Every 10 games I’ll give you an assessment of the Chicago Blackhawks -- just as the coaches do internally. At 18-8-4, things have been mostly good for the Hawks so far, but it’s been far from perfect. Here’s what you need to know about the past 10 games as well as the first 30:
It’s no coincidence that the Blackhawks have earned points in every game since the circus trip concluded (4-0-1). I’m including the first game back at home against Phoenix, a 4-1 sleepy loss, as an extension of the trip. They had no legs in the game. Since then the schedule has been favorable: Just one-game road trips in St. Louis and Long Island and plenty of rest in between. That’s why November needs to be taken with a grain a salt -- the Hawks were on the road all month. Granted, in the recent 4-0-1 stretch, four games have gone to overtime but style points aren’t what matters in December, winning does. And now that the Hawks are getting a little rest before home games, they’re piling up points.
“We’ve had some good stretches this year. We’ve had some stretches where we’re ugly but for the most part, recently, we’re trending in the right direction,” coach Joel Quenneville said on Sunday. “Our play has been better.”
We’ve seen this act before and if there is a storyline about the last 10 games it has to start in net. Are we seeing a changing of the guard from Corey Crawford to Ray Emery? The answer is unknown but the possibility now exists. Quenneville is likely to ride Emery as long as the Hawks are getting points. He played in Games 27-30, starting three of them, and he’ll undoubtedly get the green light when the Hawks play the conference-leading Minnesota Wild on Wednesday. It’s not a coincidence the Hawks’ penalty killing has been excellent in those four games, stopping all 13 opposing attempts. Emery has raised his game and his team’s ranking in the penalty kill has risen with it. This isn’t about technique, it’s about confidence. Emery’s is growing while Crawford’s has taken a hit. Maybe there is something in the water -- regarding pressure -- when it comes to starting goaltenders in Chicago. If Emery takes over it will be the third consecutive year the backup has done it here. As of this moment, it’s not a reach to say the jury is out once again out on who the Hawks’ playoff goaltender is -- though Crawford gets the benefit of the doubt based on last season.
It’s amazing how even the production has been from the core offensive players on the Hawks. After 30 games Jonathan Toews has 32 points while Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane each have 31. All rank in the top 15 in the league in scoring. That’s the big four who are expected to carry the team, and they’re doing it. Each has had his hot spurts. Right now it’s mostly Sharp (nine goals, three assists in the past eight games) but none have been quiet for very long. And they’re doing it at clutch times. Hossa and Sharp hooked up in overtime in Games 29 and 30 to produce wins and who could forget Toews’ monster afternoon (four points in third period) in Anaheim in Game No. 23? As the saying goes, “your best players have to play their best” and the Hawks’ stars are living up to it.
While Toews is included in the last section he gets another to himself, because after 30 games there is little doubt, if the season ended today, he would win the Hart Trophy as most valuable player in the league and maybe the Selke as the best defensive forward. He’s among the league leaders in points (sixth), leads the league in faceoff percentage (61.9) and his plus/minus (plus-12) is very good for a player asked to do a lot on defense. He continues to get rave reviews as one of the great captains in the game as well. One of the major things in his favor is the current NHL scoring leaders aren’t household names. Only the Sedin twins have major name recognition as past point-producers but neither is necessarily having MVP-type years on a Vancouver Canucks team just finding its stride. At this moment, it’s Toews’ award to lose.
No. 6 defenseman
It’s a very specific subject matter but seems important because it would be nice for Quenneville to have three set pairs he can roll out there. Right now there’s been a rotation between Sean O'Donnell, John Scott and Sami Lepisto. They all got starts in the previous 10 games, but a lot of time Quenneville doesn’t trust them enough to get a regular shift, so the other five are left mixing and matching -- and sometimes scrambling on and off the ice. When Steve Montador faltered in Game 27 in St. Louis, he and O’Donnell were benched for part of the game, leaving the top 4 to take care of business. Montador will stay in the lineup as a sometimes shaky No. 5 which means they need to lock down their sixth D-man as soon as possible. He might not be on the team just yet, but with plenty of cap space the Hawks should easily upgrade at that spot if they so desire.
General manager Stan Bowman didn’t break any news telling ESPNChicago at the Hawks’ team Christmas party Friday that he’s looking to improve his team. But what is telling is how he’s going about it. Bowman said he’s contacted all of the other 29 teams in recent weeks, which simply means he’s not sitting back fielding calls, he’s making them. There’s a difference. If the Hawks were content they’d do more listening, but knowing he has plenty of salary-cap space Bowman is seeking a trade, not waiting for one to fall in his lap. It’s obvious what the needs are: a defenseman and a center.
The Hawks are a good team with a good record, so why does a good team get blown out on a given night? And against weaker competition, no less. Games 20 (Calgary, 5-2), 21 (Edmonton, 9-2) and 25 (Phoenix, 4-1) are examples. But with more and more evidence it’s apparent those games are aberrations and not ones to dwell on. Whether it’s the schedule affecting them (Phoenix) or lack of focus (Calgary and Edmonton) it won’t matter come spring time. They are wake-up calls, no doubt, but mostly serve as reminders a team can’t just go through the motions and expect to win. At the end of the day -- if those games were going to be losses anyway -- the blowouts actually serve a better purpose in that regard as lessons learned: Come to play or expect to be embarrassed.
The checking line
Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik and Bryan Bickell were the talk of the Hawks last postseason and the trio was the only threesome to start the season together the same way it finished the last one. Even when Quenneville was breaking up lines during the first 20 games, they stuck together. But the consistency hasn’t paid off. Bolland’s leg is hurting after blocking a shot and his play has been quiet. Frolik’s scoring chances have dried up and he’s alternated between the third and fourth lines while Bickell has been sent to the bench. All three seem to have different issues. Bickell admits it’s mental, Bolland is turning into a playoff performer only and Frolik’s confidence seems to be waning. The three need to remind the hockey world why they were so good last spring and give the Hawks a threat on offense from somewhere besides their stars. With the Monday demotion of Ben Smith the trio will probably be reunited and it needs to make some noise.
Known as a puck-possession team, usually shot totals can tell a story about a Hawks game. When the Hawks have the puck more, they shoot more and subsequently should be winning more. But in an odd twist, which possibly points to a different style emerging, the Hawks have the second best winning percentage (.750) in the league when they are outshot by their opponent. They’re just 12th (.550) when they do the outshooting.
With the completion of the last 10-game segment the Hawks have seen every team in the Western Conference except two of the better ones -- Detroit and Minnesota. They’ll get a crack at both before the end of the month but so far it’s safe to say the Hawks can play with anyone in the conference. They’ve won some they deserve to lose and lost a few they deserve to win, but you don’t get to 18-8-4 without doing something right. Thirty games is enough of a sample size to make an assessment. Yes, the Hawks need a defenseman and probably a second-line center, but if the playoffs started today is there a Western Conference team the Hawks have little chance against in a postseason series? Probably not.
“At our good moments I’d say we are getting close to being that team and having that identity we want to have,” Toews said after Game 30. “I’m never going to say ‘we’re there’ or ‘good enough.’ ”