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Sunday, February 24, 2013
Where will it end?

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks' penalty kill is going so well Niklas Hjalmarsson felt comfortable enough to go for style points at a most critical time.

With the Hawks down a man after Andrew Shaw got called for charging with a little over five minutes left in the game, Hjalmarsson got the puck on the boards to the left of his goal and fired a clearing pass between his legs.

The puck went deep into Columbus territory and about a minute later, the Blackhawks killed another penalty.

Hey, whatever works. Hjalmarsson also blocked six shots with his body, but with that pass, he showed he's more than a target.

"It was a little too much, maybe," Hjalmarsson said after the 1-0 victory over the Blue Jackets on Sunday night. "But I got the puck out. Probably half of the guys in the crowd got pretty scared there."

That play was pretty indicative of how things are going for Chicago right now. A dash of style and a lot of substance are going a long way. With the victory, the Hawks extended their NHL record to 18 straight games with a point, or to put it another way, without a regulation loss, to start a season.

The record itself is meaningless -- How many people knew the 17-game record to begin a season existed at all? -- but the Blackhawks' 15-0-3 start is plenty important. A streak like this isn't an accident. It's a harbinger.

Chicago Blackhawks
Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford is congratulated by Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith after his shutout Sunday.

Their 33 points are seven more than the second-best team in the league. After two down seasons following the Stanley Cup year, a long hangover even by hockey player standards, Chicago looks like an elite team again, not just a husk of its best memory.

"We're excited that we're playing good hockey," captain Jonathan Toews said. "The last game there to set the record was exciting for us. We know it's nothing more than that. We've got a long way to go. A lot of work left to do before we get the playoffs. That's where we really want to perform."

The playoffs are more than two months away as teams race through the condensed season. Plenty of things can go wrong between now and then. The power play, for one, isn't the worst in the league, but it's far from the best.

"We're not anywhere near as good as we can be and we have to be," coach Joel Quenneville said.

Quenneville, who as a quote makes Robin Ventura seem like Ozzie Guillen, wouldn't bite as an out-of-town reporter tried to bait him into comparing this team to his Stanley Cup champion. The players don't want to rejoice about the streak every night either. But hey, it beats the alternative.

And like most successful teams, the backbone is the back line. The depth on defense has been key, as has the goaltending.

Goaltender Corey Crawford returned after missing four games with an "upper body injury," and all he did was notch his second shutout of the season. Considering the team's recent shutout foibles led someone to start the joke website, http://www.didtheblackhawksgetashutout.com, it's a big deal.

When Crawford got the shutout on Feb. 10 in Nashville, it was the team's first since March 23, 2011, a 102-game streak. Related: If the Hawks go 102 games without a regulation loss, then I'll definitely be impressed.

Crawford stopped 28 shots Sunday and was helped by his defense a few times. He didn't have much cushion. Andrew Shaw scored the only goal late in the second period on a nifty pass from Bryan Bickell.

"The first practice he was back, I thought it was one of the best practices I've seen from him," Hjalmarsson said. "I knew he was ready before the game. This year, it just seems like the goalies are our best players every game."

Ray Emery and Crawford have been the stars of the team, and the Hawks came into the game killing 88.7 percent of their penalties, tied for second in the NHL. Chicago killed five penalties Sunday, including three in the third period.

"When we get into some tight spots like we did tonight, we know we can kill off penalties," Toews said. "Our goaltending has been great, that's a huge reason why we're doing so well there."

Given the low amount of turnover from last year, the biggest question asked of the Blackhawks is why they are so much better. It's vague, but it's one the Hawks hope they can answer through the summer.

"I'd say we're very responsible," Toews said. "We've matured from where we were last year, and we understand it's a lot of fun to go out there and play tight games and to win every single night. It's more fulfilling to play a team game and do the little things right and come away with two points instead of kind of hoping for offense and trying to beat teams by scoring goals. When that doesn't work for you, it's even more frustrating."

Eventually, the Blackhawks will lose in regulation and the streak will be over and they can stop talking about it every day. That will be seen as a good thing, a pressure release.

No one knows how the Hawks will finish the season, but with the way it has started, who wants to see this end?