Christmas came early for Chicago Blackhawks' fans in the form of an 8-1-1 start to the month of December. The Hawks sit atop the NHL with 48 points (22-9-4) though they've played a couple more games than some other contenders. It's of little concern, as they roll on producing solid wins to keep pace in a competitive Central Division.
Even in losses they can show their ‘wow' factor as they did in a furious third period comeback in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. Down 3-0 and seemingly dead, they turned it on -- playoff style -- nearly completing a stunning comeback with a huge final 20 minutes.
Things aren't perfect for the Hawks, but here is the key: They are improving, and more specifically, individuals are improving.
Marcus Kruger, Viktor Stalberg, John Scott and even Brandon Pirri, based on his game Wednesday night, have taken strides. Yes, Bryan Bickell and even Dave Bolland at times have been quiet but the hockey world knows what they can do, and if Bolland isn't one of the best players on the ice come spring, that will be the true surprise. And even Bickell finally woke up in the last couple games before the holiday break.
It's no shock Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa are having big years. They were expected to, though to see all four in the top 20 in scoring is quite the accomplishment. To get the team to another level, those players needed help and they're getting it up and down the roster. That wasn't the case a month or so ago.
Let's be clear though, with all the headlines some of those stars and other role players are garnering, there are two players who are most important to the Hawks outside of their goaltenders: Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith.
The duo is so much better together than apart it's a wonder why Joel Quenneville ever splits them up. And when it comes to defenders we know the eye test is much more important than any stat. Keith and Seabrook are simply playing good hockey at both ends of the ice. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy get some kudos for that too, but when Keith and Seabrook are expected to contribute on offense and stop the other team's best players, they get extra credit, just as they've received plenty of blame in some bad losses.
To think, on a night where the Hawks gave up just 21 shots and one goal to the Montreal Canadiens, it's the goaltender and two forwards who are voted the three stars of the game. Seabrook and Keith's combined plus-6 and two assists wasn't enough to get some recognition? But that's the story for defensemen on a star laden team -- they take a backseat to the goal scorers but it doesn't mean they're not every bit as important.
On the Hawks, they are. And it shouldn't be forgotten.
Stalberg and Brunette
Two Hawks emerging as key players are Viktor Stalberg and Andrew Brunette. The latter isn't so much a surprise, but after a slow start he's found his niche among the bottom six forwards. Brunette's hands and know-how around the net have been as good as advertised, even if his turtle like skating has lived up to its reputation as well. Brunette is right on pace (8 goals in 35 games) to match his career averages and there is meaning in the Hawks 6-0 record when Brunette has scored their first goal. A former prime player on other teams has become a secondary guy on the Hawks, and if he's scoring -- especially from the fourth line -- it's too much for the opposition to stop considering Toews, Kane, Sharp and Hossa are doing enough damage themselves.
The same goes for Stalberg, who could have the single biggest impact from the non-core players moving forward. Quenneville gave him the ultimate compliment, admitting he was inserted on the third line Wednesday against Montreal to get others going. The result? Stalberg had two points as did linemate Bryan Bickell, who almost never earns points these days. Quenneville did the same the night before in Pittsburgh and juxtaposed Jeremy Morin's quiet play on the top line with Stalberg, who looked like the motor who got the engine running in the Hawks great third period. His nine shots on goal tell the story of his night. He was everywhere.
Consider this: Stalberg has 20 points, good for sixth on the team. The five players ahead of him and the five behind him all get power play time. Stalberg does not. He's earned every one of those 20 points, and everyone knows he could have more. Maybe it's coming.
Stalberg can now potentially fit on any line. He has a big body and flies like the wind. If the finishing touch continues to come the light might completely be going on for him and the Hawks could have a steal at $875,000.
Four youngsters are battling for playing time in the NHL and though Marcus Kruger emerged as a mainstay before suffering a concussion there's still plenty of season to determine who the Hawks will count on in the spring. Kruger has the edge because he's defensively sound.
Brandon Pirri has taken steps and was dropped into a perfect situation in his recall from Rockford for Wednesday's game. Centering for Sharp and Hossa he looked comfortable. Pirri is to offense what Kruger is to defense. It comes naturally. Work still has to be done at the other end of the ice for both players, but they are coming along nicely.
Joel Quenneville did Jeremy Morin no favors by dropping him onto the top line in a couple of tough games, especially the contest in Pittsburgh where he looked lost. Morin was coming off a three-game suspension in the minors and had not seen game action for a while before being asked to skate with Toews and Kane. It didn't work and so in one of the stranger twists, two players -- Ben Smith and Morin -- who were factors on last year's team may have fallen behind two who weren't -- Kruger and Pirri. It's a small sample size for three of those four players so it's still anyone's guess how it all pans out for the younger group.
The Hawks' hellish November is a distant memory and they should be able to pile up points with a second home-friendly month coming. But looming after the All-Star break is a nine-game road trip which will test their mettle. A lead in the division and even conference going into February won't just be nice, it'll probably be necessary.
But first things first, when they resume play on Monday it'll be about a month to the All-Star break. Another month after that comes the trade deadline. The Hawks figure to be busy at both those times of year. They're in position to have a big year, so now is not the time to slow down, not with so much home cooking coming early in the New Year. Until then, they've earned the holiday break.
The debut of the Blackhawks TV holiday special will air Christmas Eve at 7 pm on Comcast SportsNet. It will re-air on Christmas Day on WGN-TV (12:30 pm), NBC-5 (1:30 pm) and again on Comcast SportsNet (6 pm). Blackhawks TV is an all-access 30-minute television show that includes a variety of segments highlighting the players' personalities off the ice.