The Chicago Blackhawks are scoring, hitting and getting some great goaltending. But most dangerously, they’re having fun
“Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion” – Rudy Tomjanovich
There were a lot of questions going into this season, one being about how the Chicago Blackhawks would replace the scoring lost by Marian Hossa and Artemi Panarin. Many assumed the ‘Hawks were going to take a step back and reevaluate “the core” and find a new identity. But four games into the regular season, these Blackhawks are proving they are hungry again and tired of long summers.
It was noted before the season started that the ‘Hawks would be tested early by their first eight opponents, all who made the playoffs last year. Now halfway through that test, the Blackhawks have collected seven out of eight possible points and have scored a league-high 21 goals. The goaltending by Corey Crawford and Anton Forsberg has been lights-out, and the ‘Hawks have been getting contributions throughout the lineup.
The second half of this test will feature three division foes in the Wild, Predators and Blues. Of the three, the Blues have started out the strongest at 4-0-0. The last 2017 playoff team they will play in this stretch will be Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, which will be a showdown at the United Center next Thursday night.
Let’s take a look at a few takeaways from the first four games.
Toews teeing up
One thing Jonathan Toews said was part of his offseason workout plan was to become more lean and faster. The NHL is a young man’s game and as Toews gets closer to his 30s, it won’t be any easier to keep up with the top young centers of today.
Da Windy City
Although being a top scorer was never part of Toews’ game, his production has been criticized of late with the Blackhawks being eliminated early from the playoffs the past two seasons. He carries an average annual salary of $10.5M and hasn’t produced as much as he or the Blackhawks would like him to.
It’s pretty obvious he wants to be more aggressive this year, and the addition of his former linemate Brandon Saad has helped immediately. Saad leads the team in goals with five while Toews has five points in four games. The other winger on the first line, Richard Panik, has six points as well.
One thing I’ve noticed with Toews is that he’s winding up his stick and calling for one-time passes. We saw him score like this during the Columbus game, and he almost scored tonight the same way versus Montreal. One-timers are great because they catch the goalie moving side to side, and hard shots always produce good rebounds. That first line will cash in a lot of points of Toews keeps letting it rip.
Q letting the kids learn
Coach Joel Quenneville has been notorious in the past for letting his rookies “ride the pine.” Trust is a big thing for Coach Q, who leans heavily on his veterans. But this year, it looks like he’s letting the kids learn by throwing them in the fire.
Blackhawks defensive prospect Gustav Forsling played his first full season of pro hockey in North America last year. The 21-year-old Swede is the prototypical Blackhawks defenseman in that he skates well, exits the defensive zone clean and moves the puck up quickly. Forsling has now played in all four of the Blackhawks games, he has three assists and is a plus-5.
Of the Blackhawks defensemen, Forsling is the baby of the group and has made his fair share of mistakes. I recall a brutal turnover during the preseason game against Boston where Forsling coughed up the puck in the ‘Hawks zone, resulting in a tick-tac-toe goal for the Bruins. Generally, that type of play would lock you in Q’s doghouse for weeks, but Forsling seems to have a pretty long leash.
Alex DeBrincat is another player who is getting significant ice time. He scored his first NHL goal Tuesday on a beautiful one-timer setup by Patrick Sharp against one of the best goaltenders in the league in Carey Price.
DeBrincat is learning the game is physical but hasn’t shied away from attacking the dirty areas of the ice. It couldn’t have worked out better, with Sharp mentoring DeBrincat on the third line, taking pressure off of both players and letting DeBrincat’s development come naturally.
Defense holding their own for now
The game of musical chairs for Spots 3-6 on the defense is slowly coming into focus. Jan Rutta has been a pleasant surprise to start the season with four points, while it’s questionable why Connor Murphy was a healthy scratch against Montreal.
I still think a lot of Blackhawks fans hold their breath when the puck stays in the defensive zone for a while, but the ‘Hawks’ great goaltending has masked any evidence of defensive deficiencies.
On Tuesday, Cody Franson got his first start and will probably get more ice time moving forward as he was pretty strong despite a few penalties. At some point we will also see Jordan Oesterle, who is looking to prove he belongs at the NHL level. As for Michal Kempny and Forsling, the more they play the better adjusted they become to the Blackhawks’ system.
It’s inevitable that the goaltending can’t stay this good forever, so some tightening up around the net will need to happen. The ‘Hawks’ defensemen this year are definitely more physical below the goal line, which helps their forwards jump into transition. But once more tape is available on this defense, teams are going to start capitalizing on the lack of depth of the ‘Hawks’ blue line.
Overall, this hot start has given the Blackhawks players and their fan base new life. Not to mention the Rockford IceHogs started their season with a road shutout against the Cleveland Monsters. With a fresh new outlook that seems to be a lot more competitive, the Blackhawks will benefit system-wide from this revitalized hunger for winning.