We are almost half way through the NHL season as the Blackhawks have played 21 games, and they still have yet to lose a game in regulation. The previous record of 16 straight games to open a season with a point held by the ’06-’07 Ducks is long gone, and the Blackhawks are showing no signs of slowing down.
There really isn’t a lot left to say about this team that hasn’t already been said during this incredible streak. To make it short and sweet, the Blackhawks are the best team in hockey right now, and the hottest team in professional sports. They are winning the games that they should win, they are winning the close games, and now they are winning the games that they really shouldn’t be winning.
Last night’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the worst team in the NHL, was one of the worst game the Hawks have played this year. Sure you can blame it on the fact that the Hawks played the night before in St. Louis, but the fact of the matter is that the lowly Blue Jackets almost ended the Hawks streak at 20 games. Yet, the Blackhawks still prevailed in overtime and have now gone 21 straight games to start the season without a regulation loss. In fact, if you go back to last season the Hawks have now gone 26 straight regular season games with at least a point. That’s good for third all time.
In order to win a lot of games in a season, you need your top players to produce. In order to go on a streak like the Blackhawks are on and in order to win a Stanley Cup, you need production from top to bottom in your lineup. The Blackhawks are getting both. Their top players such as Toews, Kane, Hossa, and Sharp are all producing offensively, but so are their third and fourth line guys. Over the past 2-3 games, the Blackhawks best line has arguably been their third line of Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw, and Viktor Stalberg. All three players are creating chances and sustaining pressure on the opposition, and all three are scoring goals. Last night both Stalberg and Bickell recorded goals, Thursday night Shaw had a goal, and last Sunday night it was Shaw who had the lone goal in the Hawks’ 1-0 victory over the Blue Jackets. It’s not just the top two lines of this team that are beating their opponents, and that is what makes the Blackhawks so hard to play against.
The biggest question mark coming into this season was their goaltending. Now, that might be the most consistent part of this team. Night in and night out, whether it is Crawford or Emery in the net, the goaltending has been great. Both players are tied for the third most wins this year (9), Crawford is first in goals-against average, and both are in the top 10 for save percentage (Crawford ranks second). What more could you possibly ask for from your goalies? Even when Ray Emery was supposed to have the night off against St. Louis on Thursday, he came into the game in relief of an injured Crawford and shut out the Blues for the final 2 periods (the two goalies combined for a shutout that night).
Going along the lines of great goaltending is this team’s great defense. The Hawks are first in fewest goals-against per game, and rank second on the penalty kill. This is thanks in large part to the improved play of Keith, Hjalmarsson, Oduya, and Leddy. If you look back at the recent Stanley Cup winners, every one of them has been near the top of the league in goals-against per game. Last year, the Kings ranked second, in ’10-’11 the Bruins ranked second, and in ’09-’10 the Blackhawks were sixth. It’s not always about how much you score, but how rarely you get scored on, and the L.A. Kings of last year are the perfect example of that. They ranked 17th in goals scored per game during the regular season.
A lot of people, myself included, thought that the Blackhawks’ streak was going to end this past Thursday in St. Louis. Jonathan Toews and the rest of that first line put an end to that prediction just 12 seconds into the game. Looking forward, their toughest upcoming game has to be tomorrow afternoon in Detroit. The Wings and Hawks always play close games against each other, and I would expect nothing different tomorrow. If the Hawks win that one, then I really have no idea how long this streak could last. It’s kind of scary to think about (in a good way).
Updated Oduya Stat: The Blackhawks are now 30-2-7 with Johnny Oduya in the lineup since getting him at last year’s trade deadline.