Hawks following Wings' path to success
As the Chicago Blackhawks step into the second half of this NHL regular season, it's fair to wonder aloud whether they aren't stepping toward destiny.
There is a kind of giddiness when examining the Blackhawks as they cruise through the season's midpoint, a sense of expectation that transcends where they are right now and begs the question of just how good they might be and what they might be capable of.
Why the hyperbole? Because right now the Blackhawks are quite simply the league's best team.
Yes, the New Jersey Devils are within a point or two.
So are the San Jose Sharks.
There are the Washington Capitals and the defending champions from Pittsburgh.
But by any comparison -- from special teams to shots allowed to skill level to team defense -- there simply isn't a team that can match the Blackhawks through the season's first half.
As they prepare to visit the Boston Bruins in our Game of the Week on Thursday night, the Hawks remind us of another team from recent memory in terms of the ability to produce wins in a variety of settings: the Detroit Red Wings.
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, never given to hyperbole, seems flattered by the idea that is the outside view but points out quickly -- and accurately -- that there's a long way to go between where the Blackhawks are now and what the Red Wings have accomplished in the past decade (winning Cups in 2002 and 2008, reaching the Cup finals last season and piling up no fewer than 108 points in every season since 2000).
"That's a heck of a compliment," Quenneville told ESPN.com this week. "I know how good they've been and how long they've sustained that, and that's a greater compliment."
Still, it's an interesting notion; the Blackhawks have quickly become the kind of team that appears capable of winning no matter the circumstance, no matter the opponent, every single night.
In the hours leading up to their 44th game of the season Thursday, the Blackhawks hold a 10-point lead over Nashville at the top of the Central Division. They have scored 50 more goals than they've allowed, and the teams closest in that category, New Jersey and San Jose, are in a different area code at a pedestrian plus-33.
The Blackhawks are tied for third in goals scored per game and lead the league in fewest goals allowed per game. They allow the fewest shots per game (24.1) by a wide margin and take more than nine shots per game more than their opponents. During the course of the season, the Blackhawks will take about 720 more shots than their opponents, which means their own goaltenders, Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi, won't be overly taxed, while opposing netminders will have to bring their A-game almost every night.
Also, the Hawks have yet to lose more than two games in a row this season and will hit the ice in Boston having won four in a row and seven of eight.
If there is one area to nitpick, it is the Blackhawks' road record. They are 10-6-4, but that record likely looks worse than it is because they are so dominant (20-4-1) at home.
"I don't think there's any doubt they are a much more mature and a much more versatile team than last year," said Ed Olczyk, a former Blackhawk who is a Chicago native and national broadcast analyst. "When it comes to the way they can play, I just think this team has matured a lot."
We recall sitting with Quenneville in Tampa, Fla., almost a year ago and wondering how his young squad would react to its first playoff appearance and whether the expectations of being a team of the future would work against it now that the future was at hand.
Instead of being brought down by the expectations (look at the Columbus Blue Jackets as an example of how expectations can be crushing), the Blackhawks embraced them. They earned home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs and knocked out Calgary and Vancouver before bowing to Detroit in five games in the Western Conference finals.
"I think the team responded to it very favorably," Quenneville told ESPN.com this week.
Like those Detroit teams of the past decade, the Blackhawks are difficult to play against because, well, they won't let opponents play with the puck. Part of it is the foot speed of the forwards, who can hunt down pucks more quickly. Part of it is the skill level of forwards such as Patrick Kane, the youngest player named to the U.S. Olympic team, whose offseason workout regimen made him physically stronger and more difficult to dislodge from the puck. Captain Jonathan Toews, who will be an Olympian for Team Canada, and Hossa are likewise physically strong and possess significant skill.
Then there's the blue line, which is the best in the NHL and has the skill to get the puck to the forwards and follow up with being part of the offense.
"We encourage them being a part of that," Quenneville said. "Almost all of our players are pretty adept at making direct plays first [as opposed to simply dumping the puck out of or into a zone]."
We guess the players are listening. As of Thursday, Duncan Keith is third among all NHL defensemen with 37 points, and he'll join blue-line partner Brent Seabrook on Team Canada's defense in Vancouver.
Olczyk said this Blackhawks team and the good Red Wings teams of the past decade are achieving the same result (owning the puck and piling up wins), but he believes they arrive at that end point via different paths. The Wings, he said, were more methodical, using their skill and patience to wait for the play they wanted, then executing that play.
"The Hawks have some players that play that way," Olczyk said. But, in general, Chicago relies more on a straight-line strategy, hammering teams with its quickness and offensive depth, shooting and then recovering the puck. "The end result is certainly the same."
At the end of the day, then, one question will always follow the Blackhawks: Is the goaltending good enough? Funnily enough, it was the same question that dogged the Red Wings the past two seasons, and Chris Osgood answered with 31 postseason wins.
Although Huet and, to a lesser degree, backup Niemi struggled with consistency early in the season, the two have been terrific ever since. Huet is tied for third in the league with a 2.08 goals-against average and 20-8-2 record in 32 games, and Niemi has a 1.81 GAA and 10-2-1 record in 13 contests.
Quenneville doesn't seem fazed by the worry that sometimes seeps into the Windy City about the state of the Hawks' goaltending and whether it's good enough. It comes with the territory when you haven't won a Cup since 1961 and the notion of a championship isn't just a mirage or cruel joke.
"That's always going to be asked until it's proven," Quenneville said of the goaltending. "They've really responded to some early challenges. Huey's played extremely well, and Antti complements him very well. It's been a good process for those guys as we're going through this year."
Olczyk sees it a little more starkly. What suggests they aren't good enough?
"To this point, they've given no reason to doubt why they can't do it," he said.
And given how good this Blackhawks team has been so far, maybe in the end the question will end up being moot.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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