Thursday, March 7, 2013

Hawks Rolling as Unprecedented Streak Continues

When was the last time sports were this much fun? I mean, I'm obsessed with sports so I think they're fun on a regular basis, but this is getting ridiculous. This Blackhawks team has turned not only the Chicago sports world upside down, but the sports world in general. A hockey team - that's right America, HOCKEY, the sport that shall not be named - is being compared to the Miami Heat during primetime ESPN Sportscenter broadcasts. A league fresh off of a debilitating lockout has a team that is bringing the sport back to prominence in a way that wouldn't have happened even if there was a normal NHL season without a lockout. They're doing it because they're winning, of course, but they're also succeeding because they're just damn fun to watch.

People watch sports for various reasons. They do it to distract themselves from their normal lives, they do it to enjoy watching world class athletes, they do it to satisfy the human need to identify with collective groups of people, they do it because their parents did it before them, and they do it because it's just fun to do. Growing up, watching a game with your family, or throwing a football around with your buddies, or even playing organized sports like Little League or Pop Warner football epitomizes the youthful joy that is sports. Somewhere along the way, we twist and turn sports into a modern marketing and money making machine, chock-full of corrupt business practices, players, and coaches. We all still watch, of course, but no one can deny that the steroids, NCAA violations, and other infractions have dulled the joy of sport at least to some extent. We're all still addicted to watching, and hinge on their every move, but deep down we're all very aware of the big business that sports has evolved into, something we weren't aware of as kids.

My point in all of this is that the Hawks have somehow struck at the heart of this concept. I watch the Hawks play together, how well they mesh as teammates, the fun they seem to be having on the ice, and it brings out that joy in sports. I can literally fall into a Hawks game and have a blast. This impact is most felt on those casual fans. You see, us sports-addicted nuts aren't going anywhere. But those casual fans who hold the modern sports community in such disdain can look to this Hawks team and see the best attributes in sports in their purest form.

The Hawks are bringing together a community
In this way, playing the way they have has galvanized the Chicago (and to a certain extent, national) sports community. I've never seen an entire community rally around a single team, let alone a hockey team, like this. People you never even thought enjoyed hockey are posting status updates on Facebook about the Hawks. They're walking around sporting new Hawks gear or in general are bringing it up in conversation. Random people now know not only how to pronounce Niklas Hjarmalsson's name, but drop it in conversation about how well he and the rest of the Hawks defense have been playing. Their streak, the one so often alluded to, has the multi-tiered effect of making hockey relevant again to a national sports world, bringing together Chicago sports fans, and most importantly, reminding all of us just how fun sports can be.

They're doing it with little to no offseason. I felt before the season started that the lack of roster turnover would only help the Hawks, but I really feel that from the top of the leadership chain on down, the Hawks dealt with the struggles of the past two seasons after winning the Cup to finally turn the corner and come together as a group. On the technical side, they're doing it by maximizing their strengths.

The Hawks are a dominant puck possession team. They wear down opponents with their forecheck, which is monstrously effective. The Hawks are able to use their athleticism to speed around the offensive zone and keep the puck in to create more scoring chances, but really, the forecheck comes down to wanting it more. The Hawks, knowing that possession of the puck, combined with elite playmaking, have leaders on their team that instill constant effort. The result has been a consistent forecheck night in and night out, and the subsequent ability to turn seemingly lost possessions into goals. The Hawks can score at almost any time.

All four lines are contributing as well, leading to a near constant wave-like effect that just rolls over teams. If you're an opponent, you know the Hawks just aren't going to stop coming, from the Jonathan Toews line on down to one centered by Marcus Kruger. This kind of effort is evident in almost everything the Hawks do, and ultimately, its demoralizing to other teams. Think back to last night, when the Avalanche had a 2-1 lead heading later into the game. In the back of their head, they're trying to control the emotion that was telling them that they're in control of the game with the reality that this Hawks team doesn't give up. It's downright mentally exhausting, in addition to the physical grind of playing a Hawks team that has 4 outstanding lines, to try and beat this team.

Toews has led by example
When you're 21-0-3, you don't need to do much analysis on why the team is so good. It's just patently obvious that the team is amazing. But I would like to point out a few players in particular that have had outstanding seasons. Obviously upfront, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa have played brilliantly. I don't think there's a player in hockey I'd choose over Jonathan Toews if I was starting a team. In particular, though, I've loved the way that Patrick Kane has played. He's more assertive and confident on offense, but what sticks in my mind is the quote he had after last night's game. There, he mentioned that the biggest development he's had is in his defense, his backchecking. He said that playing with Toews and Hossa has made him realize that you can be an elite offensive player and at the same time an elite defensive player. That quote tells me how much more mature Kaner has become in the past few months alone.

In addition to the big name stars, I've really admired the way that players like Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell, Marcus Kruger, and Nick Leddy have played. Saad has rebounded from a slow start to the season to show why he was considered the Hawks' top prospect heading into the season. He's taken to playing with Hossa and Toews like a natural and chases after the puck on the forecheck like a bulldog. His skill is obvious and potential enormous. Shaw and Bickell lead a third line that has been simply outstanding all year and gives new definition to what a checking third line is and could be. Their ability to lead a rush, forecheck, or backcheck has helped extend the lethal Hawks depth into the bottom two lines.

Kruger spearheads the best fourth line in the NHL, and has played so well that Joel Quenneville hasn't had any problems subbing him up to the second line when Dave Bolland was hurt and keeping him out on the ice during crucial penalty kills. Leddy has started to round into the player many thought he would be when the Hawks acquired him. He reminds me of a young Duncan Keith with the way he can use his speed to charge into the offensive zone and force the defense off balance but still have the speed and skating ability to get back and make plays on defense. The fact that he is in the third defensive pairing with how well he has played shows you the depth the Hawks have not just on offense, but defense as well.

Finally, I can only speak superlatives of the performance that both Hawks netminders, Ray Emery and Corey Crawford, have turned in. Right now they're playing like the two best goaltenders in the entire league, and they just so happen to be on the same team. Considering that goaltender was thought of as the Hawks biggest weakness heading into the season, and has turned into a major strength, is one of the major reasons we've hit the halfway point of the season and the Hawks haven't lost in regulation yet.

I hope the Hawks can keep it up. Of course, there's the realization that they ultimately will lose a game - yes, it's bound to happen - but for now, we should all be able to sit back and enjoy the ride. This team has brought out the youthful joy of sports in a cynic like me, and has begun to turn the heads of casual sports fans unlike hockey has seen in quite some time. We all have the opportunity to tune into a Hawks game and let the thoughts of a sports world rife with corruption, big business, and unethical behavior slip away and the simple pleasure of sports creep back in. We all remember that feeling - let's enjoy it.