How do the Chicago Blackhawks keep winning?
Oh, to be a Blackhawks fan right now. Or, to be any team outside of their division and therefore, so far, outside of their path of destruction.
The league-leading team and Stanley Cup Champions in 2010 have gone undefeated so far this season. They have played 22 games and gone 19-0-3, never once being held off of the scoresheet. They have an insane goal differential of +29. And everyone outside of Chicago hates them, or at the very least wants to see them brought back down to earth.
Sunday, in Joe Louis Arena versus the Detroit Red Wings, it looked like the Blackhawks might finally lose. Goaltenders Jimmy Howard and Corey Crawford were perfect through two periods, and in the third, it was Detroit’s Slovakian rookie Tomas Tatar who broke the stalemate. A fourth-line goal if there ever was one, Tatar jumped into the play and pushed the puck quickly to the net, catching Crawford by surprise and failing to alert the attention of any Chicago defenders to give Detroit a 1-0 lead. That was within three minutes of the final frame’s puck drop.
With two minutes to go, Patrick Kane scored a goal that was the exact opposite. The Blackhawks found themselves on the power play after Jonathan Ericsson flipped the puck over the glass late in the third period. Niklas Kronwall blocked the initial shot from the point by Patrick Sharp, but the puck still found its way to Kane, who ripped a shot past Howard.
After the goal, Kronwall took his own delay of game penalty for putting the puck up into the crowd himself, ensuring his team would not be able to gain the advantage in regulation. Chicago’s 22-game points streak was kept alive. What’s more, they actually went on to win in a shootout, with Kane the hero yet again. Detroit’s shooters were unable to score on Crawford.
And so the streak remained unbroken. It was a close call though, and overwhelming early regular season success is hardly an indicator for who will win the Stanley Cup or make a serious playoff push. Keeping it up at this level is not exactly easy.
The Blackhawks play next at home on Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild, a team that finds itself with a mediocre 10-8-2 record despite hopes that the addition of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter would turn the team’s record around and help them produce more offensively. They’ll need their culture of defensive hockey and goaltending to be in prime form should they hope to defeat the Blackhawks at United Center. To do it in regulation will be no small task.
What, then, makes the Blackhawks so good? As is evident from the goal differential, these are not flukey wins. In addition, it’s hard to say that they’ve come up with the majority of their points feasting on lesser teams, unless you count the entire West as lesser teams. The standings seem irrelevant — only two points separate the No. 11 Wild from the No. 4 Sharks.
Without inter-conference play over the shortened season, it’s hard to compare, say, the Anaheim Ducks’ second-place 32 points to the Boston Bruins’ east-leading 30. The sample size of games we have to compare the Blackhawks to the rest of the NHL is, over 22 games, woefully small.
Still, some stats, and personnel, can reveal the reasoning behind Chicago’s streak, and how likely it is to last.
Team defense and goaltending
Corey Crawford leads the league in GAA (goals against average) with 1.46. But the team in front of him is giving him enough help as well, allowing him to see only 27 shots a night on average. The only team doing significantly better than everyone is the St. Louis Blues, who allow only 22.7 shots per game. Most teams are allowing between 27 and 29. (For reference, the worst is Buffalo, who allow 33 on average.)
Crawford has been stellar, but his workload has been average. A combination of Crawford being on his game and defensive soundness has contributed heavily to their current position. Crawford is also getting enough nights off thanks to Ray Emery, who has been solid with a 2.02 GAA and has a 9-0-0 record. Barring extraordinary circumstances, it will be Crawford backstopping Chicago in the playoffs (let’s be honest, the chances of them missing them are very slim), and Emery being reliable (read: undefeated) over this stretch is crucial.
It’s Patrick Kane’s world, and everyone else is living in it
Chicago has a healthy collection of two-way forwards and versatile defensemen. Everyone who has played 20 or more games for the club this season has at least three points. Patrick Kane has 26 points, good for fifth in the NHL. His supporting cast chips in at will, but since they allow so few goals, they don’t need a ton to win.
Other teams have scored more and other players have more points, but Kane leading the offense with everyone else pitching in with some amount of regularity seems to be working well for Chicago. Parity up and down the lineup is a key to any squad’s success. No one player can be relied upon to carry the team offensively, but your best players always help. Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, and Jonathan Toews have chipped in with 16, 17 and 18 points, respectively.
Offense and defense working in perfect tandem means that the team mentality is likely extremely positive — especially without any true losses to show for themselves. The Blackhawks aren’t an offensive team. They aren’t a defensive team. They aren’t a team reliant on their goaltender. Throughout their streak they’ve had all three aspects of the game working in perfect harmony.
They also haven’t had to pull off any great miracles to get it done. Rest assured–that regulation loss will come, and so will the games that look uglier. A lot of Chicago’s wins have come in overtime or shootout, which proves that on many occasions (particularly against teams like Vancouver), they’ve gotten a little lucky. They will continue to be a team to contend with, but the superhuman record probably won’t last much longer. Chicago knows how to win games in 2013, but it remains to be seen if they can bounce back after tough losses, dig deep after making mistakes. Talent alone can’t solve those problems. We’ll just have to wait and see if the Hawks can win when they’re not lucky.