Minutes after his two-goal performance led the Blackhawks to a 6-4 win over the Phoenix Coyotes last Sunday, Hawks forward Marian Hossa issued a statement that is certain to raise the expectations of Chicago’s already rabid fan base.
“I feel, right now, like in 2010,” Hossa said. “Right now, we’re doing similar things.”
That 2010 season was, of course, when the Blackhawks snapped a 49-year Stanley Cup drought with a 4-2 series win over the Philadelphia Flyers. That season set a new standard for hockey in Chicago, but even in 2010, the Hawks didn’t do what this season’s Hawks have done.
The win over the Coyotes made Chicago 2-0 — and the Hawks stretched their perfection to 5-0 with subsequent wins over St. Louis, Dallas and, on Saturday, Columbus.
It marks the Blackhawks’ best start since they were 5-0-0 in 1971-72.
Even more impressive is the fact the Hawks have done it mostly on the road — beating the defending Stanley Cup champ LA Kings; the Coyotes, who went to the Western Conference Final and ousted Chicago last season; the Stars; and now the Blue Jackets all away from the United Center.
On Tuesday, the Hawks beat everybody’s trendy pick to win the Cup, St. Louis, to capture their home opener in front of a sellout crowd.
“I think it comes down to our work ethic,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “We’ve been all over the puck, all over the neutral zone, forechecking well. We keep saying ‘just do the little things right.’ We have some great habits out there.”
The most obvious of those has been the Hawks’ ability to score. Entering play Thursday, Chicago led the league with 14 goals, and eight players had already lit the lamp. The Blackhawks have long been known for their skill, but a couple of their principals are playing at the elite level that was apparent three seasons ago.
Hossa is back after a suffering a severe concussion in the first round of the playoffs last season on a vicious, open-ice hit from the Coyotes’ Raffi Torres. Three of his NHL-high four goals have been what he himself termed lucky bounces, but the Blackhawks need production from him and they’re getting it – along with all the other things the 34-year-old wing provides.
“Whether his production, or his play or his positioning, he does everything right,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Sometimes he may not be able reflect that when you look at numbers, but as a coach you appreciate him being on the ice in all situations, in all aspects of his game, because he plays the team game perfect.”
After a subpar season in which he didn’t even finish among the NHL’s top-30 point producers, Patrick Kane was rumored in dozens of trades. But the 24-year-old American has recaptured his magic in the early going with two goals and three assists, which had him tied for second in the NHL in points.
Some have speculated that Kane’s decision to play in Switzerland during the lockout might be aiding his early start, but so, too, might be his return to his customary role as a winger. Last season, the Blackhawks experimented with Kane as the club’s second-line center, mainly because they had a gaping void at that position and needed more offense from that unit. Kane slipped to 66 points.
“Going back and forth took its toll on him physically, and I think it affected his production,” said Blackhawks and NBC analyst Ed Olczyk. “I think it’s obvious he’s got a lot more jump so far, and he’s playing the same style that has made him successful.”
Kane is also benefiting from another experiment that is paying early dividends. Longtime third-line center Dave Bolland has moved up to the second line between Kane and sniper Patrick Sharp, giving the Hawks another deadly line behind Toews, Hossa and promising power forward Brandon Saad.
“When I came out of juniors, this was a role I always wanted to be in,” said Bolland, who has earned a reputation in the postseason for shutting down opponents’ top scorers but once had 57 goals and 73 assists in 59 games while playing for London of the Ontario Hockey League. “When I did come out of juniors it was something else that I had to do to stay in this league. That defensive role was always there, but the offense was always in my head. I still knew that I had it. Now it’s time to show it.”
Bolland cautioned that it’s premature to be making grand plans in Chicago. The Hawks still must prove they can play more consistent defense with the additions of Johnny Oduya and Sheldon Brookbank to a veteran mix on the blue line. Goalie Corey Crawford must continue to build on what was actually a better 2011-12 season than many give him credit for, due to the Hawks’ porous defense.
General manager Stan Bowman must prove that he can do more than inherit a talented core. The Hawks must withstand a grueling schedule that has them playing 10 of their first 12 games on the road. And the Hawks must prove they have the grit required for playoff hockey, when there is less open ice, more contact and much greater emphasis on a team’s depth.
But for a city that waited nearly half a century for a Cup, any sign of life is cause for unbridled optimism.
“It’s a good start to the season,” Kane said, “but hopefully we’re not done yet. Hopefully we can see bigger and greater things.”