Thursday, January 24, 2013
Blackhawks are flying high again
By Pierre LeBrun
The Chicago Blackhawks haven’t won a playoff series since their Stanley Cup victory three years ago.
Early impressions indicate that could change this spring.
The club’s first 3-0 start since the fall of 1972 has fans in Chicago a little giddy. And it’s not just any kind of 3-0 start. We’re talking about a win in Los Angeles on Cup-banner day, a win in Phoenix against the Western Conference finalists who eliminated the Blackhawks in the first round last spring and a thrilling victory -- for my money the game of the young season -- over the Central Division rival St. Louis Blues, a sexy pick by some to go the finals this season.
Nice tidy little start for the Blackhawks, I’d say. But yes, too early to start making comparisons to the 2009-10 Blackhawks.
"I don’t want to make any big predictions but we certainly like the way we played Tuesday night [vs. St. Louis]," star blueliner Duncan Keith told ESPN.com on Wednesday over the horn from Dallas. "It’s nice to have a couple of wins to open the year, two of them in tough rinks. But we’ve got another tough one Thursday night here in Dallas."
The Blackhawks hook up with the Stars on Thursday night and will look to keep up the pace that has been impressive given some of the choppy hockey played in other parts of the league. Chicago’s offensive stars, most notably Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, those guys have been flying. So much for not having a preseason to get warmed up.
Said a Western Conference scout via text: "Very good team already this season playing a high-level game. They've got four lines and six D going."
Keith added: "Guys on this team care. Everybody did a good job [during the lockout], whether they were playing or doing what they had to do to prepare for this year. It’s showing in the first three games."
Hossa really has some jump to his game, which is nice to see after the serious concussion he suffered in the playoffs last spring on a hit by Raffi Torres. And perhaps the time off this fall afforded by the lockout not only gave his head but his entire body time to heal and re-energize. After all, this is someone who played in three straight Stanley Cup finals in 2008, 2009 and 2010 with Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago. That’s a lot of hockey and that can be incredibly taxing, both physically and mentally. Not that Hossa wasn’t good last season -- he led the Blackhawks with 77 points (29-48) in 81 games.
"I basically thought he was our best player last year," said Keith.
Being refreshed, however, we’re seeing an even better Hossa right now.
"He’s just a dominant player and he’s tough to get off the puck," said Keith.
No surprise it’s Keith once again who leads the Blackhawks in ice time early this season at 22:27, although that’s below what he’s accustomed to. He averaged 26:53 in 2010-11 and in 2011-12 (kind of eerie he averaged that exact figure two seasons in a row), which easily led the Hawks.
So far he’s about four-plus minutes below that mark, and that’s by design. Playing 48 games in 99 days in this short season, as every team is, the Blackhawks want Keith fresh enough for the playoffs.
"Our coaches have done a good job," said Keith. "We’ve talked about it. We’ve got a lot of good defensemen. I think spreading it out with so many games in a short season and not getting tired out is going to be important. It’s good for the team; everyone feels part of it."
GM Stan Bowman added blue-line depth in the offseason when he brought in Michal Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank. Add in Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Nick Leddy and, of course, star workhorse Brent Seabrook, and this is perhaps as deep a group of seven that the Blackhawks have had since their Cup season.
Rozsival could prove a sneaky signing by Bowman, a veteran blueliner who in fact played well in helping Phoenix beat Chicago last spring.
"We saw him last year, he could have fit in on any team, he’s a good veteran guy and we’re happy to have him," said Keith. "He adds a lot to our team and he’s made some real nice plays the last few games."
Win or lose, however, the epitaph written about the 2013 Blackhawks season will be dictated by the play of netminder Corey Crawford, who has been terrific so far in two starts.
Unfair, perhaps, the pressure on him this season, but Crawford’s performance looms large on whether the Blackhawks contend after his subpar performance last season.
"I don’t think it’s fair to blame any one person," said Keith. "Obviously the goaltenders take their fair share of criticism. They’re the last line of defense. But I think Crow has done a really good job handling that pressure. He’s getting older. He’s paid his dues. He’s stronger mentally for it. And to me, goaltending also has to do with how the team plays in front of him. If the goalie has no support, whether it’s a defenseman missing an assignment or a forward not backchecking, your goalie can only do so much. It’s why hockey is so much a team game. You can’t really blame one player."
There’s no blame to be found anywhere right now with the Blackhawks. Only praise.