Chicago Blackhawks: October Review

After 11 games in the month of October, the Blackhawks stand atop the Western Conference with a record of 7-2-2 (16 points). Let’s review Chicago’s first month of the 2011-2012 regular season:

I’m not sure there is a deeper team in the NHL at the forward position than the Chicago Blackhawks. All 4 lines have produced in different ways that have helped this team to win 7 of their first 11 games.

Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, and Andrew Brunette are quietly gelling quite nicely on the top line.

Patrick Sharp is off to a hot start with 3 goals, 7 assists. Jonathan Toews, notorious for slow starts in the month of October, has knocked in 4 goals and 3 assists, and also leads the NHL in faceoff percentage winning 63% of them. Andrew Brunette started off the season strong with 2 goals in the first 3 games, but hasn’t put the puck in the back of the net since then. However, he does have 3 assists on the year. Brunette has seen action on the 3rd line from time-to-time because he seems to be struggling in keeping up with the quick legs of Toews and Sharp.

The second line of Dan Carcillo, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa has arguably been the most dangerous trio in the league…of course when Carcillo is on the ice (suspended first 2 games of the season, and just finished serving another 2-game suspension both for illegal checks). Carcillo provides that high energy and makes his presence known to opponents not to touch Kane and Hossa while they keep dominating offensively and defensively. Marian Hossa’s 5 goals is tied for the team lead and his average time on ice leads all forwards. He is also second in total points with 10.

Bryan Bickell-Dave Bolland-Michael Frolik have been a surprising line early on. As long as #36 is healthy, there is practically no room for opponents to breathe in this lineup. Bolland has racked up a total of 5 goals this season (tied most on the team), with 2 of them coming shorthanded which leads the NHL. Bickell is still searching for consistency and a comfort zone somewhere in the lineup, however, his 3 goals and 2 assists is nothing to be disappointed about. He was juggled around a lot last season so patience is the key and just needs to develop some chemistry with a certain line. Michael Frolik has had a quiet, but effective start to the year knocking home 2 goals and 4 helpers. This is a player who could easily have at least 5 goals by now, but just can’t finish in front of the net.

What an improvement the fourth line has been compared to last year. The addition of Jamal Mayers was probably the best signing Chicago made this offseason. He’s dropped the gloves twice already this year and has tacked on 2 goals as well as an assist. Viktor Stalberg missed the first 3 games of the regular-season due to a knee injury and got off to a slow start when he returned. In the last two games, however, he has sparked for 3 goals, including two game-winners. He’s gaining confidence and getting comfortable in his role which is definitely a huge step for the young forward.

Marcus Kruger finally earned his first NHL goal against Columbus on Saturday night. After a disappointing training camp, Kruger has been nothing less than a solid fourth line center fitting nicely with Jamal Mayers.

The experiment of Patrick Kane at center is starting to look more genius rather than a desperate move by Joel Quenneville. Blackhawks faced some questions at center heading into the season, but now looks to be one of their strongest/deepest positions up front. One of the reasons why this move “project” could help them down the line is that it gives them a handful of options going forward, especially if players go down with injuries late in the year. Kane is now familiar with the position and is starting to adjust to playing a more defensive role on top of maintaining his offensive production (4 goals, 7 assists, team leading 11 points).

Duncan Keith and Nick Leddy have been the top pairing for Chicago and surprisingly, Leddy has been more impressive than Keith. For whatever reason, Keith still hasn’t gotten to the high level of play where he was at two years ago when he won the Norris Trophy while Leddy is still learning and getting better at 20 years old. Their chemistry still needs some work as they sometimes look sloppy in their own zone, but overall they’ve done a great job competing against other top defensive pairs.

Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Steve Montador haven’t put up a lot of numbers offensively (combined 5 points), but they sure have done a tremendous job protecting whichever goalie is behind them.

Sean O’Donnell was off to a strong start, but lately the 41-year older defenders performance has been shaky at best often getting beaten by opponents in their own zone leading to costly goals. He has assisted on 3 goals so far this season and has seen time on the penalty kill. Sami Lepisto replaced O’Donnell in the lineup on Saturday night which was his second game of the season. After 3 games, it’s unfair to judge Lepisto’s performance so we’ll give him time.

The Chicago Blackhawks rank 11th in shots allowed per game and, obviously, it all starts with the defense.

Corey Crawford picked up right where he left off from the previous season and stellar playoff performance. In 9 starts this season, he has earned at least a point in 7 of those. Crawford has only allowed 22 goals and in 5 of those 9 games has given up either 2 goals or less.

Ray Emery has only seen the ice in 2 games for the Blackhawks. In both starts, he’s looked fidgety towards the beginning, but as the game progresses gets a lot more comfortable and makes big saves when they count. His .915 save percentage is nothing to be ashamed about and knowing he has not allowed a third period goal yet is something to feel good about. Most importantly though, Emery has earned 4 out of a possible 4 points in each of his contests. Can’t complain.

Who would have thought that the Blackhawks power play would sit 29th out of 30 by the end of October? This is the same power play that essentially carried Chicago throughout the 2010-2011 season from start to finish and ranked #4 by the end of the year. They have had plenty of opportunities to put the puck in the back of the net, but for whatever reason are struggling mightily to come away with a goal. If the power play can get going soon, this Blackhawks team will be complete in almost every aspect of the game (5-on-5, PP, PK, etc).

The Blackhawks penalty kill, however, has definitely been their biggest improvement from last year where it ranked #26 in April. Jonathan Toews and Dave Bolland have been the key to the penalty kill success as they are healthy recharged, but there’s no way they rank in the top 5 right now if it weren’t for the outstanding play from Corey Crawford. He has posted a .923 save percentage on the PK good for 8th in the NHL (minimum 2 starts). The penalty kill was their biggest hole last season and now has been their strongest phase of the game. If they can continue to have a top 10 ranked PK throughout the season, they will be an extremely tough team to beat.

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