On Saturday night, the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-2 at the United Center, bringing their record for the first 10 games of the season to 6-2-2. Ray Emery made 27 saves in only his second start of the season, and while the Hawks’ power play struggled to get going in an 0-for-5 performance, their penalty killing unit was perfect yet again, going 5-for-5 in keeping the Jackets off the board. It was a great microcosm of their season to this point, and it was a solid victory for a club that is among the top squads in the Western Conference.
With that all in mind, where exactly do the Blackhawks stand after 10 games? Obviously there are plenty of reasons for optimism for a club that is looking to get over last season’s playoff disappointment against the Canucks, but are there some signs of problems to come for this club as they make their way toward the Circus Trip next month? To examine those questions, here are some thoughts on the various areas of the Hawks, and some stats that shed some light on this club that has 14 points and has gotten points in eight of ten games:
The Hawks’ offense, which struggled at times last season, has looked very solid in the first ten games in various areas. Notable among those is their puck moving, which has been sharp in nearly every game and is setting up some tremendous opportunities. Chicago is also sticking to their game plan well of getting pucks to the net and getting traffic in front at even strength, averaging 33.6 shots per game.
Chicago is also one of only four teams that are averaging over three goals per game (four more are averaging exactly three), and they are being led by some solid performances by guys like Marian Hossa (who had a five game goal streak) and Patrick Sharp (tied for the team lead with Patrick Kane with eight points). Kane’s performance has been great as well, as he adjusts to playing center full time and is doing a solid job of it.
Very few players could stand to do better, but Viktor Stalberg is one such player. He was on a line with Jonathan Toews last night and scored twice, but he only has three points in seven games including those tallies, so he needs to keep that up.
The Hawks have gotten some very good contributions from their defense this season, with their top two defensive pairings largely doing a solid job. The duos of Duncan Keith-Nick Leddy and Brent Seabrook-Niklas Hjalmarsson have developed some very nice chemistry, and the unit as a whole has only been allowing 2.3 goals per game, good for seventh in the NHL.
A couple of things do have to be addressed on the blue line, however. Sean O’Donnell has looked every one of his 40 years at times, so Joel Quenneville is going to have to give Sami Lepisto and (gulp) John Scott some chances back there. In addition, Leddy has looked uncomfortable at times with the puck, falling down quite a bit and making questionable passes into the middle of the ice. He has to get some more confidence, which will hopefully come with more playing time.
Power Play: D+
A strong suit of the team a year ago, the man-advantage unit has been absolutely atrocious this year. They are currently the fourth worst PP unit in the NHL, converting on only 10.5% of their chances. They have had 38 chances in their first 10 games, and they have only converted four of them, including an abysmal 1-of-14 success rate on the road.
Quenneville has tried various different schemes in order to kick start the club, including putting Dave Bolland on the first power play unit last night against Columbus. Nothing they have tried so far has worked, however, and they are just going to have to either ride out the wait until the lines start showing some chemistry in this area, or they will have to readdress their strategy that they use. Either way, something has to be done in order to improve this trainwreck of a start for the power play.
Penalty Kill: A
For a unit that was one of the worst in the league last year, the transformation into the league’s best penalty killing unit has been quite the sight to see. They are killing off 93.9% of chances this year, only allowing two power play goals in 33 chances. To make things even better, they have scored three short-handed goals to offset those power play tallies they have allowed.
There have been a couple of big keys for the Hawks in their turnaround, including improved play in that area from their defensemen and having Bolland playing at a high level. They are not over-committing to chasing the puck below the goal line (a common mistake they made last year), and they are taking every opportunity to clear the puck from the zone instead of just trying to start rushes the other way. Ironically, that puck responsibility and increased caution has led to more opportunities, as the Hawks take advantage of the speed of guys like Michael Frolik to move the puck quickly up ice.
Corey Crawford has been really solid for the Hawks so far this season, posting a 2.19 GAA and a .921% save percentage. He hasn’t let the pressure of being “the guy” get to him, and he has been earning every penny of his 3-year contract that he signed after last season.
As for Ray Emery, he has done a respectable job, but he hasn’t really impressed anyone with his puck control (or lack thereof) in the early going. His lateral movement has also been questioned, as he is still recovering from a hip injury that hindered him for much of last season, and that has to improve if he is going to stay in the fold long-term.
The Hawks do have Alexander Salak waiting in the wings if anything happens to either goalie, but that isn’t exactly the world’s greatest insurance policy. The Hawks have to hope for Crawford to make between 65-70 starts at this rate, and we’ll see if he can reach those levels and maintain this effectiveness.
Even with the struggles of this team’s power play, they are showing themselves to be strong in most of the other areas. Their offense is clicking, their stars are producing, and their defense is finding the form that it showed in the team’s Stanley Cup run two years ago. They are also taking advantage of home ice, getting at least a point in all of their games at the United Center.
With all of those things going in their favor, it will be interesting to see whether they can keep it up as six of their next 10 games are on the road. Their next game comes on Monday night as they try to make a statement against divisional rival Nashville, which will start at 7:30pm in Chicago.
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