The 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 they 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. This is 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.