- Craig Custance
There were moments during the first-round playoff series last year against the Vancouver Canucks when Patrick Sharp noticed something about goalie Corey Crawford, other than that he was playing extremely well.
He was also absolutely thriving in the experience. Crawford was a rookie goalie who seemed to enjoy it more when the pressure was raised to its highest.
It was no more apparent than Game 7 in Vancouver, when Crawford made 36 saves in an overtime losing effort.
"They had a ton of chances there," Sharp said. "We were chasing all game long, and Corey was making save after save. He was just locked in, enjoying the loud building and the atmosphere of the arena."
It was Crawford's first playoff experience, and he was energized by it. He was also in the minority. The Chicago Blackhawks showed heart in overcoming a 3-0 series deficit to force Game 7, but they never found that consistent focus and energy that drove them to the Stanley Cup the previous season.
That's the biggest difference Sharp sees in this year's team as the playoffs close in. That energy has returned, and it's not just coming from a rookie goalie.
"This year, our team -- from the first day of training camp -- has been more energized," Sharp said.
Their play during the stretch run supports Sharp's contention. The Blackhawks are 11-2-3 since the trade deadline, when GM Stan Bowman brought in Johnny Oduya to address a hole on defense. They've done it without captain Jonathan Toews, who is still recovering from a concussion. And they've done it with Duncan Keith, serving a five-game suspension for elbowing Daniel Sedin in the head.
Assuming Toews is healthy, both of those players should have plenty of energy built up for the postseason. Their absence also helped Chicago develop some of the depth that this team has been missing since Bowman had to dismantle the roster following the Cup win.
"Every time somebody goes down, somebody else steps up," Sharp said.
He's seeing it up close. He's been skating with Marcus Kruger and Viktor Stalberg. The maturation of Stalberg into a 20-goal scorer is the kind of growth the Blackhawks needed to become a postseason threat.
"He has to be the quickest guy in the league," Sharp said of Stalberg. "He's found that confidence lately. He's getting some points and scoring some big goals. He could be a guy who can step up."
BLACKHAWKS' STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
To prepare for the playoffs, Craig Custance checked in with a number of NHL coaches, players and scouts to get their take on the pivotal elements of every playoff team.
Heading into the playoffs, Craig Custance gets the lowdown on the Chicago Blackhawks from rival players, coaches and scouts.