Blackhawks off to a record-breaking start
Published: Saturday, March 2, 2013
Updated: Sunday, March 3, 2013 20:03
During Sunday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Chicago Blackhawks’ color commentator Eddie Olczyk joked that there was a “perfect storm” brewing in Chicago. One-third of the way through the NHL season the Blackhawks are still undefeated, with a record of 18-0-3. Missing from Chicago’s record is a loss in regulation or overtime. However, technically the Hawks do have three losses coming in shootouts. They’ve also set a record by starting the season with earning at least a point in 19 straight games. So while Olcyzk’s comments aren’t completely accurate, they aren’t that far from the truth.
One reason for Chicago’s early season success is depth at the forward position. After struggling to find a supporting class for their nucleus of stars the past two seasons, Chicago has finally found the right players. The depth that the Blackhawks have at forward is enviable across the league and has allowed them to set a record for starting a season by earning at least a point in 21 consecutive games.
It’s the growth of young players like Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw that is sparking the Blackhawks run. Saad, at only 20 years old, is playing on the first line, and while his point production doesn’t show it (3 G, 0 A), he is creating space and time for Hossa (9 G, 6 A) and Toews (7 G, 8 A). Andrew Shaw’s development has added depth at center for the Hawks. Last year Shaw split time between the AHL and the NHL and saw time as a fourth-line winger. This year, Shaw is centering Viktor Stalberg and Bryan Bickell on the third line as well as playing wing on the first-team power play. Marcus Kruger, a fourth-line center, has quickly become one of the best penalty-killers in the league, a category in which the Hawks rank second, killing 88.7 percent of their penalties. Jamal Mayers, Brandon Bollig, and Daniel Carcillo all offer valuable skills – fighting, shot-blocking, penalty-killing – that are making it difficult for Joel Quenneville to choose which player to put in the line-up each night. The mainstays are still producing as well. After two disappointing seasons, Patrick Kane is in the top five in the league with 25 points, and Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp continue to be consistent contributors.
On defense, last year’s trade deadline acquisition of Johnny Oduya, one that flew under the radar, is paying huge dividends. Since joining the team, the Blackhawks are 28-3-10 in the regular season and playoffs with Oduya in the lineup. His partner Niklas Hjalmarsson is fifth in the league with 49 blocked shots. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook remain one of the top defensive pairs in the league, and Nick Leddy is quietly developing into one of the top young defenseman in the league, wowing people with his skating ability. Leddy plays on the third defensive pairing with whomever Quenneville chooses to put in the lineup. When Seabrook was injured for two games, Sheldon Brookbrank seamlessly stepped into the first-pairing role with Keith.
Quenneville has shown confidence in all of his players by not worrying about what line the opposing team has on the ice. On more than one occasion, he’s had his fourth line out on the ice against the other team’s top line. One reason for this confidence could be knowing that one of the top 10 goaltenders in the league will always be behind them, no matter which goalie he chooses to start.
Yes, that’s correct. Both of the Blackhawks’ goaltenders are in the top 10 in the league. Starter Corey Crawford has bounced back after a sophomore slump to put up a 1.46 Goals Against Average, first in the league, and a .931 Save Percentage, second in the league. When Crawford, who is among the early names being mentioned for the Vezina Award, went down with an injury two weeks ago, backup Ray Emery stepped in and put up four straight wins and now stands at 9-0 on the season. His 2.02 GAA and .927 save percentage are both good enough for eighth in the league.
The Blackhawks are churning on all cylinders right now, and they lead the Central Division by 12 points. They’ve earned a 39 out of a possible 42 points. They will lose eventually, as they aren’t perfect. For example, the power play still leaves something to be desired, as they sit at 12th place, albeit with a respectable 18.2 percent conversion rate.
But while other teams, like the New York Rangers, struggle with injuries and replacing key players, the Blackhawks have a treasure trove of players waiting to step in and contribute to the storm.