Pucker up: Hockey is back in Chicago

CHICAGO -- It's a hard winter night in Chicago. Do you know where your Blackhawks are?

Yes, the Chicago Blackhawks are back, and what do you know, they might be mighty again. The Hawks are 3-0 for the first time since Bobby Hull took his muttonchops to the World Hockey Association.

So, when is the Stanley Cup in this cockamamie schedule? August? Next September before training camp?

Hockey amnesia has made me forgetful. The fans, too, it seems. As expected, there were no repercussions from the lockout that robbed the die-hards from three and a half months of hockey. Yes, they still play "Chelsea Dagger" after goals and that one guy everyone seems to love still sings the national anthem.

It felt like any other night from the past few years at the United Center, as the Blackhawks beat the St. Louis Blues 3-2 with 21,455 on hand, most in authentic jerseys with malice in their hearts toward the Blues, and, of course, the Detroit Red Wings. It's not a Blackhawks game without hearing a few dozen chants disparaging the Motor City.

I didn't waste much time ruminating on the lockout, because I knew the fans would be back whether it was this season or next. After all, Hawks fans came back after more than a decade of mistreatment by ownership. Air the games and fans will come.

And I'm sure the season-ticket holders didn't mind a smaller bill and the legion of casual fans kept busy with the Bears' roller-coaster season and saying their nightly prayers for Derrick Rose's knee.

The only lingering effect from the labor strife was that I kept typing "lockout" instead of "shutout" while writing this column.

But while most predicted the hockey would be bad as teams struggled to get in shape and build chemistry after a two-week training camp, the Blackhawks look promising. Good news for Chicago and the NHL. Expect the city's love affair to blossom as the condensed season moves forward.

The Hawks' three wins, their best start since the 1972-73 season, have come against formidable opponents, with road wins against the Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes. With a "Disney on Ice" road trip coming up, that's a good sign. The scoring, 14 goals in three games, shows the continuity of a familiar team is working.

"We're not going to get too high on ourselves because of that," captain Jonathan Toews said of the fast start. "We've just got to remind ourselves every night it's about us preparing ourselves to play and worrying about our own locker room. If we do that, there are little things we want to keep note of when we play certain teams."

Like maybe Marian Hossa scoring on the Coyotes. Hossa, as you might remember, was badly injured by a Raffi Torres hit in the teams' playoff series last year. He scored two goals in Chicago's 6-4 win in Phoenix on Sunday.

Patrick Kane, who led off the scoring by converting on a three-on-zero break in the first period, said this team is not only in shape physically, but also mentally. Most of the team returned, including goaltender Corey Crawford, who will be watched, and likely criticized, more than any other teammate.

"There might be a little chip on our shoulder for this group in here," Kane said. "We had a good season last year -- there were some ups and downs -- and I think with the group thinks we can do some better things. It's almost the same team and sometimes when that happens you come back a little more focused, a little more prepared."

I agree with everything besides "good season last year." For a team that won the Stanley Cup three seasons ago, losing in the first round of the playoffs two years in a row, regardless of circumstances, is a failure.

Toews pointed to slippage the past two years and intimated it was because of selfish play. Maybe not intentional, but it existed.

"Yeah. I think our leadership group definitely understands some things that we can do better," Toews said. "It just goes with our team game. We want to reinforce the way every single guy needs to play every night for us to win. We have a lot of talent in this room, but it doesn't mean anything if we have one or two guys going out there and getting away from our team game."

"With our top guys, the guys that have been here since we won the Cup a few years ago, those are the guys that have to set the example," he said. "It doesn't matter who you are; you have to play the team game and stick to our game plan."

One example of last season's topsy-turvy ride was the team not recording a shutout.

The Blackhawks were 15:20 away from breaking that season-plus streak, but Crawford gave up two goals in the third period. The Hawks' last shutout came in the 2011 playoffs, when they won 5-0 at Vancouver April 21 to extend the series. Before that, it was March 23, when they beat Florida 4-0 at home.

Contrary to local lore, Chicago didn't go all season without scoring a power play goal. So far this season, the Hawks are 3-3 with one in each game. Brent Seabrook was credited with a goal in the second period off Duncan Keith's shot from the point just inside the blue line.

Viktor Stalberg added a goal early in the third period.

It was Kane's goal, off a Patrick Sharp pass, that started things off and got the sold-out crowd rocking. I'm guessing the crowds in Switzerland don't rock like they do in the United Center.

Hockey is back in Chicago and, for one night, it felt like it never left.