The Chicago Blackhawks embarked on their annual Circus Trip two weeks ago. The trip is named as such because the circus comes to the United Center every November for two weeks, and due to the fact that it requires laying down a dirt floor, both the Blackhawks and the Bulls are displaced for the duration of the visit. The UC is cleaned up and the floor re-iced afterwards; the ice will remain in place until April (or beyond).
The Circus Trip has long been regarded as a bonding experience for the team. It comes early in the season, and teammates spend two weeks together. Since the Blackhawks remained mostly intact for the previous three seasons, this is probably the most important Circus Trip the team has taken since 2007, when many of the team were new to the organization.
This year’s summer turnover had created roughly the same situation. Although players like Bryan Bickell, Jack Skille, Jake Dowell, and Jassen Cullimore had spent time the last few seasons doing the “Rockford Shuffle”, this is the first year they’ve been full-time members of the team. Jordan Hendry split his time between the two teams last year. Nick Boynton was a late-season trade who spent half his time in Rockford and half on the Blackhawks. New arrivals Fernando Pisani, John Scott, and Viktor Stalberg came from the Oilers, the Wild and the Maple Leafs, respectively.
It’s no secret that the Blackhawks have struggled to find chemistry and consistency this season. Their record reflects it, going 12-11-2 in 25 games – which puts them 4th in the Central division and 7th overall in the constantly-jockeying Western Conference. Their day to day scores reflect it as well, showing a bipolar ride through the season – getting blown out by Edmonton 7-4 one night; dominating the Wild but only winning 3-1 the next. Getting wiped by the Flames 7-2; returning the favor to the Canucks 7-1. Losing to the worst teams in the league – 5-3 to the Devils, losing twice to the Oilers; but beating some of the consistent top teams like Columbus 5-2 and the Kings 3-1.
If the Hawks can beat the teams that are topping their divisions/conferences, but get blown out by the teams scraping the bottom of the standings, then there’s a lot of questions to be answered. Last year, the Blackhawks raised inconsistency to an artform, where it was practically expected that the team was only going to manage to play one or two periods of a game – and yet still manage to somehow waltz away with wins, with sheer talent getting them through. The team’s chemistry last year was remarkable, born of three seasons with very little turnover and a bunch of guys who knew each other – and their playing habits – well. The talent factor was off the scale, with four solid lines that other teams could only hope to achieve.
The talent hasn’t disappeared this year, at least not on paper. The Blackhawks’ core consists of players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook – players that any coach in the league would be happy to welcome onto their own roster. It’s bolstered by players like Dave Bolland, Troy Brouwer, and Tomas Kopecky – players who may not have the same slick natural talent of a Kane or Hossa, but who have previously demonstrated grit and a determination to win, and who have fulfilled their roles on the team well.
The Blackhawks rolled off their short summer with a mix of early-season wins that landed them atop the Central standings – and the Western Conference – within two weeks. Although they lost both their season opener and the home season opener, they opened with the most grueling season start in the league, and by a combination of number of games played and wins achieved, got the numbers necessary to look good. But they weren’t looking as good on the ice, and the only word suitable for their play thus far has been “inconsistent”. They’re almost constantly following up wins with losses. Their best winning streak has been four; their worst losing streak, three. And when they haven’t given their all – and played sixty – on any given night, it’s consistently resulted in a loss, perhaps the only consistency of their season.
It’s true that the team was hit by injuries – Campbell, Hossa, Bolland – early in the season. Hjalmarsson and Boynton both took suspensions. But neither of these is an excuse for anything anymore at this point – not at more than a quarter of the way into their schedule for the season.
Who has been consistent on the team this season? It might be surprising to know it’s some of the 3rd and 4th line players like Jake Dowell, Viktor Stalberg, and Jack Skille, who – while they might not be finding the score sheet every night – have certainly been doing all they can to prove they belong in the NHL and to help their team win games. Add to that list Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook, and Brian Campbell – minus Hossa and Campbell’s injury time, these four have been pretty consistent in terms of effort. Jonathan Toews has been working hard, too, but has been off to his typically slow start on the stats sheet – although a stat sheet can never fully reflect the impact that players have on the ice.
Coach Quenneville has shaken up the lines left and right in an effort to find chemistry, and just as importantly, consistency. On the Circus Trip, the team started out by demolishing the Oilers, 5-0, in Edmonton. The Oilers probably thought they would easily take Chicago again after beating them not just once but twice – a ridiculous 7-4 win in October where the Hawks barely showed up, then a 2-1 game just ten days earlier. The Hawks played so confidently in Edmonton that they not only finally beat the Oilers, but took their first shutout of the season.
They followed this up with a completely lackluster effort in Calgary that resulted in the Flames beating them into submission, 7-2. The Blackhawks have owned the Flames in the past few seasons, so this was as much of a surprise as the Oilers 7-4 drubbing.
Chicago went on to Vancouver the next night and made the 7-1 win look ridiculously easy. The Canucks looked like the way that Chicago had played the night before, but you’d think that after being knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs by Chicago in the spring, and already losing to Chicago in a shootout in the United Center in October, that Vancouver would’ve been motivated to prove something on their home ice. Alain Vigneault, the Canucks coach, actually accused Chicago coach Joel Quenneville of rubbing salt in the wound by rolling out his top PK line late in the game when the Hawks were already several points up over Vancouver. The funny thing was that the “top PK line” in question included Nick Boynton (known more for his giveaways and bad plays this season than anything) and Viktor Stalberg (who’s working hard but is no Patrick Sharp – yet). Expect the next matchup on Friday, Dec 3rd, to show a lot more life on the Vancouver side of the puck.
The Hawks had two days off for team building and a bit of a break in Las Vegas. No jokes here, folks; even Patrick Kane said earlier this week that if the club was going to spend the money to give them these two days, that they had to be “respectful” of the club, and act appropriately on the trip. And while a Las Vegas nightclub leaked a few slim details that the Blackhawks had celebrated their rookie party there, including costumes and a very pricey oversized bottle of champagne, there were no other scoops from the trip that suggested the team may have had any other “incidents” as had made the gossip papers last season.
The Blackhawks then headed to San Jose. This was a particularly interesting matchup, as the Sharks had been swept from the Western Conference finals by the Hawks last spring. The Sharks lost two of their best D-men to retirement and attempted to sign RFA Niklas Hjarlmarsson away from the Blackhawks over the summer. The Hawks matched the offer sheet, and in the process, had to walk away from their Stanley cup-winning goalie, Antti Niemi, who they could not afford to resign after his arbitration hearing. The Sharks ended up signing Niemi for $2M ($750K under what arbitration gave him, but $700K more than what Chicago got Marty Turco for). So on the Sharks side of the matchup, there was definitely motivation for revenge, as well as their goalie’s desire to beat his old team. And while the Blackhawks were nowhere near as lackluster as they’d been in Calgary, it was a contest where San Jose brought it both barrels: outhitting Chicago left and right, and eventually dominating the Blackhawks to the final score of 5-2. Oddly enough, the Sharks went on last night to play just as badly against Vancouver as Chicago had against them, and the result was Vancouver winning 6-1 over San Jose; so in the course of this past week, it’s been an interesting combination of games between Chicago, Vancouver and San Jose.
Chicago took the lessons from San Jose and went on to win against Anaheim last night, playing just as physical as the Ducks, and putting in a combination of goals – flukes, sniper shots and net-crashers – that got them the win, 4-1.
Now the Blackhawks face the final team of the Circus Trip: the Los Angeles Kings, who currently sit atop the Pacific division with an 11-5-5 record (sixth overall in the WC). Corey Crawford gets the start in goal tonight – his first back-to-back. Coach Quenneville was quoted after practice today as stating, “It shows we think he can be a top goalie in our league.” (Could Crawford pull a Niemi on Marty Turco, who’s posted 8-7-2 this season?)
The Hawks beat the Kings at home in the UC 3-1 on October 27 with a very solid game; here’s hoping they’ll do the same tonight. It would not only indicate that they’re starting to gel, but that they’ve learned some lessons from the past two weeks on the road.
Tags: Antti Niemi, Calgary Flames, Corey Crawford, Duncan Keith, Jack Skille, Jake Dowell, Jonathan Toews, Los Angeles Kings, Marian Hossa, Marty Turco, Nick Boynton, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Patrick Sharp, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks, Victor Stalberg