Life on the road a blessing for red hot Blackhawks
Like all pro athletes, NHLers thrive best when their routines are not disrupted, but this season has been one long disruption.
Back in January, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock went on TSN to tell viewers that the short season was going to be "excitingly bizarre. " He'd studied games from the lockout-abbreviated 1995 season and concluded, "No lead is safe. There's going to be games where good teams are going to get steamrolled because you're tired and the other team is rested and has got unbelievable jump. And there's going to be games where you look like you're never going to lose and then there's going to be games where you look like you couldn't beat anybody. And you're going to have to fight through that to keep the train on the tracks."
Sure enough, that's how a lot of this season has played out, as Rangers center Brad Richards confirmed to Andrew Gross of The Bergen Record late last week, saying, "Everything is different, the schedule, the practicing. To be honest, there's still nights you don't feel you're in game shape. But, luckily, you play against teams you can tell they aren't either.... We've played 10 games and some nights you'll get a team where you'll think they're dead and the next night you think everything is good but then your team is flat. There's no rhyme or reason. Mentally, you've just got to try to push through it."
There has been one exception to this rampant inconsistency: the Chicago Blackhawks. Through their first dozen outings, one quarter of the season, they have yet to lose a game. Oh, they've lost a couple of shootouts, but those come after the game. In the full 60 or 65 minutes, no one has beaten them yet.
Why? Perhaps the schedule forced the Hawks to have more of a routine than other teams. With the circus, an ice show, a UFC event and a Lady Gaga concert all previously booked at the United Center, the Hawks ended up on the road for 10 of their first dozen games. Could be that all the travel imposed a structure that no other team has had.
"When you're on the road, the only thing you have to do is play hockey." Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman told me over the phone last Friday. "You show up, you get on the bus, you go to the rink, you come back and you have no other obligations and I think it can help you focus a bit."
Bowman was speaking from Europe, where he was scouting a pair of tournaments. It was on a long European road trip in 2009 that the Blackhawks launched their Stanley Cup season, and Bowman said Chicago's hockey department used that experience to remind the players the road can be your friend. "It's worked out well for our team," he said. "We were concerned about the schedule, but we tried to turn it into a positive."
You can't get much more positive than 22 points out of a possible 24. That's one shy of the NHL record in the first dozen games. The Penguins went 11-0-1 in the lockout shortened '95 season. The Sabres also did it in the full 82-game 2006-07 campaign. Five other teams have grabbed 22 of their first 24 points, the first being -- get ready, now -- the Atlanta Flames in 1978-79. But to grab so many those points on the road, well, that's pretty remarkable. It's helped that Chicago's special teams, not a strength last season, are much improved. In fact, the Hawks' penalty kill is outstanding, having allowed only three goals so far in 48 man-down situations.
The Hawks begin a seven-game homestand on Tuesday, having wrapped up a six-game road trip Sunday night in Nashville by blanking the Predators, 3-0, while taking advantage of a home side that had played the night before and was overwhelmed by a rested, quality squad. The Preds were able to take only seven shots during the first two periods and finished with 17. Corey Crawford stopped them all for his first shutout of the season and league-leading seventh victory. In the process, he lowered his goals-against average to 1.62 and raised his save percentage to .935, each being third-best among NHL goalies who have played at least six games.
Crawford was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team in 2011, but he slipped last season, causing a lot of people to wonder if he would be able to backstop a top team in the NHL. The memory that many had of him was his six-game, first-round series loss to the Coyotes last spring in which he surrendered a few bad goals in what may have been the tightest postseason series in league history, with the five games all going to overtime.
Bowman, however, was never concerned, saying, "It's our job not to overreact or under-react. You have to look at the big picture.
"We were confident internally," he continued. "I mean, you've got to see him do it on the ice. But I always go back to two years ago when Corey came on in the second half of the year, played 30-some odd games in a row and really got us into the playoffs. We had just won the Cup, we were struggling and we didn't play great hockey at the beginning. Then Corey came on the scene and we almost came back from 3-0 against Vancouver, went to overtime in Game 7, Corey was great.
"Fast forward to the following year, which was last season, and he wasn't great -- but it's not a matter of losing your ability in five months. He's a good goalie and, for whatever reason, it wasn't his strongest year. So he didn't pull this out of nowhere; he just had to get his game back. I don't know if there's any magical explanation for that. It was his first year as the Number One guy, and there's a lot of guys who have gone through that kind of thing. They come up, no one expects anything, they play great, the next year they're the guy and they don't play as good -- and then they rebound and have a strong season. It's happened to a number of goalies and it looks like Corey's rebounded very well."
So has Patrick Kane, who the NHL just named First Star of the Week (that ended Feb. 10) after notching five goals and an assist. His production slipped last season to 22 points less than his 2010 total of 88 and the downward trend had some rumormongers suggesting that he'd be shipped out. It's doubtful Bowman ever considered that and, right now, the 24-year-old Buffalo native seems to have matured and is dominating in the offensive zone.
Kane is only one of the formidable weapons that coach Joel Quenneville can deploy. With Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and captain Jonathan Toews, the Hawks don't lack for speed and skill up front. Yet the forward who has caught my attention so far this season is a rookie wearing Number 20 -- Brandon Saad, who Quenneville is playing with Hossa and Toews. Bowman calls him "a horse." He's only scored a lone goal, but the 20-year-old Saad hardly seems out of place. He's been a key catalyst for that line, chasing the puck, going to the net, always in the middle of everything, it seems.
"It's easy to say, 'Oh, he's a great young player,' but I think this kid is going to be a star," Bowman says. "He's strong, he can make plays, he can score goals, he's sort of like a power forward the way he plays, but he's not a bruiser. He's a big, strong kid. He skates, he's got hands -- he can really do a little bit of everything.
"He obviously thinks the game well to play with Hossa and Toews and they've even said he's always in the right spot, he's always there. That's instinctive. You can't teach guys where to be. When you're playing with good players like Hossa and Toews, sometimes they're a challenge to play with; they're thinking ahead so much. He seems like he's been playing with them for a year or two. It's a really powerful line. Hossa and Toews are powerful guys, just the way they play, they use their strength, they can just bull through guys and Brandon is the same way. I think he's got a really bright future."
Bowman's roster contains a strong contingent of depth forwards -- Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg, Marcus Kruger, and Jamal Mayers among them -- but it's on the blueline where Chicago's depth truly becomes impressive.
Led by Norris Trophy contender Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, Bowman has assembled a defense corps that would be the envy of any GM. The key might be how good the second unit of Niklas Hjarmalsson and Johnny Oduya has been -- just as effective as the first tandem -- which means Quenneville doesn't have to rely so much on his top pair.
The third pair consists of Nick Leddy and either Michal Rozsival, who is just back from injury, or Sheldon Brookbank. Rozsival was a top four guy for Phoenix last year. "If he's on the ice for a couple of shifts against the Sedins, he's fine, says Bowman. "So if we've got Roszival and Leddy playing as our third pair, you don't need to try to get them off the ice right away. In the past, you're so worried about getting your top pair out there, you can disrupt your team game because you're always trying to change; you're always worried about who's getting caught on the ice. Now we just kind of play. That helps our team game because we haven't been as focused about who's on at what time."
In Oduya and Leddy, who Bowman picked up via trades, the Hawks have a pair of patient puck-moving defenseman who are perfectly suited for their team's style. "We've got really talented forwards," Bowman says. "They like to have the puck and they like to get the puck on their stick. They don't like to do a lot of forechecking or chasing the puck down. We're not really a dump and chase team and so we need defensemen who have composure."
From Bowman's perspective, Chicago's blueliners help set the Hawks apart from much of the league. "We've got seven legitimate NHL defensemen," he says.
"A lot of teams have four, and then their fifth and sixth are either young kids or guys who are trying to establish themselves. You may have different degrees about how much you like any of the seven, but we've got seven guys who are all NHL caliber."
So far, the mixture has worked exceedingly well, to the point where you might think only injuries could derail this team. But everyone knows that great starts mean nothing come playoff time. The proof is that only one of the seven teams that got 22 points or better in its first dozen games went on to win the Stanley Cup -- the Oilers of 1984-85. None of the others even made the Final.
But at this early date -- when the shortened schedule makes it later than you'd think -- the Hawks possess a lot of what it takes to make some noise this spring.