Defending champion Blackhawks host Caps in season opener

9:43 AM, Oct 1, 2013   |    comments
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( - For the second time in four years the Chicago Blackhawks will raise a Stanley Cup championship banner to the rafters at the United Center, as the club opens its title defense with Tuesday's season opener against the Washington Capitals.

The Blackhawks won it all in the spring of 2010, bringing the franchise its first Stanley Cup since 1961, and the club added a fifth championship in 2013 by eliminating the Boston Bruins in six games.

However, even if the Blackhawks are able repeat as champions by finishing on top in 2013-14, the club will be hard-pressed to top its start from last season. While some teams struggled to find consistency at the outset of the lockout-shortened campaign, Chicago went 24 straight games (21-0-3) without a regulation loss to begin the season. It was the best start to a season in NHL history and the league's third-longest streak without a regulation loss.

Over the course of the offseason, the Blackhawks were forced to part ways with some players from its most recent championship, though the roster upheaval wasn't nearly as great as it was following the club's 2010 championship. Still, general manager Stan Bowman knows better than anybody that tough decisions need to be made under a salary-cap system and he has earned Chicago's trust when it comes to making those calls.

After the Blackhawks won the title in 2010, Bowman cleaned house by letting players like Antti Niemi, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg go, but without that roster purge the 2013 championship season may not have been possible.

Bowman's goal over the years has been to keep Chicago's core group intact. Returning guys like forwards Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, defensemen Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson and goaltender Corey Crawford have been identified as key pieces, while other talented assets have been deemed expendable.

Crawford is the latest addition to the list and he hopes to build off his best season as an NHLer in 2013-14. One of the reasons Bowman allowed Niemi to walk in the summer of 2010 was his belief Crawford could be a No. 1 goaltender. In 2013, at 28 years of age, Crawford finally made a believer out of everybody else.

When Chicago bowed out in the opening round in back-to-back postseasons in 2011 and '12, Crawford rightfully took a big chunk of the blame. However, he silenced the critics last spring by going 16-7 with a 1.84 goals against average and .932 save percentage. That came after Crawford went 19-5-5 with a 1.94 GAA during the regular season.

Crawford will start on Tuesday and see the lion's share of starts for Chicago this season, with 40-year-old veteran Nikolai Khabibulin serving as the backup.

In other news for the Blackhawks, Hossa expects to play in the opener after suffering an upper-body injury during the preseason.

"The preseason is over and now I can focus on a real game, and I'm sure I'm ready to go," Hossa told

While Chicago enters this season with talk of a dynasty, the Capitals could have a difficult time getting back to the playoffs in 2013-14. Thanks to the NHL's new realignment plan, Washington is stuck in the Metropolitan Division with teams like Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils and the eight-club division could be the toughest in the league. Meanwhile, Chicago is a favorite to win the Central Division with the St. Louis Blues expected to provide the most competition for that distinction.

Only the top three teams from each of the NHL's four divisions will receive automatic bids to the playoffs while both the East and West conferences will also get two additional wild card spots. Washington has made the playoffs in each of the past six seasons, but outside of the now-defunct Southeast, a division that earned its reputation as the NHL's weak link, that streak could come to an end.

The Capitals still have superstar forward Alex Ovechkin, who won his third Hart Trophy last season after leading the league with 32 goals in 48 games. However, the MVP didn't change Ovi's luck in the playoffs as Washington pushed the Rangers to seven games before being bounced out in the opening round. For all his personal accolades, the 28-year-old Russian has never led his team past the second round of the playoffs and Ovechkin's window to deliver a Stanley Cup title to D.C. could be slowly closing.

Washington had a quiet offseason in terms of signing free agents, but the club did ink former Toronto centerman Mikhail Grabovski to a one-year, $3 million deal. Grabovski hopes to make up for the loss of centerman Mike Ribeiro, who left over the summer to sign a four-year deal with Phoenix.

The Caps head into the season with Braden Holtby penciled in as the club's No. 1 backstop and he figures to get the call on Tuesday. Holtby was 23-12-1 with a 2.58 goals against average and .920 save percentage last campaign. He played in all seven games versus the Rangers and was right on par with his regular season numbers. Michal Neuvirth is back again to give Washington a solid No. 2 option behind Holtby.

Because the lockout-shortened regular season only featured intra-conference play, Tuesday's clash will be the first meeting between Washington and Chicago since the 2011-12 campaign.

The Blackhawks, who were 18-3-3 as the host in 2013, have won two of their last three home tilts against Washington. The Caps were just 12-10-2 as the road club last season.

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