Monday, November 14, 2011
Everything coming together for Hawks
By Jesse Rogers
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks have the most points (25) in the NHL as they embark on their annual circus trip to western Canada and California. Who would have thought they would be in such a fine position?
To be fair to the rest of the league, there are some mitigating circumstances. The Hawks are tied for most games played in the NHL, so they should have a few more points than others, and they haven’t played all the elite teams in both conferences just yet. But that’s splitting hairs.
The bottom line is the Hawks have transformed themselves in just a matter of days. A formerly struggling power play has suddenly been productive and the Hawks defense has been as well. Steve Montador, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Nick Leddy have come alive on the offensive end. It’s made the biggest of differences.
Leddy has been doing it from day one, but the other three -- as well as seemingly the rest of the team -- found something in losing three straight games, especially the final two.
Sometimes losses teach more than wins. Wins can mask issues but losses expose them. No one thought the Hawks were playing great hockey, including themselves, while they achieved some decent first-month success. But walking that fine line caught up with them in losses against Vancouver and St. Louis.
Some teams, maybe most, go a lot longer before finding the bottom of a losing skid. The Hawks did it quickly and recovered. New lines and renewed emphasis in the transition from defense to offense has made the difference.
Steve Montador scored two goals in the Blackhawks' win over the Oilers on Sunday.
It simply is more confident. Leddy is looking like a poor man’s Brian Campbell prompting coach Joel Quenneville to note, “When Leddy comes up the ice with that speed, all of a sudden he turns it into an odd-man situation.”
Sounds a lot like what Campbell used to do, but Leddy might be taking it one step further. Campbell would often get the puck deep after flying through the neutral zone while Leddy wants to make a play on net or to a teammate. Already Leddy has created chances and points and drawn penalties. It’s hard to ask for more than that from a 20-year-old.
Leddy is the frosting on the defensive cake, though. As Keith and Seabrook (pending his injury) go, so do the Hawks on the back end. Maybe they had heard enough of the praise Leddy was receiving and needed to remind themselves they had won a championship and a gold medal by providing a little “O” themselves.
Seabrook is shooting and Keith is skating. The latter can’t be overemphasized. He looks like the “old” Keith. Why not pinch a little when you have the speed to recover? And if you get burned once in a while, so what? That’s hockey. But Hawks defensemen jumping into the offensive zone all over the place creates havoc for the opposition and chaos in that end of the ice.
Finally, the X-factor in the equation is Montador. It’s possible he could have been scratched on opening night if the Hawks didn’t decide to dress seven defensemen; that’s how bad his training camp was. Slowly but surely he’s played better and when tapped to play on the power play his confidence shot through the roof. It’s no coincidence he took the puck to the net like a forward on Sunday just a couple days after scoring his first goal. That was a confidence move, which probably doesn’t happen a month ago.
Montador also looks comfortable in the slot with the man-advantage and his play there is making Quenneville look like a genius. Kudos to general manager Stan Bowman who praised Montador’s untapped offensive potential when he signed him to a monster deal. Even if Montador doesn’t score again for 30 games, at least we know he has it in him to do it and that’s meaningful.
Six goals and 12 points in the last three games tells all you need to know about the Hawks defense, which produced exactly two goals in the first 15 games.
The forward lines were getting stale despite their early season success. The cry to move Andrew Brunette from the first line was heard and the impetus to make changes came from those bad losses.
Let’s face it, when Marian Hossa is healthy and motivated there are few better. His motor gets to a level most players can’t compete with. His conditioning is as good as any player in the league. Long shifts aren’t an issue as he’s seemingly as strong at the end of the 60-90 seconds as he is at the start. Forget debating if Jonathan Toews needed Patrick Kane or if Kane needed Toews -- they both could use Hossa.
Three games ago Toews got the honor of No. 81 joining him on his line and three games later Toews was named third star of the week. Enough said.
Kane will still be Kane, but his line without Hossa will look a little different as Patrick Sharp isn’t scoring goals at a huge clip. Sharp is still getting his points, but if that line, with Daniel Carcillo, goes stale, Quenneville can always move Hossa back.
Dave Bolland's absence has given Marcus Kruger an increased role 5-on-5 and on the power play. If Montador is the X-factor on defense, then Kruger is on offense. It’s hard to know what his ultimate potential for this season is, but one thing is certain: he’s a smart player. Give a coach a young but instinctually smart center and good things can happen. Kruger is centering the checking line while playing both on the power-play and penalty-killing units. Not bad for a kid who didn’t make the team out of training camp.
The Hawks usually thrive on the circus trip, where the buildings they play in have great hockey atmospheres, especially with the resurgence of Edmonton. Only in Anaheim will the Hawks need to generate their own energy, as that’s usually the toughest game of the six. Unlike a half decade ago, the circus trip isn’t likely to derail the Hawks’ season -- not the way they’re playing right now and not the way they usually play when they leave Chicago in late November.
Official news on Seabrook’s leg injury won’t come until Tuesday in Vancouver, but no matter the outcome the Hawks have set themselves up well to survive it as well as the next six games.