Following very successful performances by their six Olympians, the Chicago Blackhawks now turn their attention toward their first division title in 17 years.
The Central Division leaders seek a fifth straight win Tuesday night when they return to action against the New York Islanders, a team they have not beaten in more than seven years.
Perhaps no team had a bigger impact on the Olympics than the Blackhawks. Jonathan Toews(notes), Duncan Keith(notes) and Brent Seabrook(notes) won gold for Canada while Patrick Kane(notes) was a key piece of the United States’ silver medal-winning team.
Toews scored Canada’s first goal in its 3-2 overtime win over the Americans in the gold-medal game Sunday. He tied for the Olympic lead with seven assists, finished with a plus-9 rating and was named the tournament’s top forward.
“From start to finish, one of our best forwards and there is no way else to describe it,” Keith said of Toews on the Blackhawks’ official Web site. “He was good offensively and good defensively and used in all of the situations. He works so hard that he deserves everything he gets.”
Kane was one of the United States’ best players and had two goals and two assists in the final two games.
Chicago (41-15-5) entered the Olympic break as one of the league’s hottest teams, winning its final four games - the last three via shootout.
“We ended the stretch pretty good,” Toews said.
With a 16-point lead over Nashville, the Blackhawks appear headed for their first division title since 1992-93. Chicago is also two points behind San Jose for the top seed in the Western Conference and three back of Washington for the league’s best record.
Kane entered the break with three goals and three assists in four games and has a team-leading 67 points, five shy of the career high he set as a rookie in 2007-08.
Keith is in the midst of a stellar season that should merit Norris Trophy consideration, as he is second among NHL defensemen with 53 points.
Maybe the biggest question the Blackhawks need to answer in the final 21 games is who their No. 1 goaltender will be in the playoffs. Cristobal Huet(notes) began the season in that role but has been outplayed Antti Niemi(notes), who started the last four games before the break. Niemi is second in the league with a 2.16 goals-against average but has never played in the postseason.
Niemi is scheduled to make his first career appearance against New York on Tuesday.
The Islanders (25-29-8) are six points out of the final playoff spot in the East and limped into the break with nine losses in 11 games. While a postseason berth is unlikely, New York is only four points away from surpassing last season’s league-worst total of 61.
The Islanders have also dominated the Blackhawks of late. They have won five straight in the series, taking the most recent meeting 4-2 at the United Center on March 15. Chicago has not defeated New York since Dec. 10, 2002.
With a chance to win consecutive games in regulation for the first time since December, the Islanders squandered a 3-1 lead in the third period en route to a 4-3 loss to Ottawa on Feb. 14.