With the annual Circus Trip a success, the Blackhawks look ahead

Welcome back, boys. How two weeks can change so much.

The Blackhawks struggled through the first quarter of the season, with the final four games before their annual road trip going 1-2-1, with one of the losses being decided by shootout and the win coming in overtime. Six of the last seven games before the trip were decided by just one point, the only exception being the loss to the Rangers in New York. The team suffered through multiple injuries, a pair of suspensions, constant line shuffling, lack of chemistry, and they just couldn't seem to bring the same game to the ice every night.

The last game before the road trip was a 3-2 nail-biting win over the Ducks (won in OT), which set the stage for the Hawks to hit the trail on a positive note. That energy carried over to Edmonton, where the Blackhawks pretty much owned the puck all night long and won their first shutout of the year in a decisive 5-0 victory. While the two earlier losses to the Oilers are not exactly forgotten - especially the 4-7 loss on October 29th - the November 17th game gave the feeling that things finally might be turning the right way for the team. The defense was starting to look less soft, the shots on goal more frequent, and there was less puck turnover.

Then came the Flames. Over the past few seasons, the Blackhawks have absolutely owned the Flames - the only reason for losses have been lazy play. In one particularly spectacular game early in the season, the Hawks got caught trailing 1-5 after just one period, and returned to win 6-5 in OT. That's the kind of domineering play the Blackhawks had last season.

This season, there's been few if any gangbuster games; the team has had to fight for every single point on the ice. The Calgary game was a blowout - the Blackhawks lost, 2-7, in their ugliest game of the season thus far. There was no excuse to be had for such an awful night of hockey; the players admitted it wasn't their best.

So the next night in Vancouver, Chicago bounced back with a vengance, beating the Canucks soundly, 7-1. The Canucks didn't have quite as bad a game as the Blackhawks had had just the night before, but Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault complained after, "We basically embarrassed ourselves in front of our fans, and they did everything they could to rub it in our face. (It's) 6-0 and they throw their number one power-play unit when it's 5-on-3.... They were pushing it, and they did."

Unfortunately for Vigneault, it wasn't Chicago's top PP unit - Nick Boynton and Viktor Stalberg were on the ice, and neither is on the top PP unit. Coach Quenneville was "just rolling lines".

Chicago next faced off against the Sharks and their ex-goaltender, Antti Niemi. Niemi has struggled with the Sharks this season - not entirely due to his own play, as the team in front of him hasn't always put in the best games on the nights he's been in goal. However, he wanted the win over Chicago, and just as importantly, so did the rest of the team - and they played hard, fast, physical hockey. The Blackhawks didn't give it away as badly as they had in Calgary, but they looked pummeled, and they were certainly scrambling late in the game, trying to make up goals.

Only the coaches and the team knows what got said between San Jose and Anaheim, but the Blackhawks team that rolled out last Friday afternoon in Anaheim looked like they meant business. It was the team that had played in Vancouver six days earlier; it was the team that had beaten the Ducks at the United Center before they hit the road. They took away lessons from playing a very physical game against the Sharks, and returned the favor against the Ducks, who are notorious for their physicality. The Blackhawks grabbed the lead and built on it, playing the full sixty.

The most important test game against the LA Kings on Saturday night: nearly two weeks into the road trip, and seven cities (including Vegas) after leaving Chicago, this was the proof of what the trip did or did not accomplish. The Kings also were looking for a win, having lost 5 of their last 6; their only win coming in a shootout against Boston.

Fortunately, the Blackhawks looked solid: although SOGs were low (just 23 Chicago, 22 Kings), hits were even (31), and most importantly, the Hawks had just 9 giveaways to LA's 22. Duncan Keith once again was looking like last year's form; Niklas Hjalmarsson settled down when reunited with his usual D-partner Brian Campbell; and even John Scott had his best fight to date, bloodying (and breaking) Kevin Westgarth's nose in the process. The Blackhawks showed they were willing to be physical, while having strong puck possession, clearing their zone, and oh yes - rookie goalie Corey Crawford racked up his 3rd win on the circus trip - not to mention his 4th win in four starts, allowing only 5 goals total in those games. (Needless to say, Chicago is already abuzz with talk of "Antti Niemi, take 2", but the Blackhawks insist there is no goalie controversy, and as always, Coach Quenneville will continue to ride the hot hand in goal.)

The Blackhawks won 2-1, making their final tally for the trip 4-2, which was good enough to push Chicago up to 3rd place in the Central Division and 5th in the Western Conference.

In addition to the veteran players returning to form, it's also worth noting that rookie players and those who came to the team via trades/free agency have also been among its most consistent: Jake Dowell, Jack Skille, and Viktor Stalberg, while not necessarily setting the score sheet on fire, have provided important stability during their on-ice time. Between the three of them, they've racked up 13 goals, 17 assists and 30 points - slightly better stats than Bolland, Brouwer and Kopecky, who've tallied 7 goals, 22 assists, and 29 points.

So, the Blackhawks look ahead: three-quarters of the season is yet to be played, and the team still must win the majority of those games to stay in contention for a playoff spot next spring. It can be done, and from what we saw over the past two weeks, the Blackhawks are coming together nicely.

Lineups in the next week include division rival St. Louis Blues (11/30), Canucks (12/3), Flames (12/5), and Stars (12/8), all home contests, before heading back west for the rematch with the Sharks (12/11) and the Avalanche (12/13). The Blackhawks then will spend the rest of December in Chicago, with the exception of the next Blues game (12/28). An extended stretch at home for the holidays after spending most of November on the road should be a welcome change of pace.