Nearly one-third of the way through its regular season schedule, the Chicago Blackhawks are in the middle of its most challenging stretch and still dominating, winning five in a row and 10 of their last 12.
The Hawks’ success in the prior two weeks is particularly impressive when you consider its opponents in some of those games. Consecutive 4-1 defeats came against Western Conference powers Anaheim, Los Angeles and St. Louis, while the Hawks also knocked a pair of top Eastern Conference teams in Tampa Bay and Montreal.
But a stretch of tough opponents on the schedule was just the latest obstacle hurled in front of the Blackhawks during the 2014-15 season. And so far, this Stanley Cup contender hasn’t found any problem too difficult to overcome.
It seems like ages ago, but in the season’s earliest games, the Blackhawks had trouble putting the puck in the net. During a 7-game stretch from October 23 to November 2, the Hawks scored more than two goals just once, while being shutout twice by Anaheim and Winnipeg. Chicago went 2-5 in that span, although all seven games were decided by just one goal. The key to staying in those games? Chicago’s airtight defense, spearheaded by strong outings from Corey Crawford and another Norris-worthy season from Duncan Keith. Though the offense is rolling now, the defense has been consistently flourishing, as the Hawks have surrendered just 52 goals in 26 games — an average of two goals per game that leads the league. The Hawks also boast the NHL’s best penalty kill at 92 percent, while Crawford’s GAA of 1.87 is the second-best mark in the league.
When Patrick Sharp went down with a lower-body injury during the Blackhawks’ Nov. 4 tilt with the Canadiens, the offense was coming off of a 1-0 shutout against the Jets and in the middle of that aforementioned scoring drought, although it did start to show signs of life in that 5-0 pasting of Montreal. But as last season’s goal scorer sent to injured reserve, it appeared that goals were going to be at a premium for the Hawks in the upcoming weeks. But that fear has been erased in the formation of a line combination that is currently torching the NHL: Kris Versteeg, Brad Richards and Patrick Kane.
A graphic aired by CSN Chicago last night detailed their performance in the last nine games: Kane has 7 goals and 7 assists, Richards has 3 goals and 6 assists, while Versteeg has 4 goals and 11 assists. This trio’s dominance has coincided with a team-wide offensive awakening, with the Hawks scoring an average of 3.8 goals in their last 11 outings. With Sharp set to return soon from his injury, the biggest difficulty for coach Joel Quenneville is finding room for Sharp in this streaking offense.
A final misstep — literally — presented another challenge to the Hawks when Crawford injured himself away from the rink over the prior weekend, reportedly at a Rise Against concert. But in two games with their starting netminder confined to the press box in a walking boot, the Hawks have already grabbed aforementioned wins against St. Louis and Montreal.
Given the way that the Blackhawks have handled every other form of adversity thrown in their way this winter, why would this setback slow them down?