Chicago Blackhawks start the season with a celebration, and find their legs in game 3


Stanley Cup banner skated on the ice at the United Center - picture by HockeyBroad

During the past couple weeks in Chicago, it's been the absolute best of times, and at moments, a right royal mess.

The Blackhawks did not have a particularly distinctive pre-season, winning only 3 of 7 matchups - the home games against the Red Wings, the Penguins and the Blues. On the road, the team looked like they were struggling, but what also needed to be considered was that the Blackhawks, like just about every other team in the league, was saving their big guns for the home contests, and putting their rookies and 3rd and 4th liners into the road games. Pre-season doesn't count except for who gets to wear the sweater on opening night.

It started with losing Brian Campbell during the preseason due to a knee sprain. Campbell will be out for about a month, leaving a gaping hole in the second D-line. It was most likely directly due to Campbell's injury that 19-year-old Nick Leddy found himself on the opening night roster instead of making his mark in Rockford.

The season opener, against the Avalanche in Colorado, was not horrific, but it was enough to see the difference between the team that skated off the ice in June and the one that stepped on again in September. And although Chicago got on the board early - Bryan Bickell making the first goal of the year for the Blackhawks - the game eventually came down to overtime, where a shot from Paul Stastny hit the top bar, plunked down to the ice behind Marty Turco's leg, and kind of... dribbled into the goal for the win. Maybe Turco thought it had riccocheted off the top bar and so he lost track of it; either way, it was a disappointing ending. Turco had also let in a rather soft goal earlier in the game when rookie Nick Leddy's bad turnover led directly to the goal opportunity. Chicago also allowed 41 SOGs, a far cry from a league-low average of around 25 last season.

Other bad indicators from the first game: iron man Duncan Keith logged 33:39 TOI, while other D-men were noticibly less: Niklas Hjalmarsson 22:55; Jordan Hendry just 5:33; Brent Seabrook 28:22; Nick Leddy 19:21; and John Scott 6:58. Defense clearly was not the best asset of the night.

The Saturday night home opener was one of the most magnificent moments of the past 49 years of Blackhawks history, as the Blackhawks celebrated the 2009-10 championship season, and put a cap on it by raising three new banners to the rafters of the United Center. There was a very moving multi-media, whole-arena review of the playoffs. The new players were introduced, followed by the returning team members. Lastly, team Captain Jonathan Toews was introduced, skating out and holding the Cup aloft before the hometown fans for the first time since the team won it in June. Then the members of the 1961 Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks unfurled the new Cup banner, handing it off to those members of the current team who were on the ice in June, and the team skated the banner past the Stanley Cup located at center ice, and it was attached to cables for its slow raise to the rafters.

The final moment of the 2009-10 championship season. The marking of a new era of hockey in Chicago - one where the newest generation of fans will remember this moment for many years to come.

There was hardly a dry eye in the barn.

But this was also a home season opener against the ultimate of Chicago's rivals: the Detroit Red Wings. Already loaded with emotion, the Blackhawks took to the ice before the Madhouse faithful. Like the Avalanche meetup two days prior, it was a high-paced, intense matchup, although Chicago did better in small ways over the previous game, such as only allowing 28 SOGs. Ultimately, though, Detroit got the GWG with six minutes left to play, and Chicago wasn't able to tie things up to force an overtime. The team not only had to suffer from the loss of Campbell, but second line center Patrick Sharp was also out for the game, recovering from a concussion sustained in the Avalanche game. Sharp's talented two-way play is a vital cog for the second line.

Losing to the Wings on the home opener and banner-raising night was disappointing, but not the end of the world.

Chicago fans shouldn't worry based off two games. The Blackhawks have only won one season opener since the lockout. In fact, the team has only won 3 season openers since 2000; and, not including this season, is 14-22 for the first four games of all seasons between 2000-2009. (In '09, the Hawks went 2-2.)

That's the joy of hockey. The season is long and grueling, and - as happened to some teams last year - may come down to the very last goal in the very last game to know whether or not your team will qualify for the playoffs.

Things that have had fans worried after two weeks of preseason and the first pair of games: incohesive defense. Soft goals. Jordan Hendry being nonexistant on the ice, even when he's on the ice. John Scott seemingly spending more time falling down on the ice than skating on it. Keith racking up the ice time. Players like Boynton getting suspended for the first game on a stupid play.

Still, you don't exactly want to be in a hole too quickly early in the season; Chicago didn't want to come home from Buffalo 0-3. In addition, Patrick Kane was playing his first game in his hometown of Buffalo since last season; he certainly wanted to get a win in front of his family and friends. Corey Crawford was due to get his first season start (no relation to Turco being 0-2, according to pre-game interviews). Sharp was back and ready to go.

The game didn't start well - the Sabres lighting the lamp just 14 seconds into the game, with a second goal at the 2:43 mark. Then Patrick Kane returned the favor at 7:44, making his first goal of the 2010-11 scored in his hometown. As a kid, Kane dreamed of growing up to play for the Sabres, but has been doing pretty well for himself in Chicago.

Unfortunately, Niklas Hjalmarsson ended up boarding Buffalo's Jason Pominville just after the 14 minute mark, collecting a 5-minute boarding penalty and a game misconduct. Pominville suffered a concussion as well as a cut on the face; he was removed from the ice on a stretcher, and is expected to be out of play for at least a couple games, snapping a 335-consecutively-played games streak, Buffalo's record.

It seemed like the game could only go downhill from here: one of the Blackhawks' top 4 D-men already out with a sprained knee, another one now ejected from the game and likely to miss a few if suspended - leaving the Keith/Seabrook pairing, rookie Nick Leddy, and third-liners Nick Boynton and John Scott to hold down the fort for the rest of the game.

It's moments like this that can turn a team. Chicago has clearly been working hard to find chemistry among its defensive line changes this summer. Keith/Seabrook is a given; Campbell and Hjalmarsson were another carryover pairing from last season. Nick Leddy, along with Shawn Lalonde (currently assigned to the IceHogs), spent a lot of time at training camp paired with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Leddy and Lalonde played well together earlier in the summer at prospects camp; it's not unrealisitic to foresee Lalonde eventually making the leap to the Blackhawks and being paired with Leddy. (The biggest thing holding Lalonde back right now is probably more salary-cap related than anything.)

John Scott and Jordan Hendry have not been head-turners on the ice; in fact, Hendry was been virtually unnoticeable. (He's been a healthy scratch the past two games.) Nick Boynton, a late-season acquisition this spring from the Ducks, provided enough grit to make it into a few of the Final round games for the Stanley Cup; he re-signed over the summer, but so far, his primary early-season mark has been a throat-slashing gesture in a game that led to a one-game suspension.

With just five D-men on the ice, Keith put in 31:42; Seabrook 28:30; Nick Leddy just 13:17; Nick Boynton 23:06; and John Scott 16:51. They started out by killing Hjalmarsson's 5-minute penalty; then came out in the second period with new purpose.

Nick Leddy made his first goal in the NHL at the 4:08 mark. Jake Dowell managed to get in the sin bin for a 5-minute fighting major a minute later, but something just clicked in the second period, and Chicago held off the Sabres the rest of the period, and after the PK, Marian Hossa scored, drawing ahead 3-2 to head into the third.

Hossa scored again in the beginning of the third, putting Chicago up 4-2. It's not like somebody flipped a switch, but game circumstances came together to just make things start to work. Not necessarily perfect, but good; solid. They held off Buffalo with Crawford making a few gorgeous saves, and despite the night looking like a bit of mess early in the game, still managed to win 4-3, and holding the Sabres to 35 SOG. Defense better start clicking soon - last year, the entire season averaged just 25 SOGs per game for the other teams; this year, the average already stands at 34.

Something clicked tonight out on the ice. Most likely it was Coach Quenneville chewing them out in the locker room after the first period, but whatever happened, stuff began to work on the ice.

Leddy is young as far as defensemen, sure - but he is showing a great aptitude for learning at the NHL level. Boynton is stepping up, needing to prove he can continue to provide not just the muscle Chicago needs, but the skills. To emphasize just how good he finished out the game, Boynton got the third star of the game. In post-game interviews, Boynton said he thought he hadn't been a star of the game since he was playing in London during the lockout year.

Jordan Hendry and John Scott still both need to figure out what they're doing on the ice. Whichever one figures it out first is the one more likely to stick around for the whole season.

Things will shape up. The team turned over almost half their roster this summer; growing pains are inevitable. Tonight's game offered new hope to Blackhawks fans that yes, the Blackhawks are still a solid contender with plenty of fuel in the tank for the long season ahead.