Regardless of what ESPN’s Barry Melrose has to say, the Chicago Blackhawks are the NHL’s best team. He recently gave the Boston Bruins, winners of 7 straight, a bit of Lewinsky, and some of it is well-deserved. When you rank first in goals scored, goals allowed, save percentage, are 9th on the power play, 3rd on the penalty kill and have 9 players who have scored at least 21 points, you’re going to get some love from anyone with a smidget of common sense. It also doesn’t hurt when you can sit your 37 year-old goalie who’s having a career year for a 24 year-old goalie who’s actually playing better than said ancient goaltender. Melrose’s main argument for the Bruins being the NHL’s best team was that the Blackhawks give up too many goals, even when they win. This was a problem, but I don’t think the issue is as big as Melrose thinks. Alas, the Bruins ain’t the Blackhawks.
What should frighten the rest of the NHL is that the Blackhawks still haven’t consistently played their best hockey yet. Still, Coach Q and the team appear to be getting the kinks out, changing line combinations, positions and roles. Remember, this is a team that played the first month of the season on the power play to Ringling Brothers theme music. Somehow, they finished October 7-2-2 despite scoring on only 9.5% of their power plays. Killing 92% of penalties certainly helped make up for that atrocious effort, but the Blackhawks also scored goals while at even strength and notched the occasional shorty, too. Not many teams are talented enough to go 3-1 to close out a month despite going 0-18 with a man advantage during those games, but this one surely is.
Maybe this Blackhawks team isn’t as deep or good as the 09-10 title squad, but they’re starting to put it together now. Four Blackhawks are in the NHL’s top 25 in scoring, and three are in the top 30 in plus/minus. Yes, this team does score, and often. They’re fifth in goals scored and despite a stretch that involved too many goals allowed due to either inept goaltending or defense, are allowing the 15th-most goals per game, respectable for a team that lost consecutive games by a score of 14-2. The power play isn’t quite “clown shoes” anymore and is ranked 12th in the NHL, but the penalty kill unit has been virtually unsightly, coming in at a paltry 27th in the NHL. That’s something else that should scare the living shit out of every other team in the NHL: The Blackhawks currently have the best record in the NHL and can’t stop anyone from scoring with a man advantage. Once that part of the special teams becomes even average, it’s game over for anyone the Blackhawks face on the ice.
While franchise cornerstones C Jonathan Toews and C/RW Patrick Kane have been mostly exceptional, a few others have chipped in to make this Blackhawks team a legitimate title contender.
LW Viktor Stalberg scored a career-high 24 points last season while playing 77 games with the Blackhawks. This season, through just 35, he has 22 (9 G, 13 A). Stalberg was held scoreless in the Blackhawks’ last 2 games, but tallied 8 points (4 G, 4 A) in the previous 6, with the Hawks winning 5 of them. RW Patrick Sharp is a new father and has given his newborn daughter something to remember for the month of December. Sharp has scored at least one point in 11 of the team’s 13 December games. Even better, each of those games resulted in a W. The two games Sharp didn’t score at least one point in? The Blackhawks lost both games. My second-favorite player, RW Marian Hossa, is 6th in the NHL in scoring with 41 points (17 G, 24 A). Before Wednesday’s shutout loss against the LA Kings, Hossa had an 8-game point streak, scoring 14 points (5 G, 9 A), with the team going 7-1 in that stretch. Defensemen Duncan Keith and Brian Seabrook seem to have shaken off rough starts to their seasons, as well. Through the first 2 months of the season, Keith was a +1. In the month of December alone, he’s been +9. Having been the victim of a few unnecessarily rough hits of late, Seabrook is looking to get back on track. In last night’s 3-2 home win over the Red Wings, Seabrook scored his first goal since November 11, and he’s a +8 in December after being a +3 over the first 2 months of his 2011-12 season. D Daniel Carcillo has instigated shit, D John Scott has…skated upright, RW Jamal Mayers has fought some fellows and even played a bit of center, I’ve remembered who C Steve Montador is, D Nick Leddy has been a mini-Brian Campbell (to an extent) and even LW Andrew Brunette and C Dave Bolland have had their moments.
The Blackhawks’ lowest point of the season was November 19. On the road playing a young Edmonton Oilers team that had lost 4 straight, it appeared as if G Ray Emery would be able to easily get a W and possibly pad his stats. Then, the game happened. And once that game happened, there was an onslaught…just not by the Blackhawks. Emery gave up 7 goals in 27 shots and the Blackhawks eventually lost to the Oilers, 9-2. That was followed by a heart-breaking 1-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks, a game in which former Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi shut them out while facing 34 shots. While Crawford had one too many Luongo moments, it was Emery who was the team’s convenient whipping boy whenever he was in goal and the team either lost or barely held on to win.
However, Emery shone like crazy once he replaced Crawford in net early in the second period of an eventual 4-3 shootout loss to the Phoenix Coyotes on December 5. He stopped all 11 shots he faced in that one before giving up the game-winner in the shootout. After the Sharks loss (Crawford got the start, stopping 20 of 21 shots), Emery was great in goal, going 6-2 with a .931 SV% and 1.85 GAA while appearing in 9 games and starting 7 of them. Over the same 16 games, Crawford was better than he was during his shaky string of games, also going 6-2, but with a slightly less spectacular .911 SV% and 2.83 GAA. While I doubt there was ever a goalie controversy, I do believe that seeing Emery between the pipes gave Crawford a little bit of incentive to play extremely well once given the opportunity again. The Blackhawks’ last 4 opponents haven’t exactly been the toughest, but he’s still won 3 of 4 starts while posting a ridiculous 1.52 GAA and equally ridiculous .952 SV%.
It’s not that I think the Blackhawks are light years ahead of the Bruins, because I don’t think this is the case at all. C Tyler Seguin and LW Brad Marchand pace the defending Stanley Cup champs in scoring, while goalies Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rusk have done their part to make sure at least one of them takes home the William Jennings Trophy at the end of the season. When it comes down to one game for it all though, would you rather roll out Sharp-Toews-Hossa or Lucic-Krejci-Horton? Are Chara and Boychuk a better defensive pair than Keith and Seabrook? Who is the better playmaker: Patrick Kane or Patrice Bergeron? Maybe I’m a bit biased and just don’t see how Melrose can ignore a Blackhawks core that is only getting stronger. Then again, that top-line trio for the Bruins is pretty damn good and are 23, 25, and 26 years old, respectively.
We’re not even halfway through the 2011-12 NHL season yet. Teams will rise and fall, and that goes for the players (and coaches) as well. It’s quite possible that the Bruins will cement their status as the NHL’s best team in our mullet-wearing friend’s mind. Of course, the Blackhawks could further shore up their defense, goaltending and penalty killing and occupy the top spot. No matter; having the best record doesn’t really mean that much. Just ask 7 of the last 8 winners of the Presidents’ Trophy. All but two of them didn’t even make it to the Stanley Cup Finals. These are the NHL’s last two champions, and you’d better believe that they’re more interested in once again hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup rather than being named the best team in the NHL not even halfway through the season by the unfashionable Barry Melrose. But, the Blackhawks are indeed the best team in the league. Just sayin’…