March 20, 2017, 11:52 AM ET [161 Comments]
Chicago Blackhawks Blogger • RSS • Archive • CONTACT
You can't dispute it anymore. The Blackhawks, such as they are, still somewhat a work in progress, are clearly back as a legitimate contending team in 2017.
It's still too early to make any assumptions beyond that. But the composition and character of this team, when compared with the Cup teams of 2010, 2013, and 2015 tells what may some day be a very compelling story.
In 2010, the Hawks were all about youth and awesome depth of talent up and down the ice (except perhaps in net). In 2013 and 2015, the team was older, smarter—and while the salary cap had chipped away at the once awesome depth, there was still plenty of talent. Yet the amazing thing about those teams was their ability to tilt the ice in their direction, and make it seem like they were playing with 6 players to the opponent's 5— reflecting the mastery of Joel Quenneville's system.
In 2017, the story seems to be, not unlike the Red Wings of 8-10 years ago, the ability to win night after night through a combination of experience and youth, whatever it seems tot take.
That narrative played out again last night.
Just when it looked like #lemontnativescottdarling was turning back into, well, some guy named Scott Darling, and the Hawks were down 3-1, the Hawks ticked off 3 goals in 34 seconds. Followed up by a couple of later goals from ("dat bum") Jonathan Toews and ("dat other bum") Marcus Kruger, a 6-3 win, and a virtual death grip on 1st place in the Central Division and the Western Conference of 7 points over Minnesota (albeit with the Wild holding a game in hand).
It's not always pretty. The Hawks don't always dominate possession as they have in years' past. And unlike earlier this year and definitely last year, the nightly hero is not always named Panarin, Kane, or Anisimov.
To my eye, something clicked with this team about 20-25 games ago, beginning with an elevation in play from Toews and Duncan Keith, two of the three big engines of this team going back the last decade. But concurrent with that was the emergence of Richard Panik—from entertaining, yet puzzling energy forward, on whose blade the puck was often a hand grande, to a legitimate threat every time the puck is on his blade. Add to that Nick Schmaltz, returning from Rockford with something serious to prove, in addition to his obvious vision and skill. it doesn't hurt that Ryan Hartman has gone from "Andrew Shaw Lite" to "yeah, Hartman is a better player than Shaw."
Is this team better than the Capitals, a loaded team that can play any style you want, or the defending champ Penguins, or even the upstart Blue Jackets, who beat the Hawks earlier this year, and are getting kinda toasty hot again at a good time for them? I'm not ready to go there, or to assume the Hawks even get out of the West. Much can happen between now and when that gets settled.
But clearly, and really unlike any other time in the last 9 years, this particular Hawk team has evolved and emerged over the course of one season into something kind of special—after starting the season with a whole lot of head scratching.
I'll have a Vancouver preview tomorrow.