Kane, Keith continue to pace Blackhawks

dt.common.streams.StreamServerPatrick Kane and Duncan Keith are each having arguably their best seasons to date as NHL players, and that’s saying something. Patrick Kane won the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie back in the 2007-2008 season, and Duncan Keith won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman in 2010. Yet both players are currently performing at higher levels than we’ve ever seen. Kane is in the thick of the Hart Trophy race (league MVP), and Keith is considered by all hockey analysts as the leading candidate to win the Norris Trophy, again.

Patrick Kane, who’s best career numbers came in the ’09-’10 season (30G, 58A), already has 20 goals and 26 assists this season, putting him second in the NHL in points only Anaheim Ducks v Chicago Blackhawksbehind Sidney Crosby. Kane previously had a career best 12-game point streak earlier this year, and he is currently riding another 10-game point streak. How many guys in the NHL can say they’ve even had ONE 10-game point streak in their career? Kane continues to come up with goal after goal, assist after assist, and he’s been a major reason as to why the Blackhawks’ powerplay is so good this year.

Duncan Keith also had his best season during the ’09-’10 campaign when he put up 14 goals and 55 assists, and won the Norris Trophy. This season, he has 3 goals to go along Anaheim Ducks v Chicago Blackhawkswith 29 assists. His 29 assists put him just 3 away from the league lead, and he’s a defenseman. Aside from his offensive number, Keith is without a doubt playing his best defensive hockey of his career. You would be hard pressed to find a night this season when Keith hasn’t been the best d-man on the ice during a Blackhawks game. His ability to read the opposition’s offense and get in the way of the passing lanes is almost surreal. He has one of the best, most active sticks I’ve seen and always finds a way to come up with a nice poke check or deflection to break of the opponent’s offensive rush. Keith is also a part of the Hawks’ number one powerplay unit where he has been a huge contributor this year. His awareness when it comes to knowing when to shoot and when to pass with the man advantage is as good as it gets.

Both Kane and Keith are due to go through a rough patch at some point this season, but I wouldn’t expect them to be long ones. These guys are two of the best players at their respective positions in the world. Right now, they are playing at the highest level they have ever played, and they have been a HUGE reason for the Blackhawks’ success up to this point. If both players continue to play at this elite level, I’d expect at least one of them to walk away with an award at the end of the season. Right now, I’d give the edge to Duncan Keith over Patrick Kane in that regard, but I wouldn’t put it past Kane to win the league’s MVP.

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All eyes on Raanta

184164326_slidePrior to the Blackhawks’ game in Dallas on Tuesday night, Joel Quenneville revealed that Corey Crawford would miss the next 2-3 weeks with a lower body injury. That “lower body” injury is presumed to be a groin injury based on how Crawford injured himself during Sunday night’s game against Florida. What this all means is that all the weight is now on Antti Raanta’s shoulders; a guy who was playing in Rockford just a month ago only dreaming about making it to the NHL someday.

Raanta, who improved to 4-0-1 after last night’s win in Dallas, has played exactly how the Blackhawks want their backup goalie to play since bringing him up following the injury to Nikolai Khabibulin. Only now, he’s their starter for the next few weeks. In the 6 games that Raanta has appeared in (5 starts), he has posted a 2.14 GAA and a .924 save percentage. Those are very respectable numbers for a rookie. Raanta and the Hawks will need those numbers to continue as the Blackhawks are about to begin arguably their toughest stretch of the schedule this season.

Also as a result of Crawford’s injury was the promotion of Rockford goalie Kent Simpson to the NHL. He is now the Blackhawks backup goalie to Antti Raanta. Simpson, the Blackhawks second round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, has a 6-7 record in the AHL this season along with a 3.38 GAA and .900 save percentage. Those are not very good numbers by any means, even in the AHL. Obviously the Hawks were not planning on calling Simpson up to the NHL this year, and I am sure that they would prefer to use him as little as possible while he is up in Chicago.

What all of this means is that Antti Raanta is going to see a ton of playing time until Corey Crawford returns to the lineup. Raanta has proven he can get the job done in the 6 games that he has played in, and now is the time for him to really show that he belongs in the NHL. Including tonight’s game against the Flyers, the Blackhawks have 3 sets of back-to-back games over the next three weeks. Normally, Joel Quenneville doesn’t like to have the same goalie play both games of a back-to-back set, but with Kent Simpson being his second option now, Antti Raanta might not get a day off. He is about to be tested skill-wise and physically during this upcoming stretch of games.

Moving forward, the Blackhawks are really going to have to play solid defense in front of Raanta and Simpson, if he ever gets playing time. While Raanta has built some confidence recently, the best thing for him is going to be building even more confidence. The best way for the Hawks to help him achieve that is by playing strong defense in front of him and limiting their opponents scoring opportunities. Raanta even said after the Banner-Raising-2013-1600Hawks’ 6-2 win in Dallas on Tuesday that “It’s pretty nice to be a goalie on this team,” meaning that they have limited the opposition’s scoring chances and have been scoring a ton of goals themselves lately. That is usually a recipe for success, and they absolutely have to continue doing so from here on out, or at least until Crawford gets back.

The bottom line is that the Blackhawks have a very fragile goalie situation at the moment. The last thing they want is for Raanta to begin struggling and have to turn to Kent Simpson. If Antti Raanta plays well as the starter while Crawford is out, I can almost guarantee you that Nikolai Khabibulin will not play another game as a Blackhawk once he gets healthy. Based on his early season struggles before getting hurt, the Blackhawks 1306350614have zero confidence in him. Plus, Raanta was signed to someday be a goalie (backup and/or starter) on the Blackhawks. They didn’t sign him to sit in Rockford forever. If he can prove that he’s ready for the NHL in the same year that they signed him, then that’s just a bonus.

These next few weeks will say a lot about Raanta and the Blackhawks.

Blackhawks back on top

184164326_slideThe Blackhawks closed out their annual 7-game “circus trip” by reeling off six straight victories to vault themselves back to the top of the NHL standings. Their lone loss on the trip came in their first game in Colorado. While winning six straight games is impressive on its own, winning six straight games on the road, all against Western Conference teams is even more impressive. To put into perspective how good the West is this year, the East-leading Bruins would be tied for fifth in the West. The current last place wild card team in the West, Phoenix (34 points), has more points than four Eastern Conference teams who are currently in a playoff spot. Many people believed that this road trip would say a lot about the Blackhawks and the type of team that they are this season. Well, now that the road trip is over with, I think it’s safe to say we know what type of team we’re dealing with here.

Not many teams can do what the Blackhawks just did. After losing badly in Colorado to start the 7-game road trip, the Hawks beat Winnipeg, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Dallas, and Phoenix in that order. Three of those victories were third period comeback wins in which the Hawks entered the third trailing in the game. Yet they still found a way to come out on top each time.

Some NHL analysts are beginning to say that the Blackhawks may be better than they were last season. I’m not sure that I agree or disagree with that belief, but I can see where 1306350614they are coming from. Virtually everyone on the team now has a Stanley Cup ring, with the exception of Brandon Pirri and Antti Raanta. The addition of Kris Versteeg just a few weeks back improved the depth of the Blackhawks in a strong way. Duncan Keith is playing better right now than he ever has in his career, including 2010 when he won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya continue to get better, and Hjalmarsson is becoming one of the top defensive defensemen in the game. The fourth line, while it may not be as skilled as it was a year ago, is beginning to develop some great chemistry and was arguably the team’s best line (given their level of talent) over the last 4 games of the road trip. Also, keep in mind that Bryan Bickell missed the last six games due to injury and won’t return yet for a few weeks. His presence back in the lineup will only help the Hawks.

The Blackhawks, who spent practically every second of last season leading the league in points, are back in that same position. They currently sit atop the NHL in points with 44, three ahead of the San Jose Sharks who have played two fewer games than the Hawks. In fact, the Blackhawks are actually on the same pace as they were last season in terms of points had they played the full 82 games. December will be a very telling month for the Blackhawks as this may very well be the toughest stretch of their schedule. They have to play Dallas twice, L.A. twice, and Minnesota, Anaheim, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, Colorado, and St. Louis once. I left out a couple games, but the ones just mentioned are the most notable games of the month. If the Hawks can come out of December still sitting in one of the top two spots in the West, that will be quite the statement.

Looking ahead, I see no reason why the Blackhawks can’t finish first in the NHL and win the President’s Trophy again. ThisĀ isĀ the best team in hockey, and they are, believe it or not, more motivated than ever to win the Stanley Cup. They know what’s at stake if they can win the Cup in consecutive seasons, and they will do everything they can to make that happen.

I like what Corey Crawford said in an interview just a few days back. He was asked by Bob Verdi (Blackhawks historian), “Do you like the idea that, after earning two Stanley Cups in four years, the Blackhawks have a target on their backs?” His answer? “I like the fact that when we are champions, other teams bring their game up and try to beat us. That makes us better.” That’s the right mindset to have.