Chicago sits in one of the top spots in the league, but they haven’t made it easy on themselves along the way.
The Blackhawks took points out of 11 of the first 13 games on their schedule; two of those were determined in overtime; and four of those went to a shoot out. Chicago then went nearly a month with all games ending in regulation. Five of their last seven games have gone to OT or SOs. In total, they’ve had four OT games (3-1) and seven SOs (4-3). While squeezing as many points out of 82 games is the ideal, every game that goes into extra time means that opponents are getting points, too.
In Friday’s game versus the Anaheim Ducks, the Blackhawks played one of their most consistent games of the season: the effort remained reliable throughout all three periods; the defense coverage was solid; they limited the opposition. While the Ducks have had a rough season – not looking like the consistent Pacific division contenders they’ve been for the past six seasons – they’re operating under a new coach, and they are desperate to start producing wins. Chicago limited them to just one goal en route to their 4-1 win.
Prior to the Ducks game, the Blackhawks won on the road versus the Minnesota Wild. Chicago is currently neck-and-neck for the top spot in the Western Conference; Wednesday’s game was a tight contest between conference rivals which carried all the way to a shoot out.
Chicago is entering a stretch where they will be playing 14 of the next 18 games before the All Star break at home. After the ASG, the Blackhawks head back out on the road for three weeks for the annual “ice show trip”, so this is an important time to make the most of the home schedule and to use the energy of their home crowd to its best advantage.
This week, the Blackhawks will face three teams before the Christmas break: the Calgary Flames at home; the equally hot Pittsburgh Penguins on the road; and the struggling Montréal Canadiens at home. If the Blackhawks can show the same, solid, 60-minute effort going forward, they should not have huge issues from either the Flames or Habs; and the game versus the Pens will be a good yardstick on what work Chicago needs to focus on to be playoff calibre.
Some points to ponder for the games ahead this week:
THE GOALIE QUESTION
Cristobal Huet usurped Nikolai Khabibulin as the Blackhawks top goaltender in 2009-10 after splitting duties with Khabibulin the season before. His backup goaltender, Antti Niemi, ended up being the team’s starter throughout the playoffs. After Niemi was released due to post-Stanley Cup salary cap issues, Marty Turco was brought in as the new number one. Turco ended up losing his top spot to backup Corey Crawford.
Corey Crawford entered the season as the undisputed number one for Chicago, rewarded for his patience within the Blackhawks system with a new 3-year contract in hand. Ray Emery was signed as his backup.
Emery has started the last few games in order to give the struggling Crawford a break. After a shaky start to the season, Emery has played well, looking more confident and smoother the more starts he gets. While some might consider this grounds for a “goalie controversy”, the reality is that most starting goalies will play somewhere around 60-65 goals in a season, with their backup covering the rest. (Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff is a rare exception to this, averaging 74 starts per season.) Additionally, Coach Joel Quenneville is known for “riding the hot hand” among his goalies, keeping whichever netminder is playing well in net as long as possible.
The issue here of course is when exactly is Crawford going to get back in to his own goal? If he goes too long between starts, there is the possibility of getting “rusty” — he hasn’t played a game since December 5th, when he was yanked after 3 goals in 21:08. It really shouldn’t be called a “controversy” unless Crawford doesn’t get a start soon.
WE’RE GOING STREAKING
– The Blackhawks have won their past 4 games.
– Patrick Sharp currently is on an 8-game point streak, having earned 7 goals and 5 assists in that time.
– Calgary hasn’t won at Chicago in their last 10 games at the United Center, including playoffs.
DID YOU KNOW?
– The Blackhawks haven’t allowed a PPG against them since December 2nd (vs NYI) – that’s 21 shorthanded opportunities.
– Chicago’s PP% has improved from one of the worst in the league to 19.8%, which is good enough for 8th in the league.
– Based on the strength of the past two weeks, Chicago has lifted its PK to 78.6% (27th in league). If you remove the 9 PPG accrued between the 11/6 vs. VAN game and the 11/19 vs. WPG games, the Blackhawks PK increases to 87.8% (which would be 4th in the league).
– Jonthan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Kane combine for 133 points. Toews is tied for 3rd in the league for goals (18), Sharp is tied for 4th (17); and Kane is tied for 5th for assists (23).
– Niklas Hjalmarsson is tied for 2nd in the league for blocks with 86. Brent Seabrook isn’t far behind, tied for 7th with 75.