Nov 15, 2016; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey (44) holds up Chicago Blackhawks left wing Artemi Panarin (72) during the third period at MTS Centre. Winnipeg won 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports
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The Chicago Blackhawks have turned a rocky start to their season into a conference lead
Well, last night could’ve been better. The Chicago Blackhawks started their annual, and what turns out to be their final, Circus Trip with a 4-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. Their first shutout loss of the season also ends the Blackhawks’ 11-game point streak and was the first game of the season in which they failed to score at least two goals.
But not all is doom and gloom as the Blackhawks have been one of the more collectively hot teams in the NHL this year.
Considering the slow start to the season, Chicago fans should be more than pleasantly surprised that their team currently sits atop the NHL’s Western Conference at 11-4-2 and is four points clear of the same Winnipeg Jets in the conference and Central Division standings.
So who or what is contributing to the Blackhawks’ current form? Let’s take a look at the good and the bad and see who’s hot and who’s not with the Blackhawks.
With the Blackhawks playing at such a high level early on in the season, the names that one would usually expect to be responsible for the success are the ones making the contributions. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Corey Crawford, etc. They’ve all been good to begin the season.
It’s the ones who are exceeding expectations that are the ones to focus on, as well as some aspects of the team that had plenty to improve upon from the first handful of games in October.
Nov 11, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks right wing Marian Hossa (81) with the puck during the first period against the Washington Capitals at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Which Chicago Blackhawks are hot right now?
It’s different to say that Hossa is surprising anyone or that at the age of 37, going on 38, that he would be able to exceed expectations. But that is exactly what he has done through the first 17 games of the year.
Hossa was a player who was in-flux coming into the season, with many wondering if he was still a top-liner or more of a third-line forward. Being placed in a third-line position early on has helped Hossa find his stride this year, and with coach Joel Quenneville moving the lines around as he usually does, Hossa has found himself on the second line with Artem Anisimov and Richard Panik.
In the month of November, Hossa has tallied eight points, with six goals. Coming into last night’s game against Winnipeg, Hossa had four-game point and goal-scoring streaks. Hopefully he can begin another streak when the Blackhawks play in Calgary against the Flames on Friday.
If Chicago’s penalty-killing wasn’t utter garbage to begin the year, Crawford could be giving Carey Price a run for his money as the early favorite for the Vezina Trophy this season.
Crawford has been the backbone of the Blackhawks all year and has, at many times, kept them alive in games or helped steal points.
At 8-4-2 this season, Crawford is tied for third in the NHL for wins, and his .928 save percentage and 2.18 goals-against average rank him ninth and 10th in the league.
What is truly amazing is what Crawford has been able to do in even-strength opportunities. At even-strength, Crawford is third in the NHL with a .958 save percentage, behind Price and Tuukka Rask.
At first that doesn’t seem too impressive, but take into consideration that Crawford has faced 337 shots at even strength. Compare that to Price’s 279 and Rask’s 244, and Crawford’s work in net becomes a little more impressive.
Throw in two shutouts on the year and Crawford is off to another stellar start for Chicago and could (should) be in the running for the Vezina once again when it’s all said and done.
Being one of the surprising additions to Chicago’s roster coming out of training camp, Gustav Forsling has been one of the more surprising contributors to the Blackhawks’ success so far this season.
Coach Q on Forsling: “We’re very encouraged by what he can be as a player. Kinda think back to a young Hammer when he came into the league.”
Forsling had a slow start to the season, which is to be expected for any 20-year-old rookie making his first jump into the NHL.
But his recent form on and off the scoresheet has been pretty considerable. Coming into last night’s game against Winnipeg, Forsling had a three-game point streak going and scored his first NHL goal against the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday. Not a bad start to November for the Swedish rookie.
The penalty kill
Now, after starting the season giving up 15 goals on the penalty kill, the Blackhawks really only had one direction to go with their shorthanded unit. But, the way they have played in the month of November so far has been more than impressive for having only one way to go.
Since the start of the month against the Flames and including last night’s game against the Jets, the Blackhawks have gone 18 of 20 on the penalty kill, good enough to be tied for third in the NHL over that time span with a 90-percent kill rate.
Nov 11, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen (2) and Chicago Blackhawks left wing Richard Panik (14) chase the puck during the first period at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Sure, everything can’t be candy and roses all the time. There is plenty that is not going the way of the Blackhawks, as is evident with last night’s inevitable, but still-crushing loss. A few things that have been reliable for Chicago have turned a bit cold and could use a minute in the microwave to get re-heated. (Clever, eh?)
The Blackhawks should learn from last night’s effort and look to what has made them successful over the first two weeks of November and do what they can to recapture that. Easier said than done when the next six games are on the road and they only play one more game at home before the month ends, but it can still be done.
Once one of the hottest players on the team, Panik has begun to fall back down to earth in his point production.
Over the first 17 games of the season Panik has 10 points, and if that stat line was proposed to most Blackhawks fans at the start of the season, they would be more than happy with it. The problem comes when Panik’s 10 points came in the first 10 games of the season.
Playing the last seven games without a point, Panik has started to fall back into the fold of Chicago’s forward depth. Yes, he is still playing at a high level, but when a player sets himself up with such high expectations early on, the crash is inevitable.
This isn’t to say that Panik is a bum and everyone should have known it, but his play has left something to be desired considering how fast he started. Maybe more time playing with Hossa and Anisimov on the second line will do good for Panik, but if he continues on his downward trend, his ice time could continue to dip.
On one side of things, the Blackhawks’ penalty kill has found its stride in November. But, on the other side of things, the powerplay has left a lot to be desired, including not converting on a 5-on-3 opportunity in last night’s game against the Jets.
Since November started, Chicago has gone 3 of 28 with the man-advantage and ranks 21st in the league.
Compare that to their numbers on the powerplay in October, going 9 of 38 and ranking 10th in the NHL, and the Blackhawks’ special teams are going in polar opposite directions.
Whether it’s new line combinations, a new scheme or just plain ol’ new players on the man-advantage, something needs to change for the powerplay if the Blackhawks are going to get back to the form that they enjoyed over the last 11 or 12 games.
The addition of Brian Campbell in the offseason was a very welcome one for Blackhawks fans, and so far this season has done what it was supposed to do and provide a stop-gap on the bluecline. Campbell has done, over the entirety of the season so far, what has been asked of him. But recently, his contributions have been lacking.
Over the first nine games of the year, Campbell had six points and was a mainstay in the lineup. But after a healthy-scratch “scare,” Campbell’s production has taken a dip.
Since the month of November, Campbell has just one assist in eight games. If he is going to continue on this pace, the Blackhawks could start to grow a little sour on his return. Granted, he is a $7 million player playing on a $1.5 million deal. There is less room to criticize Campbell because he is giving his services on such a discount. But still, little more from him would be nice.
For the Blackhawks, the Circus Trip farewell tour continues on Friday in Calgary when they take on the Flames for the third time in 18 games. After that, they turn around and face the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night and then head to Edmonton to take on the Oilers on Monday night.
Some very winnable games are ahead of them. All three upcoming teams are facing lulls in their form, as the Flames are 4-6-0 over their last 10 games, the Oilers are 3-6-1 and the Canucks are 2-8-0 over their last 10 games.