7 reasons the Blackhawks have been unstoppable
BY MARK LAZERUS email@example.com February 8, 2013 11:36PM
Chicago Blackhawks' Marian Hossa, right, from Slovakia, celebrates his goal with teammate Patrick Kane during overtime of an NHL hockey game in Calgary, Alberta, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. The Blackhawks defeated the Flames 3-2 in a shootout. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)
Updated: February 9, 2013 1:53PM
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It might have been the least likely thing ever uttered by a coach in any sport, at any level, let alone a coach in Chicago, where satisfaction isn’t a terribly familiar feeling.
‘‘We’re happy with everything,’’ Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said this week.
Why wouldn’t he be? As the Hawks approach the quarter-pole of the season — Sunday’s game in Nashville is the 12th of a 48-game slate — they have yet to lose in regulation, posting a gaudy 9-0-2 record, all while playing nine of their first 11 games on the road. So what’s clicking for the Hawks?
Well, really, what isn’t?
Kane is able
Winger Patrick Kane entered this season wanting to erase the memory of last season, when his numbers faded and the spotlight brightened. After a successful stint in Switzerland during the lockout, when all he had was hockey to think about — with his mom by his side — Kane came to camp rededicated and refocused. And the results have been as eye-catching as his slick passes and perfectly placed one-timers.
Kane is second in the league in points with eight goals and 10 assists through 11 games, including seven points in his last three. He has been the best player on the best team in the league, and he has paid more attention to his defensive responsibilities than perhaps ever before, fully buying into the Hawks’ defense-begets-offense mentality. He’s having a Hart Trophy-type season.
‘‘He’s been good right from the first period in L.A. when he scored,’’ teammate Patrick Sharp said. ‘‘[The MVP] is a decision you guys make as media, but I know how valuable he is as a linemate and as a teammate and even a friend off the ice.’’
Kane can’t quite explain what’s working so well, though he did point to his return to his natural position of right wing after a reluctant stint at center last season. It’s early, but his first scoring title is within reach — something Kane admitted Thursday night was a goal — and he’s not satisfied.
‘‘I think there are still things I can do better, personally, to be honest with you,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s the exciting part for me — and for the team.’’
Not everybody is Duncan Keith. Not everybody can play 26 minutes a game, four nights a week, and barely break a sweat. In the compressed season, it has been critically important to give the top guys a break, and the Hawks’ fourth line of Michael Frolik, Marcus Kruger and Jamal Mayers (sometimes Brandon Bollig) has done just that.
‘‘Usually when you play the fourth line, you play eight minutes or something,’’ Frolik said. ‘‘And some of our guys on the fourth line are playing 12 minutes, so it’s very good. I think [Quenneville] is trying to use everybody. It’s good at the end of the games when the guys are rested and we can still win the games at the end of the game.’’
The phrase ‘‘rolling four lines’’ has been uttered perhaps more than any other in the Hawks’ dressing room this season. And for good reason.
‘‘The depth, it’s so huge on our team right now,” winger Marian Hossa said when asked to name the biggest reason for the hot start. ‘‘We feel we can roll four lines. I don’t think we had that the last couple years. The coach trusts everybody.’’
Give Quenneville credit for laying off his players. On Saturday in Nashville, the Hawks will have just their third actual practice since the season began. Quenneville has kept morning skates under a half-hour and has given his players as many days off as possible to keep them rested during the grueling start to the season, particularly with all the travel involved.
‘‘He’s kept us fresh,’’ Hossa said. ‘‘That’s important.’’
With only five days of training camp, there was no time for teams to integrate new players into their systems. For the Hawks, who added just two players — veteran defensemen Sheldon Brookbank and Michal Rozsival — that was no problem. While other teams have been feeling their way through the first few weeks, the Hawks hit the ice running.
‘‘It certainly helps,’’ Keith said. ‘‘Everybody knows everybody and how we do things around here. That gave us a good head start.’’
Kneel before Saad
It’s a harsh reality, but Daniel Carcillo’s knee injury in the season opener might have been the best thing that could have happened for rookie Brandon Saad.
Instead of being mired on a third or fourth line in a checking role that doesn’t suit his skills, Saad rocketed to the top line with Hossa and Jonathan Toews and instantly became an offensive force. He only has scored one goal, but he has been creating chances left and right and showing a willingness to go hard to the net. His emergence — along with the strong play of Dave Bolland at second-line center — has made the Hawks’ top two lines that much more formidable.
‘‘He’s been special for us,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘That line’s been dangerous and effective. He does so many things besides production. He doesn’t have much to reflect on that, but his play’s been just the way you want it to be.’’
The Hawks’ power play numbers are improved but still middling — 18.8 percent, including Kane’s two 5-on-3 goals at Phoenix on Thursday — but their penalty kill has been nothing short of spectacular at 92.7 percent. Frolik and Kruger — two offensive-minded guys — have embraced their new roles on the PK. They’ve stolen a few points with late third-period kills on the road in the most desperate of circumstances. Those kills are a big reason the Hawks pulled out at least a point in seven straight one-goal games.
‘‘Those are big,’’ Frolik said. ‘‘You want to kill it and make sure we get at least a point, hopefully two. You can never let up. That’s the whole team right now — we don’t want to let up. We want to keep it going.’’
And everything else
Corey Crawford has been virtually unbeatable in net, and Ray Emery single-handedly stole a game in Calgary, stopping 45 shots. Sharp is producing despite being ‘‘snakebitten,’’ in Kane’s words, around the net. Johnny Oduya — a defensive revelation since joining the Hawks — and Niklas Hjalmarsson have formed a very strong second blue-line pairing behind Keith and Brent Seabrook.
These are heady times for the Hawks, who return home after Nashville for a seven-game homestand. It certainly won’t be this good forever, and there are always things to improve on, but so far the Hawks have no complaints — not even their coach.
‘‘We’re having fun right now,’’ Quenneville said.