Chicago Blackhawks First Quarter Report Card
The past two seasons were a struggle for the Blackhawks. Although they qualified for the playoffs both years, neither route was ideal.
In 2011, gutted post-Cup victory, they backed into the playoffs based on the Wild's win over the Stars in game 82. The battle leading up to the playoffs left the team battered and tired - yet they still pushed the Canucks to Game 7 OT in the first round.
In 2012, they had a bit more of a cushion, but 101 points in the ultra-competitive West was only good enough for 6th place. Although the Blackhawks pushed the Coyotes to five OT games, and then lost to Phoenix 0-4 in Game 6 on home ice.
A Cup win followed by two disappointing post-seasons -- it's no surprise that the Blackhawks have entered the abbreviated 2013 season with something to prove.
So far, they've proven themselves: going 10-0-2 during the opening quarter of the season. Their first dozen games have taken them over 10,000 miles via nine different cities on a schedule that has included 10 road games and just 2 home games.
At 22 points, the Blackhawks are on pace for an 88-point season. To put that in perspective: In 2009-2010, the Flyers and Canadiens got into the playoffs with just 88 points. Will they keep up this torrid pace? Probably not, but it's nice to dream.
Let's put it in the context of this season instead. Based on the past three seasons, it has taken teams an average of 91 points in the East and 96 points in the West to make the playoffs. Scaling for the abbreviated 48-game season, the cutoff this year should be 53 points in the East, and 56 points in the West.
At 22 points, the Blackhawks have collected 39% of the points they need to make the playoffs in just 25% of their games.
The 2013 Blackhawks have a familiar look: they're playing like the 2009-2010 team. There's a lot of chemistry on all four lines, and Coach Joel Quenneville isn't putting his lines through the blender every other shift. From a player standpoint, that builds confidence and helps develop rhythm.
Last season, Corey Crawford shouldered his first full season as the number one goalie. While he wasn't horrific, he wasn't impressive; and a couple of the goals he let in during the post-season were soft as cotton.
He has rebounded this season to a 7-0-2 record with .935 sv% and a 1.62 GAA.
He has played so well that some hockey writers have suggested he should be one of the choices for the Canadian Olympic team, and another has mentioned him in the same breath as "Vezina".
While it may be a bit early in the season for such discussions, there is no doubt that Crawford is playing to a different level than he did next year. Crawford will be expected to shoulder the bulk of the goaltending load.
Ray Emery returned this year and is so far 3-0-0, including a memorable game against the Calgary Flames that saw him pounded with shots and yet he still stole the win. While you can see Emery still might have some challenges with side-to-side movement, he's doing above and beyond what you would expect out of the backup goalie.
The Blackhawks added just two new players this year, both of them defensemen: Sheldon Brookbank and Michal Rozsival. The two have different styles of play, but have both clicked into the lineup so seamlessly that you might be forgiven for thinking they'd already been with the team for some time.
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were reunited as the top defensive pair this season. Keith has come out of the gate looking like 2009-2010 Norris Trophy Keith, sweeping away potential goals in the blue paint and making great, quick plays with his stick.
Seabrook has had a slower start, and seems to have changed his focus from hitting to blocking shots, leading the team with 35 -- second in the league after Zbynek Michalek (PHX). Seabrook has regularly graced the top or second spot for hits on the team; this year, he's third so far, behind forwards Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw. Seabrook's style in past years has been to be a physical force in the home corners, making opponents reconsider before chasing after the puck.
Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya are teamed on the second defense pairing, and in several games, have spent more TOI than Keith and Seabrook. Both played overseas during the lockout - Hjalmarsson in Italy, Oduya in Thailand - and look the better for it.
Nick Leddy has dropped to the third pairing, and he plays with Brookbank or Rozsival. Leddy spent the lockout in the AHL, and looks vastly improved for having done so. Leddy is not seeing any time on the PK but has averaged 3:20/game on the PP, where his ability to move the puck up-ice is valuable.
Perhaps some of the most important changes have come on the forward lines.
Daniel Carcillo was originally slotted between Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa on the first line, but an early season injury made room for rookie Brandon Saad. Saad has shown great adaptability after being called up from the AHL, learning to play with Toews and Hossa's styles very quickly, and the line has combined for 13-12-25 so far.
Marian Hossa looks like he's in the best shape he's been in years, and is playing like it, too -- converting 17.6% of his shots.
Dave Bolland was moved up from the third line to take the second line center that the Blackhawks have sought for the past two seasons, pivoting a line between Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane. Sharp has been clanking pucks off the post too frequently in the early season; he's built his assists instead.
The second line is 15-21-36 so far, and that is mainly due to the phenomenal play of Patrick Kane (9-10-19). Kane has started the season like a man possessed after spending part of the lockout with EHC Biel in the Swiss league, where he was paired on a line with Boston's Tyler Seguin.
In a recent article with the Chicago Tribune, Kane has said he is playing without his trademark mouthguard because after playing without one in Switzerland, it felt "weird" to be playing with one again in Chicago. In the article, Kane pondered whether the mouthguard was a distraction to his play. Based on his performance thus far, it's unlikely we'll see it back in his mouth any time soon.
Forwards Viktor Stalberg, Michael Frolik, and Bryan Bickell spent much of the lockout overseas, with the SEL & KHL, Czech, and Austrian leagues, respectively. Andrew Shaw, Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger, Saad, and Leddy all spent the lockout in the AHL.
Chicago had one of the largest groups of players spending time in either the AHL or overseas during the lockout - 12 total - and it shows with their hot start coming out of the gate, despite the grueling opening schedule.
Perhaps the extensive road time helped bond the team as well, getting the players directly back into a "season mentality" after an extremely brief training camp.
Whatever the case, the Blackhawks have been clicking on all cylinders from day one. They've won in a variety of situations including coming from behind and being outshot by a large margin. No matter what the game or style, they've pulled points out of every game they've played in.
While the team still has some rough moments - occasionally passing to players that haven't caught up, non-sharp passing, or bad turnovers - overall, the team is looking good -- very, very good.
The Blackhawks are playing like they have something to prove this season. They want to prove they're not the same team that got swept out of the playoffs after the first round the past two years. They want to prove they can go deep once again.
There are no excuses to be had this season.
Quarter season grade: A