CHICAGO — He did it once. Then he did it a second time. After the Chicago goaltender made a save Friday night, Pat Foley, the Blackhawks’ beloved broadcaster, said the name Antti Niemi. He meant Ray Emery, of course. Niemi was at the other end of the ice, playing for the San Jose Sharks.
To be fair, they weren’t Foley-ian slips. They were Freudian slips. These Blackhawks look like the 2009-10 Blackhawks, the ones who brought the Stanley Cup back to Chicago for the first time since 1961. They are atop the NHL again – 14-0-3 after their 2-1 victory over San Jose, setting a record by starting the season with points in 17 straight games.
More important, they are a complete team again. What these 17 games have shown is that, for the first time since blowing up half the roster because of a salary-cap crunch after winning the Cup, the ’Hawks have stars and a strong supporting cast – four lines, seven ‘D,’ good goaltending, sharp penalty killing. If there is a nit to pick, it’s that the power play isn’t dominant. But it ain’t bad.
“Is it the same team? I’ve heard the comparisons,” said Sharks forward Adam Burish, a member of the 2010 Blackhawks. “You’ll have to wait till playoffs start, and we’ll see. But they’re a deep team.”
This is not the same team, not in composition – and certainly not in accomplishment, not yet. But it was never going to be the same team. Those Blackhawks were built primarily by Dale Tallon, who was replaced as general manager by Stan Bowman before the Cup win. These Blackhawks are Bowman’s.
Bowman was the one who decided to commit to the core – Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, David Bolland, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook. Bowman was the one who accepted the challenge of rebuilding the rest of the roster. Bowman was the one who stuck with it and stuck with coach Joel Quenneville, despite back-to-back first-round playoff losses, not to mention a long losing streak last season that raised a lot of questions.
“You believe in the guys that have gotten it done,” Bowman said. “You believe in Toews and Kane and Sharp and Bolland and Hossa and Keith and Seabrook. But they can’t do it themselves, right? They’ve got to have guys around them that can also buy into their roles, and the coaches.”
The Blackhawks’ new supporting cast does not match their old supporting cast one to one, though there are some parallels. Maybe Emery is the new Niemi, or Corey Crawford is the new Niemi, just because they’re goalies. Maybe Johnny Oduya is a poor man’s Brian Campbell as a puck-moving defenseman. There isn’t necessarily a new Dustin Byfuglien, though Viktor Stalberg stands in front of the net on the power play. There isn’t an exact replica of, say, John Madden or Kris Versteeg.
But every team has its own mix, and it can take time to get that mix right, especially after such a drastic change. Bowman remained patient as players developed in the organization and new acquisitions found their place. He didn’t panic when the team struggled at times and exited the playoffs early. He made some quiet, shrewd moves.
It has come together under Quenneville, who made one change on his staff last season, replacing Mike Haviland with Jamie Kompon, who once assisted him with the St. Louis Blues.
“If you go and make a bunch of changes and acquire guys, you have a great team on paper but if they don’t really mesh together and buy into their roles, it may not work,” Bowman said. “I think we finally got the right combination. We’ve had good players but now they’re integrating well into the whole team. The coaches deserve credit for figuring ways to get guys to understand their role and to go execute it.”
Why are the ’Hawks so hot? Their best offensive players are leading the team in scoring – Kane, Toews, Hossa, Sharp, Keith, Seabrook, Bolland, in order – and Emery and Crawford have been excellent in goal. It starts there.
But Brandon Saad, a 20-year-old rookie, has been on the top line with Toews and Hossa, and he has had more of an impact than his three goals indicate. Andrew Shaw has become a good third-line center. Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik have helped turn a poor penalty kill into one of the league’s best, and along with Jamal Mayers or Brandon Bollig or Dan Carcillo, they have become a heck of a fourth line.
When Bowman acquired Oduya before the trade deadline last season, sending second- and third-round picks to the Winnipeg Jets, it didn’t wow anyone. But Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson have not only taken pressure off the top pair of Keith and Seabrook, they have been perhaps Chicago’s best pair. Nick Leddy, still only 21, looks more confident with the puck, playing on the power play and the third pair with Sheldon Brookbank or Michal Rozsival. Quenneville isn’t afraid to put out any pair against anyone.
“For us guys coming in, we can’t look to the big guys to do it,” Oduya said. “We want to bring our part and be responsible. Even though we have that clear leadership, in a way we’ve all got to be leaders and push the team, and I think that’s what’s happening here a little bit.”
Look at how the ’Hawks set the record Friday night. Look at the scoresheet. Four of the six players who earned points weren’t on the 2010 team, including both goal-scorers – Stalberg and Saad. While Kane and Keith earned assists, so did Oduya and Rozsival.
“It’s probably a more skilled team than we had,” Burish said. “Top to bottom, their four lines, they can all skate. They can all score.
“The pace that they play with, the speed that they play with, there’s no fussin’ around. People say they look pretty, but it’s not always pretty with them. They’re just going and going and going. They play fast, and they’re deep, so they just kind of keep coming at you in waves. And that’s what’s making them successful.
“When you get to a playoff series, it’s grinding, it’s hard. But they’ve had guys step up.”
We’ll know more in April, May and June. While most of the league looks at last year’s Los Angeles Kings for inspiration, because they struggled, squeaked into the playoffs as an eighth seed and won the Cup, the Blackhawks look at them with caution. It’s great that the 'Hawks are 14-0-3. It’s great why they’re 14-0-3, because it suggests they have what it takes to go 16-and-whatever. But they still have to do it when it's toughest.
“We’ve played a third of the year,” Bowman said. “We’ve played very well. But if you don’t continue to play well, then essentially it doesn’t matter. It’s good that we’re playing well now. But we’re not satisfied that we’ve accomplished anything. We’ve got to keep going.”
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