Jim Neveau, Blackhawks Correspondent
As the Chicago Blackhawks go their separate ways for a lengthy two week break, it seems like an appropriate time to look back on the team’s performance this season.
With their 45-11-5 record so far, the Hawks are only two points out of first place in the Western Conference, and they have tangled with and defeated some of the best teams in the league. Whether it was the 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Igloo, or the team’s 1-0 victory over Vancouver at GM Place, the Blackhawks certainly know how to win the toughest contests.
With such a talented team, hopes for a Stanley Cup in Chicago are running high. For the first of our three Top 5 lists, here is the “starting lineup” for the Olympic Break All-Stars:
LW: Troy Brouwer (18 G, 14 A, +8, 7 PPG)
Brouwer has really turned a corner this season with the Blackhawks, making physical plays on the defensive side of the puck and contributing mightily to the team’s power play. He is tied with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane for the team lead with seven power play tallies, and his 20.2% shot percentage is remarkable for a guy with 18 goals.
C: Jonathan Toews (19 G, 30 A, +24, 7 PPG)
Picking the team captain may seem like a safe choice, but Toews has certainly earned this spot. Even with missing six games with a concussion, he is still amongst the team leaders in points and his face-off percentage of 56.7% is nothing to sneeze at either. He is currently representing Team Canada at the Olympics.
RW: Patrick Kane (25 G, 42 A, +19, 21 PPP)
The offensive MVP of this team, Kane has shown remarkable maturation this season, both in his overall game and also in the physical elements of it. With 15 pounds of fresh muscle before the season, Kane has better control of the puck, and can make things happen every time he comes over the boards. Now, if only he could keep his shirt on……
D: Duncan Keith (11 G, 42 A, +23, 26:47 ATOI)
The Norris Trophy contender is an obvious choice for this spot not just because of his offensive numbers, but also because of his defensive prowess. He has been solid for the most part in that area, and he is keeping pace with Mike Green on the offensive side as well. He is one of the best two-way players in the game today.
D: Nicklas Hjalmarsson (1 G, 9 A, +8)
Every team needs a solid third line defender, and Hjalmarsson has certainly fit that role with the Blackhawks. Paired up with shot blocking ace Brent Sopel, Hjalmarsson has proven time and again that you do not have to put up big offensive numbers to have a big impact on the game.
G: Antti Niemi (17-4, 2.16 GAA, .913 Save Percentage, 4 shutouts)
Niemi has been turned to in all sorts of pressure situations, and he has passed every test with flying colors. Ever since he got his first career victory and shutout against the Panthers in his home nation of Finland, Niemi has been a stud all season.
Now that we’ve given out the All-Olympic Break honors, it’s time to dish out some other hardware.
Over the course of a season, there are certain games where a player simply takes over the contest. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a superstar at the top of his game, or a guy who is having a random stroke of good luck on a given night, because all that matters is that in that moment, that player is on top of the world.
With that in mind, here are the top five individual performances in a single game for the Blackhawks this season.
5. Antti Niemi Stymies the Champs (12/5/09)
In what has been a recurring theme during this hockey season, Antti Niemi got the call against a very tough opponent when he was tasked with stopping the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins at the beginning of December.
While the Pens were missing their top scorer in Sidney Crosby, the rest of the team didn’t seem to notice, taking shot after shot at Niemi, who stopped all but one of the 33 shots fired at him. He made some of the most acrobatic saves he’s ever made in his young career, and pretty much tied himself into knots to stop the attack. Without him, the Hawks would not have won the game. Period.
4. Troy Brouwer Snatches Victory from the Jaws of the Sharks (1/28/10)
The Blackhawks, who had defeated the Sharks 7-2 earlier in the season, went back into the Shark Tank to do battle with their main Western Conference rivals. Early on, they built up a 3-0 lead, and history seemed to be repeating itself. Then, the Sharks came back.
Tying the game at three early in the third period, the Sharks tried everything they could to beat the Hawks and swipe the two points that had seemed almost pre-ordained to go to the Hawks’ column. Then, when the game went to overtime, Troy Brouwer stepped up and delivered his second goal of the game to give Chicago a 4-3 victory.
It was a microcosm of the season for Brouwer: step up when needed the most, and that is why this performance made this list.
3. Patrick Kane Stuns the Predators (12/27/09)
After being down 2-1 for most of the first two periods of the contest, the Blackhawks stormed back and scored three goals to seemingly put the game out of reach for Nashville.
Never backing down, the Preds tied it up with 3:35 left in regulation, and the game seemed almost destined to go to overtime. Then, as he has done quite a bit in his young career, Patrick Kane stepped up and delivered a knockout punch, tallying his second goal of the game with 44 seconds left and giving the Hawks a 5-4 regulation win.
2. Antti Niemi Shuts Out Vancouver (11/22/09)
In his second appearance on this countdown (it was nearly three but his shutout against Florida in his home country of Finland was barely left off), Niemi absolutely dominated the Vancouver attack during this contest. He made save after save, and when the dust settled, he had stopped all 30 shots in a 1-0 squeaker victory at GM Place.
As in the Pittsburgh game, nearly all of the Canucks’ chances were high quality shots, but Niemi showed why he was such a highly touted prospect coming out of Finland, and demonstrated the qualities that have led him to wrest the number one goalie spot away from Cristobal Huet.
1. Marian Hossa’s Debut Game at San Jose (11/15/09)
In one of the more memorable debuts in Blackhawks history, Marian Hossa made a quick splash in his first game with the team, scoring two goals (one on a short-handed breakaway) in a 7-2 romp over the Sharks.
He has since added four more short-handed tallies (and ten regular strength goals) to lead the team, and he has quickly proven this season what a valuable asset he is to the club.
Finally, in an effort to neatly wrap up this recap of the Hawks’ season through 61 games, let us reflect on the five most outstanding plays made by Blackhawks players this season. These memories come with video clips to relive the magic.
Top 5 Outstanding Plays
5. Brent Seabrook Wins it in OT For the Hawks
Unfortunately, you have to skip to the 6:55 mark of the video in order to see the goal for Seabrook, but it is worth the wait.
Seabrook picks the puck up in the offensive zone, and absolutely rips a wrister past Mikka Kiprusoff to win the game 6-5 over the Calgary Flames. This just happened to be the game that the Hawks came back from a 5-0 deficit to win.
4. Patrick Kane Plays Ring Around the Rosie and Scores
Patrick Kane has had an absolutely outstanding season so far for the Chicago Blackhawks, and this was his finest moment of offensive prowess.
The extra strength that he gained over the course of the off-season certainly helped him maintain puck control here, and his pinpoint precision with his wrist shot was a thing of beauty.
3. Kris Versteeg Pulls a Double Toe Drag and Scores Against Blue Jackets
It is extremely difficult to do one curl-and-drag move while skating at full bore down the ice, but to do it twice is an absolutely incredible feat of hockey skill. Kris Versteeg made SportsCenter with this outstanding goal, and rightfully so.
2. Dustin Byfuglien Scores the Winner Against the Rangers
Once again, you have to skip to the :55 mark of this video to see the magic, but to see a 260 pound monster of a man skate down the ice like he hit the turbo button on an Xbox controller was a surreal moment. Still hard to fathom that Big Buff skated that fast and still had the ability to feather a wrister past Henrik Lundqvist. What a play.
1. Marian Hossa “Drops It Like It’s Hot” Against the Lightning
There aren’t words to describe the hand-eye coordination of Mr. Hossa on this play. What an incredible feat of athleticism.