The Blackhawks' early view atop the Western conference
The week ahead for the Chicago Blackhawks is going to be a trial-by-fire before they hit the road for their annual "Circus Trip", the two-week road trip that marks every November. It kicks off with the first of two season games against the Florida Panthers (the second will be on United Center ice in late January), followed by a game at Tampa Bay, then it's back home for the first matchup of the season against the Vancouver Canucks.
In light of the trade moves made by Chicago and the free agency signings by Florida this summer, Thurday's Blackhawks-Panthers matchup in Sunrise is a game that many fans on both sides of the ice circled early on their calendars.
Three players who helped Chicago capture their Cup in 2010 (Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky, Kris Versteeg) and another player who spent his pro career in the Blackhawks system (Jack Skille) now are part of the restructured Panthers. By all reports, the players are all happy with their new team - after all, it's not often you get to come into a team that is undergoing a complete head-to-toe restructuring, and have the chance to be an impact player on that squad.
After many frustrating seasons, the Panthers gutted their team, hired a new GM, Dale Tallon; brought in a new head coach, Kevin Dineen; and stripped the team to its bones before filling the roster with an interesting mix of experienced players to complement its collection of young-and-upcoming players. The Panthers' most recent move was to trade David Booth, who has spent his first five NHL seasons with the team, to the Vancouver Canucks. The team added playoff experience, grit, skill, defense, and a solid scoring touch, not only through the players from the Blackhawks, but across the team.
This game is not merely a matchup between Chicago and "Chicago Beach" players. Coach Dineen and Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville spent six seasons together as players on the Hartford Whalers (1984-1990), so there is no doubt that there is going to be a budding friendly rivalry between these two long-time friends.
While Coach Dineen is putting together his first NHL season in the head coach's seat, he has notched a consistently-winning AHL record. As head coach of the Portland Pirates, he took his team to the playoffs in five of six years with a 266-155-30-29 overall record. Dineen spent two decades as a player himself, playing right wing, starting as a rookie for the Hartford Whalers, and finishing with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Along the way, he wore the "C" for Hartford, Carolina, and Philadelphia.
Dineen has already coached the Panthers to a 6-4-1 record to start the season. It's good enough for 2nd in the Southeast division, 6th in the Eastern Conference and 12th overall in the league. His team is converting 22.9% (5th) of their power plays, although their PK still needs work at just 75% (25th). While words like "surprise" and "unexpected" are being tossed around while discussing the Panthers, they really shouldn't be. Tallon put together a team of players with the experience and skill necessary to win games, with a winning coach. No doubt many teams already went into the games underestimating the Panthers, thinking the team didn't have the skill or chemistry yet to produce, but obviously, Florida is proving them wrong.
The Blackhawks are coming into the start of their Florida/Tampa Bay road trip riding a 7-2-2 record, which currently puts them atop the Western Conference and 4th overall in the league. Their PK is humming along at an outstanding 91.7% (3rd), but their power play is a cringe-worthy 8.9% (29th). Last spring, the Hawks played the Panthers twice late in the season: one game was a 4-0 shutout of Florida at the UC; the other was a sloppy 2-3 loss in Sunrise. The Blackhawks will not be looking to repeat that embarassing effort from last March; but they are not facing the same lineup, either.
While the Blackhawks players have expressed less concern about the anemic PP than fans might expect, the most important statistic the team has is what's in their win column, where the Blackhawks have already acquired 16 points. Last season, it took until November 6th for the Blackhawks to hit the same mark. The team came into this season rested, healthy, and hungry; it's showing on the ice. They have ten players with at least 5 points; and three have 10+. Patrick Kane, with his surprise shift to center, has been a point-a-game player, as has linemate Marian Hossa. Chicago's lines are all producing, and the top three lines all look dangerous.
On Florida's roster, the team has just seven players over the 5 point mark, but four who have broken 10, with Campbell and Versteeg leading the way (11 pts each). Forget the "surprising" qualifier; Florida has something to prove and they're looking good most of the time, including sweeping cross-state rival Tampa Bay in an early season home/home pair that included a decisive 7-4 win in Tampa. The Panthers have a long way to go this season, and they're going to get up for each and every game. Their goal is, at minimum, to make the playoffs, so a team like Chicago is going to be a benchmark test.
Meanwhile, Chicago needs to continue to strengthen its first and second periods. The team has had an outstanding turnaround in its third period efforts from last season - perhaps the Blackhawks have finally begun to learn their lessons about leaving points on the table. But Chicago should never assume that any team is going to take it easy against them or be a pushover. As recent Stanley Cup champions, and a highly-skilled team, Chicago is the kind of team that other teams love to get up against. A win against the Blackhawks can feed other teams' confidence for a lot longer than three periods.
Get ready for some exciting hockey in southeast Florida on Thursday night.