You wouldn’t be wrong in saying that the Chicago Blackhawks are the best team in the NHL. Because it’s a fact. They currently sit atop the league standings, having yet to lose a game in regulation this season.
But how have they done it? This is a team that struggled through the last two regular seasons. They were the eighth seed in the 2011 postseason and six last year. The same team that was run out of the playoffs in six games in the first round last year is essentially the same team we see out on the ice this year. So what’s the difference?
It’s impossible to overlook the goaltending in all of this. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have both been strong. Crawford has already had a couple of “goalie wins” to his credit, and Emery has one as well. Crawford game against the San Jose Sharks in which he allowed three goals in the first half of the first period is evidence of how far he’s come.
Last year, Crawford would have either curled up into the fetal position and allowed another goal or two, been pulled, and Emery would have come in and probably taken the next start after that as well. But Crawford bounced back and didn’t allow a goal for the remainder of that game. Emery stole a a game against the Calgary Flames last week. And by stole, I mean made 45 saves in a game that the Hawks had absolutely zero business winning.
Of course, it helps that the guys in front of him are playing as well as they are. Johnny Oduya has proven to be worth the deal that the Hawks signed him to last summer and Nick Leddy has been incredible in his own end, which was a major concern. Niklas Hjalmarsson has also been fantastic in his own right.
Up front, the Hawks are getting consistent play on offense every night. And all four lines are generating chances, even if the fourth line that regularly consists of Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik has just one goal between them. They’re excelling in their defensive roles, even if the points aren’t coming.
The strange third line combination of Bryan Bickell, Viktor Stalberg, and Andrew Shaw has been something fun to watch as well.
But you can’t talk about this team without mentioning the stars. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are both playing at Hart Trophy levels, while Marian Hossa has been terrific as well. Brandon Saad will be a Calder candidate at the end of the year. If Patrick Sharp puts it together, look out.
Also, special teams, special teams, special teams. The power play and penalty kill have been integral to the early success of the Hawks, particularly the latter. They have a top flight penalty kill unit, and they’ve managed to find some consistency with the man advantage, which was something that was a complete mystery to them last season.
The Blackhawks are proving that it wasn’t a change in personnel that was needed, like most of us thought, but a change in focus. That focus had led to a renewed approach, which has led to consistency, which has led to outstanding success early on this season.
This is a team to be reckoned with moving forward. They are deep, they match up well with anyone, and they have the goaltending and special teams that they lacked that past couple of seasons. The rest of the league is on notice as of this point.