Two Games, Two Wins: Evaluating the Chicago Blackhawks’ Banner Weekend

To say that it has been an eventful weekend for the Chicago Blackhawks would be an understatement. Not only have they had to sit through two banner raising ceremonies (Stanley Cup in LA, Pacific Champions in Phoenix), but they’ve also had to face down two of the game’s best goalies from a season ago, with Jonathan Quick and Mike Smith facing them between the pipes.

Despite the obstacles of travel, Vezina candidates, and pomp and circumstance, the Blackhawks finished the weekend 2-for-2, scoring 11 goals and securing their first 2-0 record since 1996. They’ve gotten contributions from just about everyone, and have left a huge impression on the rest of the NHL as things get going post-lockout.

So what headlines stand out for this team after their opening weekend? Here’s a brief rundown:

Marian Hossa Makes Case Against Amnesty Buyout

With all of the talk after the new CBA was agreed to about which players would end up getting the heave ho for salary cap reasons, it would stand to reason that a lot of attention would be paid to Marian Hossa. Add to that the pressure of coming back from a serious head injury suffered during last season’s playoffs, and you have a recipe for tentative hockey and trying to force the issue on the offensive side of the puck.

Instead, Hossa has looked completely unstoppable. He scored two goals in both games, and displayed his trademark puck possession game with little to no effort really expended. Outside of a couple of foolish penalties, including an offensive zone slash on Sunday, Hossa has shown no ill effects from any outside pressure or lingering symptoms from his concussion. He also has shown zero rust despite not having played in a European league during the lockout, which is arguably just as surprising as the other potential pitfalls he has managed to fend off.

Marian Hossa (Pam Rodriguez/THW)
Marian Hossa (Pam Rodriguez/THW)

Hossa has made a habit of getting off to hot starts during his tenure with the Blackhawks (who can forget his first game in a Hawks sweater against the Sharks in 2009?), but if he can sustain even remotely close to this pace, then this team’s loaded offensive attack is going to be a huge headache for the rest of the NHL.

Patrick Kane Showing that 2010 Form Again

If you look at articles previewing the 2009-10 season for the Blackhawks, there were a couple of recurring themes. The team’s offensive depth was one, and Patrick Kane’s improved conditioning was the other. There was a ton of talk about how he came into camp with 15 pounds of new muscle on his frame, and everyone was making googly eyes at his puck possession game throughout the season.

In the first two games this weekend, it looks like Kane has regained that edge again. He has been all over the ice, aggressively getting back on defense and also dancing around defenders like pylons. He is proving that playing overseas during the lockout can be just as effective as getting extra rest was for guys like Hossa, and it seems like his pairing with Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland (who has also been playing tremendous hockey) on the team’s second line is working out very much to his liking.

Special Teams Have Been Extra Special

If there was one gripe that fans had about the Blackhawks last season, it was that their power play was a hodgepodge operation that only seemed to get worse as more tinkering was done to it. They ended up finishing 26th in the league with a 15.2% success rate, right around stalwart offensive clubs like Minnesota and Phoenix.

This season, however, the Hawks have been better. They are moving the puck with more efficiency, getting more quality chances on the man-advantage, and they are finding success early on too. Kane is a big reason for that, netting a power play tally Saturday on a sweet pass from Hossa, and also dishing a tremendous pass to Bolland for a tap-in goal Sunday night.

Not to be outdone, the team’s penalty killing unit, eighth in the league a season ago, has continued to be good. They are preventing many quality chances against their goaltending tandem, and they have gone a perfect 8-for-8 in killing penalties. Big kudos in that regard have to go to Brent Seabrook, who has blocked eight shots already this season (and in spite of his woeful defense on the second Coyotes goal Sunday night) and Nicklas Hjalmarsson, who has approached this season like a put-up-or-shut-up campaign.

They will need to keep their discipline up as teams will surely try to get more physical with their potent offensive attack, but if they can keep killing penalties with that level of intensity and success, then it may not matter how many penalties they end up committing.

Corey Crawford in goal 11/25/11 at LA Kings
Dave Bolland (left) & Corey Crawford

Veteran Savvy Just as Important as Offensive Prowess Early

Saturday afternoon, the Hawks didn’t have much trouble in deposing the Kings. Sunday, however, they couldn’t quite finish off the Coyotes, and within a 50 second span in the third period, they allowed Phoenix to trim a three goal lead down to just one. Momentum, and a vocal opening night crowd, were firmly back on the Yotes’ side, but then a somewhat surprising thing happened: the Hawks rebuffed the advance.

Instead of letting their wounds continue to bleed, head coach Joel Quenneville called a timeout, and decided to send out his go-to line of Bolland, Kane, and Sharp, and the results were immediate. Bolland rushed up the ice, grabbed a pass from Sharp, and managed to get the puck past Mike Smith a mere 22 seconds after Shane Doan had netted one for the Coyotes. The air was immediately sucked out of Arena, and the pesky Coyotes were put down once and for all.

A younger team may have panicked on the road in a situation like that, but in the aggressive way that the Hawks responded coming out of the timeout, you perhaps saw a glimpse of a killer instinct that this team seemed to lack in previous seasons.

Goaltending Still a Question Mark

Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, not all of the news was good this weekend. Besides the unfortunate injury to Daniel Carcillo, the team’s goaltending situation is still an issue that needs to be resolved. Corey Crawford looked largely solid in his game against the Kings, but he will need to continue to demonstrate over his improvement from the lackluster performances he turned in last year, especially in the team’s first round defeat against the Coyotes.

As for Ray Emery, he was, in a word, bad. He wasn’t squaring up shots effectively, looked downright slow in moving from post to post, and was fighting the puck a good amount of the time against a Coyotes offensive attack that isn’t exactly loaded with quality scorers. He allowed a couple of real softies, including the first goal of the game by David Moss that somehow managed to find its way through Emery’s five hole.

A two-game sample size is obviously way too small to make any sort of definitive declarations about this team, but a lot of signs are looking positive for the club. Their puck possession has been splendid, their offensive schemes have been working to perfection, and their special teams are clicking on all cylinders. Those things could all change over the next 46 games, but in a season that will be defined by how the Hawks play through their tough opening stretch of games, this team has certainly gotten off to a rollicking start.