October review: Hawks riding high
Every 10 games (or so) I’ll break down the Chicago Blackhawks just as the coaches do internally. At 7-2-2 through the first month of the season, they’ve gobbled up points while leaving a level or two of better play to reach. Here are 10 things to know about the first 10 (actually 11) games of the season:
Kaner: Dismiss for the moment his move to center, Patrick Kane has simply been the best player on the ice through the first month of the season. Now add a controversial and mocked position change and it makes the start to his year simply incredible. Take a mental video of him with the puck; few players can do what he does. Even when not producing points, he’s a magician with it weaving his way through defenders as if they are standing still. And the respect he’s getting from the opposition is paying off. Watch how defenders back off, giving him more time and space or when they send two at him -- as they did Monday night in overtime in Game 11 -- opening up chances for his teammates. Joel Quenneville gave general manager Stan Bowman the credit for the move to center but, Kane deserves most of the kudos. His desire to be great is overshadowed by his fun-loving attitude, but it doesn’t mean he’s not motivated. The doubts about him undoubtedly fuel it. The MVP of October.
Depth: If you’re looking for parallels to 2010 when the Hawks won the Stanley Cup, take a look at the production from role players. Jamal Mayers, Marcus Kruger, Nick Leddy and Viktor Stalberg all have goals and produced in key situations. Sean O’Donnell has three assists, and Dan Carcillo has shown more skill than fight---and that’s a good thing. We already knew he can drop the gloves. Through the first month the best newcomer has easily been Mayers. Patrick Sharp called him a “rock” killing penalties, and he’s come to the aid of teammates without blinking. Three fights, two goals, one assist. That's pretty good for a recently turned 38 year-old, fourth liner. The Hawks depth has been just fine. And somewhere (Rockford) Ben Smith and Jeremy Morin are waiting for their turns.
The lines: Everyone seems to have an opinion on Andrew Brunette. Is he slowing down Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp? Maybe, but the Hawks are going to give him a long leash, especially if they continue to rack up points. There’s little doubt that Kane’s line has been the most consistent no matter who’s on his wing. His chemistry with Marian Hossa is exactly what the Hawks were looking for when they paired the two, and both Dan Carcillo and Sharp have fit in nicely on the other side. The third line hasn’t been messed with. Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell and Michael Frolik have been just fine. The fourth line has been solid as well. Viktor Stalberg can be inconsistent, but he’s given Joel Quenneville something to think about in terms of where he plays after winning games 10 and 11 with his brilliant speed. If Brunette is moved down who’s to say the third line can’t be broken up -- at least for a little while. How would Frolik respond playing with Toews? How about Ben Smith, who’s languishing in the minors? Quenneville has a good problem on his hands and needs to maximize the opportunity, but 10 or 11 games isn’t enough of a sample size.
Third periods:There’s no bigger turnaround to the Hawks game from last season than their play late in games. They’ve given up just six goals in the third period—that’s tops in the league—while scoring 15. Part of the reason is goaltending. For the last two years their No.1 goaltenders have faltered early on in the regular season giving up third period leads and ties. In 2009 the Hawks were good enough to overcome but not last year. Corey Crawford has been a wall when the Hawks have needed him most and while there is no statistic to confirm it, you don’t have to be a personal trainer to figure the Hawks are better in third periods because they aren’t exhausted from a short summer of Stanley Cup partying. See Duncan Keith and the defense for proof. The Hawks have been downright dominating in crunch time and there’s no better time to be so.
Young guns: Any surprises in the early going have to include Leddy and Kruger. It has been night and day for both players since training camp, especially for Kruger. Seemingly destined for the minors, he returned from Rockford after Game 1 with a vengeance. No longer shy with the puck, he’s making plays that were the norm for him in Sweden and his defensive prowess is mature beyond his youthful age -- enough so that he’s one the Hawks’ primary penalty-killers. Leddy’s rise wasn’t as dramatic. He had a decent camp but --like Kruger -- he’s simply playing with more confidence. He’s held onto the puck for up-ice rushes whereas a year ago he would have gone off the boards for the simple play. An example came in Game 7 against Colorado when he went end to end before finding Mayers for a goal. In Game 11, he pinched like he was on a 5-on-3 and Kane found him for a one-timer. His seven points in 11 games match his total from 46 games a year ago. Not surprisingly, he’s still a work in progress in his own zone. Twenty-year-old defensemen rarely master the game or even come close until they get needed experience. Leddy is getting it and the Hawks are winning. It’s the best of both worlds.
Statistically speaking: You may have missed it, but Toews leads the league in face-off percentage winning 63 percent so far, including a whopping 20 wins out of 25 face-offs Monday night against Nashville. The raw numbers sound even more impressive. He’s won 143 and lost 84 in 11 games. As a team the Hawks rank second in the league at 53.9 percent. A huge question mark coming into the year, faceoffs have been a strength thanks mostly to the captain … The amount of penalties the Hawks are taking has lessened dramatically. They average just 9.2 minutes per game in the penalty box, second best in the league. Joel Quenneville claims it is one reason their penalty killing has been so good—it's not being taxed.
The defense:This is the area to keep an eye on. It has been shaky, but hasn’t sprung many leaks. Not when you consider how good the Hawks have been in the third period and killing penalties. But some more production from the back end is going to be needed at some point this season. The Hawks have just two goals from the blue-line, both by Leddy. Keith and Seabrook are still finding their roles on the power play; the group as a whole doesn’t seem to be joining the rush as much as in the past -- except for Leddy. Forget a goal, how about a point for Niklas Hjalmarsson? Or just a shot on goal. He has just 11 through 11 games but he’s plus-4 and that’s the best news after last year’s start. At some point the forwards will hit a drought and defensemen will need to contribute. In their own end, the Hawks are working out some kinks with new defensive pairings and if Leddy and Keith can get their communication in order—considering how fast both play the game—things will settle down even more. Steve Montador and O’Donnell/Sami Lepisto have been more than adequate as the third pair.
Power play: What else can be written or said about the Hawks' surprisingly-bad power play? The numbers tell the story: four goals on 45 chances, an 8.9 percent conversion percentage. That’s as ugly as it gets. Well, almost. St. Louis converts 8.3 percent of the time, but the Blues are the only team worse than the Hawks. Joel Quenneville probably did the right thing completely changing his personnel in the last few games. Sharp, Kane, Toews and either Keith or Seabrook have been together so long on one unit it’s been getting stable and predictable. In games 10 and 11 it was better and if not for Pekka Rinne on Monday night the Hawks would have tallied for sure. They had several disallowed the game before, so maybe it’s getting closer. Point men have to shoot more starting with Seabrook. The Hawks have 64 shots on 45 power play attempts. For comparison, San Jose has 85 shots on 36 chances: Shoot the puck. Thank goodness for….
The penalty kill:Much maligned a season ago, the Hawks have been great killing penalties. They rank third in the league, killing 91.7 percent. Working as a four-man unit, they’ve closed the shooting lanes that were open a year ago while scoring three shorthanded goals in the early going. That’s as many as they’ve given up on the power play. Their goal differential of zero when down a man is unheard of even through just 11 games. While there is star power getting it done, don’t dismiss the heady play of Mayers and Kruger. That duo has been together since Game 2 of the season and rarely has a miscue. Mayers has been a steadying force bringing 13 years of solid penalty killing to his new team.
The schedule: After a brutal start to last season, October 2011 must seem like a walk in the park. Short, manageable road trips with decent practice time and rest between home games have given the Hawks the best chance to succeed. Plus, the caliber of opponents has given Chicago some time to jell with their new group. There’s little doubt some of the games they’ve pulled out might have slipped away against elite teams but nothing says you have to beat the bad ones, especially early in the season when they’re still hungry. Still, a solid start at home (5-0-2) has made last season’s United Center record a distant memory. The Hawks didn’t win their fifth home game until November 14. The schedule gets tougher but the first month set the Hawks up nicely for what’s to come.