Blackhawks Roundtable: What’s Behind Team’s Hot Start?

The Chicago Blackhawks were expected to be bad this year and at the bottom of the standings, but they are not playing like it to start the season. They currently have a 4-3-2 record, which is third-best in the Central Division. Of course, their fate could change quickly as there is a lot of season left, but something that can’t be overlooked is how the positive aspects of their game have remained consistent. For this edition of “Blackhawks Roundtable,” our Blackhawks’ team comprised of myself, Gail Kauchak, Shaun Filippelli, and Connor Smith got together to debate why certain parts of the team’s game have been successful so far.

Gail: Richardson’s Commitment to Top Line

It’s still early in the season, but so far head coach Luke Richardson is sticking with his forward lines and defensive pairings in the name of building chemistry. With Tyler Johnson now out due to a left ankle sprain, Richardson’s had to make a few adjustments. But one thing he hasn’t done is break up the top line of Andreas Athanasiou, Max Domi and Patrick Kane. I had expressed my doubts about the top line in our latest ‘Blackhawks Banter’ podcast, I was specifically calling out Athanasiou to be moved off this line. But now, a few more games in, I understand Richardson’s commitment to this trio. Against the Panthers, Kane scored his first goal of the season. He was fed beautifully from behind the net by a confident Athanasiou, while Domi was drawing some attention away from Kane in front of the net.

Athanasiou tallied his second goal of the season against the Oilers on Thursday night (Oct. 27). He was sprung by a quick pass up the ice from Domi, who anticipated his linemate’s speed to make the play. Kane also scored later in the game. Neither Athanasiou nor Domi received assists here, but Domi was integral in starting the play while AA was busy tying up his man in front of the net. Back on Oct. 18 when the Blackhawks were in the middle of a five-day break, Richardson spoke about keeping them together:

It looks like they’re going to break though… There’ll be one of those games it just naturally goes for them and you’ll see them get 3-4 points each one night. They’re that type of players.

– Luke Richardson

Latest News & Highlights

Well, they’re not exactly to that point just yet, but you do see incremental progress. One gets the feeling these three are just getting warmed up. Let’s hope Richardson’s prediction comes to fruition!

Shaun: Mrazek & Stalock Silence Doubters

It’s fair to say that I was among the skeptics when it came to assessing the Blackhawks’ new tandem of Petr Mrázek and Alex Stalock heading into 2022-23. Outside of filling voids within the roster, it was difficult to anticipate much more out of athletes working their way down the wrong side of their peak playing years. This is a rebuild after all, so it’s not like Chicago was going to go out and acquire a future Hall of Famer with the hopes of turning the club into an overnight contender. Not for the second year in a row, anyway.

Related: Blackhawks Surprising Early Success Will be Hard to Maintain

Apparently, Mrázek and Stalock didn’t get the memo that outlined this team’s ultimate plan to put as poor of a product on the ice as possible, given that they helped the Blackhawks off to a surprisingly hot start that currently includes a winning record as this is being written. Unwilling to succumb to the low expectations placed upon their lineup, these veteran netminders have a lot to gain from providing their individual worth. Both in terms of their value in today’s game and that of their next contracts.

Alex Stalock Chicago Blackhawks
Alex Stalock, Chicago Blackhawks (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Each are coming off less than impressive campaigns in recent years, let alone injury troubles that have sidelined them for far too long. They have a chance to stand out for all the right reasons in Chicago, restoring their reputations along the way, and I feel that’s really helping them dig deep to help elevate their play. Most impressive, despite the higher hill to climb to regain relevance, Stalock has stepped into the starter’s role with ease following Mrázek’s latest ailment. Clearly, with the opportunity to write a new chapter in a career that could have otherwise been over had it not been for his chance in Chicago this year, Stalock has all the motivation he needs at the moment.

Connor: Penalty Kill Becomes Early Identity Piece

After looking impressive over the team’s four-game win streak, the Blackhawks’ penalty kill (PK) had a bit of a reality check in Thursday’s (Oct. 27) 6-5 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. Chicago allowed three power-play goals, two of them to Connor McDavid. There’s still room for optimism, though, as the PK went an exceptional 6-for-6 in Tuesday’s (Oct. 25) 4-2 win against the Florida Panthers and killed 20 of 21 penalties prior to Thursday’s loss. You simply don’t see that very often, especially against such a dynamic Panthers offense.

While it’s still early, the first forward pairing of Sam Lafferty and Jason Dickinson has been a catalyst for Chicago’s PK success so far. Both players were acquired by general manager (GM) Kyle Davidson for their role-playing abilities and work ethic, which have been evident. Now, it’s hard to envision another performance from the duo like what we saw in the club’s 5-2 win over the San Jose Sharks on Oct. 15, where they connected for two shorthanded goals. That said, they know their roles well and haven’t been afraid to be aggressive on the forecheck.

Sam Lafferty Chicago Blackhawks
Sam Lafferty, Chicago Blackhawks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Jujhar Khaira and Colin Blackwell’s second pairing has also looked good. Another major reason for the Blackhawks’ PK success has been Richardson. Seeing how much the team has bought into his culture has been amazing. His calm yet hard-working demeanor has given the club a grind-it-out identity, which translates well to areas like the PK. Now, it remains to be seen just how consistent the Blackhawks can be here, but it’s something they can feed off moving forward. The PK has a 76.5% success rate, which may not seem too impressive, but much of that account for Thursday’s loss. If both pairings can keep doing the little things well, especially Lafferty and Dickinson, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the PK becoming a strength of the team long-term.

Brooke: Coaching Provides Steady Presence

Coaching is everything in the NHL, and Richardson has been the backbone of the team’s hot start. Let’s be honest, they likely aren’t a playoff team, but they are not going away quietly. During their three-game stretch against the San Jose Sharks, Detroit Red Wings, and Seattle Kraken, the Hawks came back from 2-0 deficits to win each game. Last season, that would have never happened, as they got easily deflated. Richardson has been coaching with consistency by not changing up the lines too much, which has allowed the team to create chemistry. It’s details like that that were missing last year. As Kane said, the team is playing with confidence, as shown in their record. Richardson’s coaching style is certainly rubbing off on the team.

Related: Blackhawks: Getting to Know New Head Coach Luke Richardson

Captain Jonathan Toews mentioned that Richardson keeps things simple, allows them to play freely, use their instincts, and play as a team. The coach grasps that even if the talent is lacking, every player carries certain characteristics that make them successful, and he has gotten the best out of them. Toews is off to a hot start and is the team’s leading goal-scorer, and everyone is contributing. Boris Katchouk is the only Chicago player without a point this season, but that is only because he missed time with a sprained ankle. Like Connor previously mentioned, Richardson has become known for his calming effect on the Blackhawks because his “not too up, not too down” demeanor has helped his team effectively respond to adversity. The players truly want to play their best for him, and it’s refreshing to see.

The Blackhawks hope that their goaltending, penalty kill, and coaching will remain strong points as they continue their pursuit of being the NHL’s underdog story of 2022-23.

Sign up for our regular 'Blackhawks Newsletter' for all the latest.