Blackhawks Can't Overlook Columbus
Even in a short season, it's too soon to anoint a new Stanley Cup champion or even discuss which teams will be contenders or pretenders, but something can be said for a 4-0 start by a team coming off an early exit from the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Chicago Blackhawks have started the season 4-0-0 for the first time since 1972-73 and are looking to win their first four road games since 1966-67 as they travel to Columbus for a divisional matchup against the traditionally less than middling Blue Jackets on Saturday night. It would be easy to overlook them with Original Six foe Detroit, with whom Columbus took to the limit in a shootout earlier this week, waiting at the United Center for a clash on Sunday.
A key component to the Hawks' start has been the contributions of their stars. Five of the top six scorers reside on their top two lines. Patrick Kane leads the way with 7 points (2G, 5A) and Marian Hossa has 6 (5G, 1A) including two game-winners. The two hooked up on the overtime winner in Dallas on Thursday when Kane executed a spin-o-rama, no-look pass to Hossa's wheelhouse that he drilled past Stars' goaltender Kari Lehtonen. Coach Joel Quenneville had this to say: "We'll talk about that one for a long time, like he had eyes behind his head. He saw Hoss and everybody thought it was on the left side, including me, and then he pulls that off and Hoss doesn't waste it and buries it. It was a special ending." Kane and Hossa represented the Blackhawks in last year's all-star game as well.
As for the Blue Jackets, they are a team trying to find an identity after losing super-star winger Rick Nash via trade to the New York Rangers this offseason. Columbus started 1-0-1 including a victory over Nashville to open the season but haven't scored a goal since the 5:30 mark of Wednesday's loss in Phoenix; that's 94:30 without a goal. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks haven't recorded a shutout since March 23, 2011, so something is going to give.
That shutout was recorded by the much maligned Corey Crawford. The Hawks' netminder struggled mightily last season but has started this campaign with better results. He is 3-0-0 with a 1.98 goals allowed average and a .923 save percentage thus far and also holds a career mark of 4-0-0 with a 1.96 GAA against Columbus. He hasn't really been challenged with all that many shots on goal and the ones that have gotten past him haven't exactly been unstoppable. In fact, Thursday night at Dallas, Crawford was bailed out by defenseman Duncan Keith as a loose puck squeaked through the five-hole and nearly crossed the line. Keith was able to get a stick on it in the nick of time. While he has gotten good results thanks to the Blackhawks offense putting up 4.3 goals per game, good for 4th in the NHL, Crawford still needs to show improvement in his play rather than just the numbers. He needs a decisive victory against a few good teams to solidify his place as the Hawks' number one goaltender.
It's important that the Blackhawks continue to play with their focus squarely on their opponent on any given and night and to not start looking ahead on the schedule. The Red Wings are off on Saturday after defeating Minnesota at home on Friday night and should be well-rested for a great rivalry game on Sunday evening.
As a fan, I'm obviously excited about their 4-0-0 start but am cautiously optimistic about this team returning to elite status. The Blackhawks seem to be playing with a different edge this year; a ferocity that we haven't seen in a few years. It's refreshing to see the young, but veteran core stepping up and leading this team. I feel like a 48-game season will greatly benefit the Blackhawks, especially with the amount of guys that skated in Rockford or overseas during the lockout. Maybe I'm just on a high with the return of hockey, but I can't wait to see how this season unfolds.
Steve Peters is a staff writer for nhlfanchat.com. Follow on twitter: @stevepeters_ and @nhlfanchat. Photo courtesy of @blap7