The Chicago Blackhawks are good, but they’re not this good. They might be the best team in the NHL, but they aren’t this much better than the rest of the league.
I mean that as a compliment.
Because when you put it in context, you realize just how incredible their 21-0-3 start has been. Even with their superstars, even with their supporting cast, even with their goaltending, this should not be happening. The talent is too even. The games are too close. The schedule is too crazy.
The reason this is so impressive is not because the Blackhawks have shown they cannot be stopped. It’s because it’s so improbable.
The streak doesn’t mean the Blackhawks will win the Stanley Cup. But it could help them in the end.
“It’s an amazing run,” said Blackhawks senior advisor Scotty Bowman, who coached some of the best teams in NHL history and has just about seen and done it all.
The Blackhawks are halfway through this lockout-shortened 48-game season without a regulation loss. It would be remarkable even if they were a little more than a quarter of the way through a normal 82-game season. It might be more remarkable considering they had only a week of training camp and no preseason games.
They have started the season on a 24-game point streak. The previous NHL record was 16.
They have won 11 consecutive games, a franchise record. They entered the league in 1926.
They have a .938 points percentage. The NHL record is .875, set by the 1929-30 Boston Bruins, who put up 77 points in 44 games. The best points percentage last season was .677, by the Vancouver Canucks.
They have 45 points, giving them a 10-point lead on the rest of the league. Opponents don’t even include them in conversations about the race anymore. They start with a qualifier now: “Besides Chicago …”
The Blackhawks, said Colorado Avalanche coach Joe Sacco, seem to be “on a different cloud right now than everybody else.”
Yeah, Cloud Nine.
To put the 10-point lead in perspective, consider that 10 points separate the next 16 teams in the standings – the equivalent of a full playoff field.
What’s that, you say? The Anaheim Ducks, the next-best team, have two games in hand? True. But let’s assume the Ducks win those two games, get those four points and cut the lead to six.
Six points is still a huge lead in today’s NHL. Six points separates first through sixth in the Eastern Conference. Six points separates third through 12th in the West.
The Blackhawks have pulled ahead of the pack even though this is a different era.
The NHL’s longest undefeated streaks came in 1979-80, when the Philadelphia Flyers won 25 and tied 10, and 1977-78, when the Montreal Canadiens won 23 and tied five. But the league had no salary cap then, and it didn’t award points for overtime and shootout losses. There was a significant gap between powerhouses and weaklings. The scores and standings were far looser than they are now.
If anyone knows about parity in today’s NHL, it’s the Blackhawks, who gutted half the roster in a salary-cap purge after winning the Cup in 2010. They have spent the last two seasons trying to find the right mix again, going out in the first round twice. It’s virtually impossible to build a dynasty anymore.
Bowman coached the 1977-78 Canadiens, who weren’t even his best team amid a run of four straight Cups.
“I looked it up,” he said. “That 28-game run we had that one year, we only had two games that we won by one goal.”
He laughed. In this 24-game run, the Blackhawks are 13-0-3 in one-goal games.
“Think about that,” said Edmonton Oilers coach Ralph Krueger. “Sixteen of the games they got points in were one-goal games. So they’re not dominating the West. They’re just dominating in finishing, in doing right things to win. … They’re not dominating. They’re battling through every game.”
“This team’s playing a lot of teams that are very close,” Bowman said. “The games are one goal, one goal, one goal, down to the wire.”
What’s that, you say? The Blackhawks aren’t playing anyone from the East because the lockout kept the schedule within conferences? True. But sorry, that doesn’t diminish this. It enhances it.
“The East is strange,” Krueger said. “They’ve got higher scoring games, and they’ve got lopsided games more than we do. We have a whole different parity. The gap between the top and bottom in the West is way tighter when I watch the hockey games as far as the quality.”
The travel is also tougher in the West, and the Blackhawks have had a brutal schedule – brutal even relative to what everyone else is enduring after the lockout.
Bowman is a scheduling savant. When he was a coach, he would break down the schedule in detail. He would look at it from Sunday to Saturday, and he would see how many four-game weeks there were.
“What I’m most amazed about this record is, the first two weeks of the schedule,” Bowman said.
The Blackhawks opened with two four-game weeks. They played 10 of their first 12 on the road, going to Los Angeles and Phoenix, back to Chicago for one game, going to Dallas and Columbus, back to Chicago for one game, and then going to Minnesota and Vancouver and Calgary and San Jose and Phoenix and Nashville. They went 10-0-2.
When they beat the Avalanche on Wednesday night – erasing a one-goal deficit in the third period and winning 3-2 – that was their eighth game in 13 nights. When they face the Avs again Friday night, it will be their ninth in 15.
“They’ve had some heavy lifting,” Bowman said.
So how have the Blackhawks done it?
They have been mostly healthy, their stars have been scoring, their supporting cast has been excellent, the goaltending has been great no matter who is in net, everything has clicked and they have gotten lucky at times.
Winning tight games has kept them confident, but not overconfident.
“When you don’t blow teams out, I think it keeps you very honest,” Bowman said. “When you win a game pretty overwhelmingly, you win a blowout game, you’ve got to be careful. Say you’re up 3- or 4-0 in a game, if you’re not careful, it could be 4-2 in a hurry. I think having so many close games, you say, ‘Well, we’ve gone through this before.’ ”
The bright side of the brutal schedule has been momentum.
“When you get on a run and you win games and you’re playing every second night, not practicing is not as much of a handicap as if you’re losing games,” Bowman said.
What’s that, you say? This is not sustainable? They don’t award the Cup in March? True. The Blackhawks probably will come to earth sooner rather than later, especially now that they are starting to run into more injury trouble. It’s now how you start; it’s how you finish. But as we just discussed, the streak is awesome precisely because it is not sustainable. And what should the ’Hawks do, lose? How you start can affect how you finish.
It sounds obvious, but remember, this is Bowman talking:
“I think the way you look at this is, when you’re in a competitive league, the first thing you want to do is [make the playoffs],” Bowman said.
Bowman figures teams will need 55 or 56 points to make the playoffs this season. That means the Blackhawks need only 10 or 11 more points in their final 24 games.
The next thing you want to do is finish as high as you can, even though home ice advantage in the playoffs doesn’t matter nearly as much as it once did. The Blackhawks will have to stumble badly not to win the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team.
Then, if you can, you want to set yourself up for the playoffs.
In 2001-02, Bowman’s Detroit Red Wings started 22-3-1-1. (The extra one was for an overtime loss. There were still ties. Loser points had been introduced, but not shootouts yet.) They cruised from there, and they were so far in front of the league at the end of the season, Bowman rested players down the stretch.
It almost backfired. The Wings lost momentum and went 1-3-4-2 in their final 10 games, and their only victory was over the Atlanta Thrashers, the NHL’s worst team at the time. They fell behind the Canucks in the first round, 2-0. But they were healthy, at least relatively, and they rallied and won the Cup.
The Blackhawks’ schedule lightens from here, before toughening up again. After they finish playing nine games in 15 days, their next nine games will be in 24 days. Starting next week, they will play three games a week for five weeks.
“The ’Hawks’ last two weeks of the schedule, last 14 days, they’ve got eight games,” Bowman said. “You’d like to go into those eight games with some kind of assurance of where you are. You could be injured at that time. You could be trying to get guys healthy. You’re thinking of the playoffs. That’s the bonus you get for this streak.”
That’s a big bonus, because when the playoffs start, everyone starts over.