Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Hawks Come Out Firing

Some people thought that the Blackhawks would come out strong, but no one could imagine the way they've stormed out of the gates. Starting the season 6-0, the Hawks look like the 2010 Cup team in more ways than one. They're killing penalties, they're scoring on the power play, they're getting good goaltending, and the entire team seems to be getting in on it. They've done it in style, beating up on a large chunk of the upper echelon of the Western Conference. In the first 6 games alone, the Hawks have beaten the Kings, the Coyotes, the Blues, and most recently, the Red Wings. Most importantly, though, the way the Hawks are winning shows that they can continue that success throughout the season.

I wrote earlier that the Hawks might have more success out of the gate because of continuity within the roster, experience playing together with the players already on the team, and chemistry that's been forged as a result of those two. Nowhere could this be more evident than the success of all four lines. In the first six games this season, the Hawks have come out gunning on each line, outpacing the opposing team and pushing the puck into their offensive zone more often than not. This keeps the opponent on their heels and gives the Hawks another edge in terms of depth. Being able to run out a third line of Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw, and Viktor Stalberg ensures that not only can the Hawks still have their checking line, but that line can create turnovers that lead to scoring chances. Even on the fourth line, which sees fluctuation on the wings between Jamal Mayers, Brandon Bollig, and Michael Frolik, is consistent because of the solid center play of the much-improved Marcus Kruger.

Another advantage this gives, besides the fact that all four lines can create scoring opportunities that keep the opponent off balance, is that it gives the Hawks an opportunity to short shift their top lines. In a season like this, where the Hawks play on a much tighter schedule, truly effective depth takes the load off of the top two lines and keeps those guys fresh going forward throughout the season. At this point, it seems practically a foregone conclusion the Hawks will make the playoffs, so it really helps to know that their stars will be (hopefully) fresher entering the playoffs if these current trends continue. Thus, although it is not the only factor, effective play by all four lines, leading to great depth, has helped propel the Hawks forward to start the season.

Of course, it certainly helps that the Hawks have gotten specatcular play from the top 2 lines. It's hard to argue that so far with the play of guys like Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, or Jonathan Toews. Hossa and Kane specifcially have provided two sparks for the first and second lines respectively. Hossa, in the best shape of his life according to Joel Quenneville, seems like a man on a mission after recovering from the concussion he sustained in the playoffs last year. He came out firing in the first few games and has really made an impact in all facets of the game. His goal to clinch the win in overtime a few nights ago against Dallas was a thing of beauty:

The point is, the stars of the team, or in Blackhawks parlance, the "core", have performed admirably. They've always been the strength of the team and they will continue to be going forward. I feel, though, that they're all playing so well together right away because of their experience playing together and the burst they get from the effectiveness of the lower lines. Even more than that, though, is that they're simply great players. The Hawks should be good because they're blessed with supreme talent on the top 2 lines. Guys like Hossa, Kane, Toews, and Patrick Sharp have the contracts and accolades they do because they're supposed to be great players. I guess we're just not used to seeing them all performing so well together at the same time. If they keep this up, it's possible we'll see similar results to the 2010 Stanley Cup champions.

Success from all four lines is even more evident in the efforts on special teams. The Hawks, with largely the same team they have now, were seeded right in the middle (and lost in the first round of the playoffs) last year in large part because of how woeful they were on the penalty kill and power play. There is no real method to the madness that is hockey special teams, but you'd think that a team laden with such superstar talent as the Blackhawks would naturally succeed on the power play. Last year, that wasn't the case, but now spearheaded by the leadership and playmaking ability of guys like Toews, the Hawks have turned it back into a strength.

I'm more impressed with the penalty kill. Last year, it was the bane of the Hawk's existence. It would end up costing the Hawks leads, dig them into deep holes, and turn winnable games into losses. I attributed it then to a lack of focus and effort, which if present, can make for a lethal penalty kill. The Hawks needed to block shots, clear the puck, control rebounds, clear guys away from the net, and above all, play smart. What wasn't there last year is so far this season a strength. The Hawks have a penalty kill that ranks in the top 5 in the NHL, and it has allowed them to keep leads this year that last year might have turned into losses. I'd still like to see more consistent shot blocking from the Hawks, but you can't argue with their intensity, effort, and desire killing penalties. I give a lot of credit to the players for turning it around, but even more to the coaches, who made it a point of (and still do) emphasis in the brief training camp before this abbreviated season started.

Obviously none of this would be possible without the outstanding play of the defense and Corey Crawford in net. I felt that the Hawks could really turn their puck possession style of defense into a strength this season if they kept some discipline on the backcheck and in their defensive zone and sharpened up bad passes and turnovers. Thus far, and I know it's only been six games, they're really done that. We've seen the resurgence of Duncan Keith, who is having a terrific season along with his blue line mate Brent Seabrook. Niklas Hjarmalsson is having a big bounce back year, cutting down on the horrid turnovers in the Hawks' zone that plagued his season last year and is becoming a much more effective player possessing the puck on the offensive end. With him and Johnny Oduya, the Hawks truly have a top 4 group of defensemen that can make a difference every night, utilizing their speed, stick, and passing skills to compensate for a perceived lack of physicality and size.

Nick Leddy has been outstanding
I'm most impressed, though, with Nick Leddy. Granted, it has only been six games so I must preface every thing I say about this team with that disclaimer, but he seems to finally be coming into his own talent. I've always thought that the ceiling for him is as high as any defenseman on the roster. He had spurts showing this talent the past year or so, but he also dealt with inconsistencies and young player mistakes. Now, he's performing well on a consistent basis and is making an impact on both ends. Leddy is the type of two way defenseman who could shoot up the defensive pairings for the Hawks but for now gives the Hawks yet another strength in their defensive depth. His further development this year will be interesting to monitor. He's going to be a great one.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention how well Corey Crawford has played. Heavily criticized after his performance down the stretch and in the playoffs last season, Crawford has rededicated himself to the little things and seems to be focusing more on the ice. I wrote heading into the season that goaltenders take time to come into their own and that Corey was his own worst enemy in the past with his confidence issues. He seems to have shaken those, starting with his focus before games and on the ice. He's tapping into his own talent and recognizing that he needs to prevent bad rebounds and soft goals. I felt that those were his two biggest weaknesses last year, especially not knowing when to freeze the puck, and that this year he's taking steps forward in his awareness on the ice. He seems to be working much better with the defensemen around him, but Corey could truly just be coming into his own as a solid goaltender. Really, that's all the Hawks need. If he gets back there, concentrates, stays confident, controls bad rebounds and makes the saves he should, more often than not the Hawks are going to come out on top.

It's been six games. The Hawks could be on a tear and could return to normal results anytime. This could be a team taking advantage of its strengths until the rest of the league catches up. But really, isn't it possible that the Hawks are just this good? Where are the signs that they're going to taper off? I could see it if the lower lines stop producing at all, and the goaltending, defense, and special teams disappear. But for a team with this talent, this leadership, and this coaching, isn't it just possible that this is how good the Hawks are supposed to be and that the last two years the team was merely struggling to reach this level? I think it is. I don't think the Hawks are going to go 48-0, obviously, but this is a team that has all the opportunity in the world to stay atop the hockey world from start to finish. They're going to be tested on this upcoming six game roadtrip, so we might even have a better idea of how this team stands after that. But still, we've seen them succeed like this before, with the same characteristics the team exhibits now. That season the Hawks brought home the Stanley Cup. After the way they're starting now, there's no reason it couldn't happen again.