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Original Issue

Wither the Champs

The salary cap decimated the Blackhawks' Cup-winning roster. The toll those moves took is now apparent

With his team trailing the Blues 2--0 after one period in St. Louis on Feb. 21, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews stood up in the dressing room and implored his teammates to show some fight. Though he later insisted the impact of his words had been "blown out of proportion," his teammates evidently took them to heart, rallying for a 5--3 victory that gave Chicago back-to-back wins for the first time in a month, and maybe, at last, the look of a defending champion. "It was a good thing the way that speech was received," says coach Joel Quenneville, who missed the game because he was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer. (The malady was unrelated, he insists, to his team's maddeningly inconsistent play.) "The timing was certainly appropriate."

The win over St. Louis was the second of four straight victories. Despite the modest streak, however, the Blackhawks were ninth in the tight Western Conference through Sunday. Another slump such as the one they endured from Jan. 23 to Feb. 12 (2-4-2), and they could become just the third NHL team since 1970 to miss the playoffs a year after winning a championship. "When you lose a lot of key guys from a Cup-winning team, they're hard to replace," says Toews. "Nobody thought repeating would be easy."

The divorces began before the honeymoon was even over. Chicago lost nine players during the off-season, primarily due to salary-cap constraints, including both goalies, Antti Niemi and Cristobel Huet; defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel; and able defensive forwards John Madden, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg. The Blackhawks' success on the penalty kill has plummeted from fourth best in the NHL last season (85.3%) to 26th (77.7%).

No player has toiled harder to hold the defense together than Duncan Keith. He had 69 points and was +21 when he won the Norris Trophy in 2009--10, but is down to 32 points and +1 this season. "I was trying to do too much at the start of the year," says Keith. "I jumped into every play, leaving my partner alone. I'm better when I keep it simple."

Chicago can still score. Despite 26 missed games between forwards Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, Chicago has the league's No. 2 power play. But at even strength the Blackhawks still need more support from the back line. "Defense makes things go for us," says G.M. Stan Bowman. "The game we play depends on us having steady, mobile defensemen out there who can get the puck to our forwards."

Bowman acknowledged last week that adding depth to the center and defense positions at the trade deadline has "been hard ... in terms of salary." The NHL's best teams have always been boosted by invaluable role players. But the cap places a steeper value on those players, making repeats—let alone dynasties—ever harder to forge.

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CAPTAIN COMEBACK? A dressing room outburst by Toews last week helped key a modest Windy City turnaround.