Hawks becoming a force

130107_gq_trout_aIt’s been a bit since I’ve been able to write a post on here, but better late than never I guess. Ever since the Blackhawks went out west on their annual Circus Trip, they have become arguably, or maybe not, the NHL’s best team. They currently sit 25-10-2 on the season, which is good for second in the league behind Anaheim. Their goals against average and penalty kill percentage remain at the top of the league, and their goal scoring is among the league’s best. Not a whole lot to complain about with this team at the moment.

All year long, the team defense and goaltending of the Blackhawks have been elite. They rank first in the NHL in fewest goals against per game, second in fewest goals against, and first in penalty killing. Whether it’s Corey Crawford, Antti Raanta, or even Scott Darling between the pipes, the goaltending that the Blackhawks have received has been outstanding and a major reason why this team sits near the top of the league in points. Not to mention that all seven defensemen being used are contributing on both sides of the ice.

Offensively, the Blackhawks rank third in both goals per game and total goals scored. Combine that with the fact that they are second in fewest goals against this year, and you’re left with a league-best +39 goal differential (the next closest is Nashville at +28). The biggest knock against the Hawks’ offense is their inconsistent and underachieving powerplay. They rank fourteenth in the NHL in that category, with an 18.7 percent conversion rate. A team with as much skill as the Blackhawks should be a lot better with a man advantage.

While this season definitely did not start the way that the Blackhawks would have liked, they have completely turned things around over the last month and a half as the numbers would prove. They seem to have that “swagger” back that the 2013 team had in which they always felt they could win any game regardless of the score. Take last game against Nashville for example. The Hawks were down 3-0 about halfway through the second period against the league’s best team when it comes to keeping the puck out of the net. Within a span of seven or eight minutes, the game was tied. The Hawks would eventually win the game 5-4 in a shootout.

It is wins like that one against the Predators (among other factors) that prove this is an elite team that is fully capable of winning their third Stanley Cup in six years. Everything from their goaltending, to their defense, their offense, and their team depth is good enough to be the last team standing come early to mid June. One of the biggest reasons why last year’s team did not defeat the L.A. Kings to advance to the Stanley Cup Final was their lack of forward depth. The fourth line consisted of Marcus Kruger, Ben Smith, and Brandon Bollig. Ben Smith lacked playoff experience at the time, and Brandon Bollig might as well have just stayed on the bench. That line had little chemistry and often sat most of the game forcing the Blackhawks to roll just three lines. This year, however, the Hawks’ most common fourth line is made up of Kruger, Smith, and Dan Carcillo, who I must admit has made Stan Bowman look like a genius for re-signing him. This line sees much more playing time than last year’s and has proven that they can generate offensive chances while being responsible defensively. Joakim Nordstrom, when given the opportunity, has also looked a lot better than he did a year ago and has made the case that he belongs in the lineup on a nightly basis.

The 2014-15 Blackhawks are loaded from top to bottom, offensively and defensively. Their goaltending has been phenomenal, and they have that “feeling” to them that this could be a special spring and early summer. Assuming no major injuries occur, the Blackhawks have to be the favorite to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup in June.

First things first, however: The Winter Classic.

Side note: With one day left in this year’s All Star Game voting, the six current players who would be elected as All Stars by the fans are Zemgus Girgensons, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Corey Crawford.

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Things starting to click for the Blackhawks

130107_gq_trout_aEarlier in the season, not that it’s late now, the Blackhawks were struggling to win hockey games. They would win one, lose one, win one, lose two, and so on. The biggest reason for that was their inability to score goals. As I said in a previous blog, that trend was destined to hit a brick wall. This team is too talented and gets way too many shots on goal to not be among the league leaders in goals by season’s end. Well, here we are at the beginning of December, the Blackhawks fresh off their annual Circus Trip that took them out west for six games where they won five of those six and have won eight of their last ten overall. Needless to say, that whole goal scoring problem kind of disappeared.

The Hawks’ Circus Trip was bound to be a telling one with regards to this year’s team. Either they would come limping home after getting beat up pretty badly against some of the league’s best teams, or they would come back to Chicago looking like one of the NHL’s best. Fortunately, the latter scenario is the one we are currently looking at as the Hawks get ready to play their first home game tomorrow night in quite some time.

On the six-game road trip out west, there were a handful of things that we learned or continued to see from this team:

  • First of all, Corey Crawford is on pace to be an All-Star this year. He’s currently third in the NHL in goals-against average, fourth in save percentage, and sixth in wins (all among goalies with at least ten games played). He started every game on the Circus Trip (14 straight since returning form injury) and was really good in pretty much every one of those games. I’m seeing no signs of him slowing down.
  • The Hawks’ penalty kill continues to dominate opponents. They rank first in the league with a 91.3 kill percentage.
  • The Blackhawks rank second in the NHL in goals-against per game at 2.00. In fact, the top four teams in that category, and five of the top six, are all in the Central Division.
  • Patrick Kane is starting to be himself again. He dominated the latter half of the road trip. None of this is a good sign for the rest of the league.
  • Going along those same lines, the Hawks’ second line of Versteeg, Richards, and Kane was absolutely dominant over the last three games of the road trip. All three players are playing great at the moment, and we are finally seeing the Versteeg and Richards we were all hoping for.
  • Defensively, the Blackhawks look fantastic. The top two pairs of Keith-Seabrook and Hjalmarsson-Oduya were great out west. The third pairing of Rozsival-Rundblad/Clendening is a work in progress because of the inexperience of Rundblad and Clendening, but they haven’t looked bad. Losing TVR was big, but not insurmountable.
  • The Hawks dominated some of the league’s best teams out west, all without Patrick Sharp in the lineup. He’s due to return sometime very soon.
  • Oh, and remember that whole “we can’t score” thing? The Blackhawks now rank eighth in goals per game and are tied for first in goal differential.

Two stats that I just mentioned, the Hawks’ PK and goals-against per game, often mean a lot more than goals scored per game. NHL teams, especially the Hawks, will get their goals, but if you can’t keep the puck out of your own net, you’re screwed. Last year’s Stanley Cup champion, the LA Kings, finished the season first in goals-against per game. The year before that, the Blackhawks finished first in goals-against per game, and we all know how that season ended. Going back all the way to the 2010-11 season, all teams to win the Cup finished top five in goals-against per game. A huge part of that stat is how good a team is on the penalty kill. If you’re getting scored on while down a man, your goals-against average will rise. Right now, the Hawks’ PK and goals-against per game numbers are incredibly good, and there’s no reason why any of that should change. Come playoff time, those numbers mean a lot more than goals scored.

So the bottom line here is that the annual Circus Trip for the Blackhawks taught us that this team is a force to be reckoned with. It took them a while to finally start firing on all cylinders, but now they are and they look to be one of the leagues top three teams. That’s not to say that they won’t hit some bumps in the road between now and April, but this team appears to be well poised for yet another Stanley Cup run.

Now we just have to wait for April to come around…