With the Chicago Blackhawks and all of the NHL on a holiday break, it is time to reflect on how the Hawks have played so far this season.
For starters, before I break down each component of the 2013-2014 team, you have to give a ton of credit to General Manager Stan Bowman for figuring out a way to keep most of last year’s Stanley Cup championship team together and bringing in the right pieces to keep the Hawks atop the Western Conference.
When the season, one of the biggest questions surrounding this Blackhawks team, was if the Hawks gave Corey Crawford a new contract, could he perform the way he did in the playoffs. From the start of the season, Crawford silenced most of his critics by posting one of the best records in the NHL and put the Hawks in a position to win almost every night until he got injured.
In true Chicago sports form Crawford sustained a lower body injury and has been sidelined for the past month or so.
So who do the Hawks turn to?
40-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin.
Well, for those who haven’t been following, he also got injured after posting sub par numbers and not playing very well for the Hawks. With both Crawford and Khabibulin gone due to injury the Hawks turn to rookie goaltender Antti Raanta. Raanta, from Finland, was signed by Bowman and sent to the AHL affiliate Rockford to get use to the professional style of play, but with the injuries, the Hawks had no choice but to call him up.
Raanta has played spectacularly for a rookie and looked like a seasoned veteran behind the pipes every night. Raanta has posted 8-1-2 record and has continued to improve every night. Raanta performance while Crawford heals up has shown Hawks coaches and management that he is the goaltender of the future.
There was little doubt on how the forwards would play after the Stanley Cup run, and so far they haven’t disappointed. Led by star Patrick Kane, the forwards have been the catalyst of this team and have put up huge numbers night in and night out.
Kane has had two streaks so far this season of ten plus points in consecutive games and is only second in the whole league in points. Kane has continued where he left off in his Conn Smyth trophy performance in the playoffs.
Kane highlights a star-studded group of all-stars and potential Olympians. Jonathan Towes, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad, to name a few have been consistently performing for the Hawks so far this season. If this group can produce like they have been thus far this season, this team is going to continue to be hard to beat.
Another plus has been the reunion of Kris Versteeg with the team. Versteeg was re-acquired from the Florida Panthers and has shown he can still produce.
One down point to this great group is the play enforcer Brian Bickell. Bickell had his coming out party last year in playoffs when he calculated 17 points and played a very large role in the playoffs. So far this season Bickell was plagued by a nagging injury and has not really found his touch yet season.
With potential Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith healthy and playing some of his best hockey of his career, the Hawks’ defense has been able to produce in many roles so far this season.
Keith leads defenseman in points and assists on the Blackhawks and ranks fifth in the league among defensemen in assists. With partner Brent Seabrook playing very well himself; this pair logs a lot of minutes each night and has proved they can handle the workload.
The defense also has seen strong contributions so far this season from Nick Leddy and Jonny Oduya, which have solidified them for the rest of the season. Niklas Hjalmarsson has also continued to play great and with his shot-blocking ability, the Hawks defense has a great three pairs of defensemen.
The only down spot with the defensemen is figuring out if rookie defenseman Michael Kostka can consistently play at the NHL level and if the Hawks can find a final pair of defensemen that can last the whole season.
What Stanley Cup hangover?
This time around, the Hawks know what it takes to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions and have come out of gates running full speed ahead to start the season. With most of the core players returning from last year’s team, this year’s Hawks squad is experienced and motivated to bring another championship to Chicago.
Coach Joel Quenneville has kept his guys focused on the task at hand each night and the Hawks continue to string together multiple streaks of winning so far this season. The Hawks sit atop the Western Conference and have the whole league on notice this season that they are not slowing down one bit.
You have to be happy with this team so far and little kinks in the team will figure themselves out. With the target on their back every night, the Hawks seem to have figured out a way to keep on winning.
Hawks return to action tonight when they take on the Colorado Avalanche at the United Center in Chicago. Puck drop is at 7:00 p.m. and can be seen on ALT and CSN-Chicago.
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