GLENDALE, Ariz. — Remember that fast start every NHL club talked about and dreamed about when the 113-day lockout ended and the 48-game sprint — er, schedule — was unveiled? Well, Chicago is the team everybody else was hoping to be.
The Blackhawks have raced out to an NHL-best 8-0-2 record despite playing eight of their first 10 games on the road. They have not been beaten in regulation or overtime. Their only two losses came in shootouts at Minnesota and Vancouver, meaning nobody has beaten this team straight up nearly a quarter of the way through the season.
While many theorized that the Coyotes’ offseason workouts together would help them, it’s become clear that the teams with skill have enjoyed an early advantage while clubs that are reliant on finely tuned systems have taken a little longer to get things sorted out. That’s been true of the Coyotes, who after a slow start have looked more like themselves in pulling back to the .500 mark.
“I’d rather be 10-0, but we’ve dug ourselves out of a little hole here,” said coach Dave Tippett, whose club is 3-0-2 since losing four of its first five. “The last four or five games, we’ve gotten back to the way we need to play. A lot of guys paid the price to win, and that’s what you have to do.”
That system will be put to the test against the Hawks, who boast a group of talented forwards including Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp as well as a whole lot of speed. The Coyotes are short-handed on defense, too, with David Schlemko out a while and Rusty Klesla still day-to-day. That means young defensemen Chris Summers and Michael Stone will have to answer the bell against Chicago.
“They’ve kind of set the pace for us in the conference,” Tippett said of the Hawks. “It’s a great test for us.”
THREE KEY OPPONENT STATS
1.82 & .930: Those numbers represent Chicago goalie Corey Crawford’s goals-against average and save percentage, ranking him fifth and sixth in the league in those respective categories. The Blackhawks’ downfall the past two seasons, following their 2010 Stanley Cup, has been their defensive play. But as many a national pundit has noted, if Crawford can figure out this goaltending thing, the Hawks are a very dangerous club. With the exception of a shaky first period Tuesday in San Jose, Crawford has looked poised and well-positioned in the net. The Sharks (three goals) are the only club to score more than two goals on him this season.
94.9 percent: That’s the Blackhawks’ penalty killing percentage, which represents the top mark in the league. That same penalty kill had been dreadful the previous two seasons, so the Hawks made it a point of emphasis heading into the year. Aside from Crawford, the additions of Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik to this unit have paid huge dividends. Chicago has allowed just one power-play goal in eight road games this season.
15 points: That’s what Chicago forward Patrick Kane (six goals, nine assists) has amassed in 10 games this season after a dreadful (by his standards) 66-point effort last season. Playing in Switzerland during the lockout likely helped, but Kane just looks more motivated and aggressive. Better yet, he’s been freed from the duties of playing second-line center, a position that was never a good fit. Dave Bolland has assumed those duties between Kane and Sharp, and Kane has notched at least a point in all but one game this season.
THREE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW
Retaliation for Raffi: Tonight’s game will be the first for Coyotes forward Raffi Torres against the Blackhawks since he leveled Chicago forward Marian Hossa with a hit to the head in last season’s playoffs. Hossa was taken from the ice on a stretcher and missed the rest of that first-round series, which Phoenix won in six games. When the Hawks were here earlier this season, Hossa insisted he had moved on, but the rest of the Hawks were not as forgiving, offering veiled comments about what is to come. Chicago doesn’t have many physical players, but Brandon Bollig, Jamal Mayers or Bryan Bickell could give Torres an early hello tonight.
New ‘do for Smith: Mike Smith has cut his famed locks into something that resembles a cross between a Mohawk and a mullet. “It looked like he must have been late to a meeting or something,” Tippett quipped. Earlier this season, Smith said he didn’t want to cut the hair because it might have a negative impact on his mojo. We’ll see if that was just superstition talking. Smith has stopped 38 of 39 shots to win his last two starts.
Hot Hanzal: Phoenix center Martin Hanzal has three goals and an assist in his past three games. He’s averaging a point a game in the six games he’s played. Hanzal is one of five Euros at the top of the Coyotes’ stat sheet; Radim Vrbata (10 points), Mikkel Boedker (seven), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (7) and Lauri Korpikoski (6) are the others.
Injury report: For the Coyotes, F Matthew Lombardi (shoulder) and D David Schlemko (shoulder) are out indefinitely, and D Rusty Klesla (lower body) is day-to-day. For the Blackhawks, F Daniel Carcillo (right knee) is out indefinitely and D Michal Rozsival (lower body) is day-to-day.