and showed progression over the course of the year. Young guys coming in, [Gustav] Forsling, [Alex] DeBrincat, these guys not just contributing but also absorbing responsibility or leadership or quality ice time. They’ll all be moving up and expected to contribute in a meaningful way and be a part of the group that’ll make us a better team.”

Think back at the depth the Blackhawks had, especially on their 2013 and 2015 runs. When your fourth line is playing key minutes down the stretch or, in the case of 2013, scoring the Cup-winning goal, you know you’re living right. It was also about players who could gut out long games and take on extra minutes when others were lost to injury.

The Penguins’ Cup possibilities were supposed to be dashed when they lost Kris Letang in February. So much for that. The Blackhawks’ top four defensemen were supposed to wear out from overuse after Michal Rozsival’s ugly fractured ankle at the end of the 2015 second round. Again, skeptics be damned.

This past offseason the Penguins felt what the Blackhawks have dealt with for several years now: cap issues that forced them to get rid of/not re-sign some key members of their Cup teams. That’s not stopping some from predicting a three-peat for Pittsburgh. Even after losses you can regroup, reload and re-emerge. Just ask the Blackhawks in 2015.

When the Blackhawks see the Penguins on Thursday they’ll see themselves from a few short years ago. They want to get back there. We’ll soon find out if they have the right combination of talent and (especially) depth to do it.

“The game’s so fast, you need all four lines to contribute," Patrick Sharp. "If you’re not chipping in offensively you have to be real solid in all areas, provide some energy and be effective that way. You play 82 games at that high pace, there’s going to be bumps and bruises and there are going to be peaks and valleys. You need a lot of guys to step up at different times. It’s a good thing we’ve got some depth here.”