We’re amazingly at the halfway point of this 2013 sprint, and the biggest surprise in the NHL continues to be the Chicago Blackhawks.
Sure, Anaheim and Montreal have been better than anybody could have predicted, but the Blackhawks are running away with the NHL and were unbeatable in regulation until the Colorado Avalanche gave them a rare whipping Friday night by a 6-2 score.
Two nights earlier, the Blackhawks extended their record point streak to start the season to 24 against those same Avs. It was their 11th consecutive victory.
When Daniel Carcillo, of all people, is even allowed off the bench in the final minute and then rewards Joel Quenneville’s trust with the winning goal, you know every single star is aligning in the Windy City.
Look at the Blackhawks on paper and, of course, it’s easy now to understand why this team is so good.
It took a lot of losing to get here (the Blackhawks missed the playoffs nine out of 10 years from 1998 to 2008), but eight members of their 2010 Stanley Cup team remain. That includes the core of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
Before the season, though, it was hard to feel good about the Blackhawks.
Few trusted a goaltending tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery. They’ve turned out to be lights out. The Hawks were a team that finished sixth and eighth in the West the past two years and lost out in the first round of the playoffs. And last year, there were loud rumors of behind-the-scenes dysfunction. That came to the brink late in the season when Scotty Bowman’s old right-hand man in Detroit, Barry Smith, suddenly appeared on the ice teaching the power play.
There were also plenty of questions aimed at Kane when pictures of his drunken Cinco de Mayo in Madison landed all over the Internet.
But Kane, embarrassed by the latest off-the-ice incident, vowed to mature and has been nothing short of outstanding. He ranks second in the Western Conference with 27 points.
“The most important thing is we’re winning games and are obviously up there in the standings and making ground, but also it’s getting some publicity for hockey nationally, which is very important for the sport,” Kane said.
That was evident Tuesday when ESPN, TSN, Sports Illustrated and the Wall Street Journal invaded the Blackhawks’ locker room.
One game after the Blackhawks’ dramatic come-from-behind win over Detroit drew 1.9 million viewers to NBC — the best-ever regular-season game on NBC (excluding Winter Classics) — the Wild-Blackhawks game on Comcast SportsNet Chicago was the network’s highest-rated Blackhawks game ever.
The Blackhawks are winning games in every manner, whether it’s Hossa scoring with two seconds left to beat Calgary for one of Chicago’s 13 one-goal wins or overwhelming teams like the Wild with quick strikes.
Kane says “our core players have gotten better” and the young players, such as Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw, have given the Blackhawks a boost. The Blackhawks are deep, fast and play the game with the type of flair that makes them fun to watch.
They go north quickly, they make high-risk passes through the slot and neutral zone that other teams would never dream of doing. Kane is the king of that flash.
“There’s a time to play simple and smart, but I’m better when I’m creative and playing to my strengths, which is skill and playing with speed and having the puck on my stick and trying some things,” he said. “It’s about fun. I seem to play better when I have a smile on my face.”
The Blackhawks are putting a lot of smiles on faces. Now they finally have a loss in the regulation loss column. We’ll see how they respond.
“I talked to them after [Friday’s] game that they should be very proud of what they accomplished,” Quenneville said. “It’s a great feather in our cap, but let’s move forward here and try to get better.”
Weiss done in Florida for good?
If you’re a Wild fan, you know how devastating it is to a franchise’s future to lose a top-dog free agent for nothing.
Marian Gaborik got hurt early in the 2008-09 season and became untradeable at the deadline. The Florida Panthers received awful news last week when center Stephen Weiss, drafted fourth overall in 2001, opted to have season-ending wrist surgery.
In the last year of his deal, the Panthers will now not be able to get anything for Weiss.
Needing net help
In this shortened season, never before has goalie depth been so important.
Goalies are dropping like flies, from Ottawa’s Craig Anderson to New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur to Carolina’s Cam Ward to now Florida’s Jose Theodore.
Theodore, a former Wild goalie, is out with a torn groin. If unable to return, this could be it for the former NHL MVP.
Hossa hits one grand mark
Marian Hossa was honored before Tuesday’s Blackhawks-Wild game for playing his 1,000th game last Sunday.
“He’s a pleasure to watch,” said Patrick Kane. “Not only for the fans but for his teammates. He’s a guy you can learn from, a guy that excites you once or twice a game when you’re on the bench. He backchecks harder than anybody on our team, yet he could be the most offensive player.
“When you see him do that, you think anyone can be doing it and you should be doing it as well.”
THE WILD’S WEEK AHEAD
Sunday: vs. Vancouver, 7 p.m. (FSN)
Tuesday: vs. Anaheim, 7 p.m. (FSN)
Thursday: vs. Colorado, 7 p.m. (FSN)
Saturday: at Colorado, 2 p.m. (FSN)
Player to watch: Corey Perry, Anaheim
The Anaheim lifer is in the last year of his contract, and the Ducks are trying to extend him. Ryan Getzlaf re-signed Friday. If Perry doesn’t re-sign soon, look for the Ducks to trade him.
« It took us a while to stop moping around. I mean, the bench was dead. »
—Dany Heatley on the Wild seeing its 1-0 lead turn into a 4-1 deficit in 5 minutes, 43 seconds Tuesday in Chicago.