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NHL: Deep Blackhawks hoping for 2nd straight title

CHICAGO – The last time Chicago won the Stanley Cup, the team was dismantled during the offseason, and a frustrating title defense ended in the first round of the playoffs.

Not so much this time. When the Blackhawks hit the ice next week for their opener against Washington, it will be a very familiar group.

Jonathan Toews and Co. are all set to shoot for their second consecutive NHL title and a historic third in five seasons. There was no salary-cap purge this summer, leaving the Blackhawks largely intact as they try to become the first team to repeat since the Detroit Red Wings won it all in 1997 and 1998.

Last year, the Hawks set an NHL record by recording at least one point in the first 24 games. They finished with the league’s best record in the regular season, then beat the Boston Bruins in six games for the franchise’s fifth championship.

What followed was a productive offseason that eliminated any potential distractions before the Hawks reported for training camp.

Physical winger Bryan Bickell returned with a 4-year contract after he might have been able to grab a bigger deal in free agency. Goaltender Corey Crawford, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, coach Joel Quenneville and general manager Stan Bowman agreed to extensions.

But there are several potential roadblocks that could derail the Hawks’ title defense:

Health: Similar to the lockout, the Sochi Olympics create a grueling slate, and health is a major concern.

Marian Hossa was hampered by a back problem during the Stanley Cup Finals and missed time during the preseason with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Toews’ preseason debut was delayed by an upper-body injury. Michal Handzus is coming back from two offseason surgeries.

Look for Quenneville to keep a close watch on minutes and employ a more cautious approach when it comes to aches and pains.

X-factor: The biggest variable could be Brandon Saad, who was a finalist for the Calder Trophy last season awarded to the NHL’s top rookie.

The 20-year-old, who had 10 goals and 17 assists in 46 games, got a tryout at second-line center during training camp before he was moved back to left wing. Wherever he plays, the Pittsburgh native is very strong with the puck.

Are the kids all right? Stan Bowman thinks some of his prospects are NHL-ready, and their development could be key. Forwards Jimmy Hayes and Ben Smith looked good during training camp. Brandon Pirri led the AHL in scoring last season and is in the mix for second-line center, but missed part of the preseason with a lower-body injury.

Look who’s back: Nikolai Khabibulin is beginning his second stint in Chicago after he signed a 1-year deal to take Emery’s place as the backup for Crawford. Khabibulin will be hard-pressed to duplicate Ray Emery’s 17-1 record from a year ago.

Special teams: While the Blackhawks excelled at penalty killing last season, they struggled on the power play. They were still searching for solutions in training camp, and it could be an ongoing issue again this year.

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