After a second consecutive disappointing first round exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2012, the Chicago Blackhawks have kicked off this shortened 2013 campaign with a bang by recording their first 2-0-0 start since 1996. They will be spending a lot of time on the road as 10 of the first 12 games on the schedule have them away from the United Center.
The Blackhawks opened the NHL season Saturday afternoon at the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings and emotions ran high for a multitude of reasons: the near season-cancelling lockout ended, the Kings raised their Stanley Cup Championship banner and received their rings. The Hawks weren't phased, though, as they came out focused and firing on all offensive cylinders, finding twine 3 times in the first period. Blackhawks Captain Jonathan Toews had this to say about the hot start. "We tried not to focus on what was going on out there before the game. We were in (the locker room), just getting ready and doing our thing. We had a great first period, and when you come out in the first 20 minutes like that, you want to keep it going, and that's what we did."
While holding a 4-1 lead late in the 3rd period, the Kings put one past Corey Crawford making the deficit more manageable, but Marian Hossa responded just 15 seconds later to put the game away 5-2. Hossa led the scoring attack with 3 points (2G, 1A) in his first game after being removed from the ice on a stretcher against Phoenix in last season's playoffs thanks to a devastatingly cheap head shot from Raffi Torres, who was later suspended 25 games for the hit. Hossa has said that he is as healthy now as he's ever been, so look for him to be the offensive force he once was.
Despite the 5-2 victory, the Blackhawks suffered the loss of Daniel Carcillo, who was playing alongside Toews and Hossa on the top line, to a lower body injury that occurred late in the 3rd period. This was also Carcillo's first game since returning from injury, one calendar year from the date he had surgery to repair an ACL. He had the primary assist on Hossa's first goal and registered a +3 rating in his 10:53 on the ice. Expect Carcillo to be out about a month and look for Brandon Saad to get the first shot at replacing him in the lineup. In a short season, depth is going to be key for every team in the NHL.
On Sunday, the Blackhawks took to the ice against the team that eliminated them from the Stanley Cup playoffs a mere 272 days prior to this meeting and this would be the first of 12 back-to-back games on the schedule for the Hawks. Before the game, the Phoenix Coyotes unveiled the banner for the first ever Pacific Division championship in franchise history.
Backup goaltender Ray Emery got the start and allowed a soft goal to give Phoenix the early 1-0 lead, but the offense would get going in the 2nd period scoring three times and taking a 4-2 lead into the 3rd period. The Coyotes wouldn't go away easily as they got as close as 5-4, but the Blackhawks negated any momentum Phoenix may have had after scoring goals 50 seconds apart by answering 22 seconds later. Chicago won the game 6-4.
Early analysis of the Blackhawks will show that they are dominating on offense, scoring 5.5 goals per game, but let's look deeper at the numbers to find where they have improved. Last season, the Hawks' power play was lackluster, at best, ranking near the bottom of the league (26th) with 15.16% (42/277). In each of the first two games, the Hawks were 1/5 on power play attempts, but have shown signs of improvement with added traffic in front of the net and better puck movement.
Chicago was equally as bad on the penalty kill last season, allowing 51 goals in 233 chances (78.11%) which was good enough for 27th in the NHL. Through just 2 games and 8 short-handed situations, the Blackhawks have successfully killed off every chance. Also, every skater in the lineup has scored a point with the exception of Duncan Keith, Andrew Shaw, Brandon Bollig, Sheldon Brookbank and Brandon Saad (Brookbank and Saad have only played one game apiece).
Another storyline to pay attention to will be that of the goaltenders. Crawford looked mediocre against LA and it seems like Emery may have forgotten that the lockout ended against Phoenix. Both recorded wins, but are going to need to step it up a notch because it's hard to believe the Blackhawks are going to keep putting up 5 goals per game. It's unrealistic to expect that of them, so the goaltending needs to improve. The Hawks made a deal, on Monday, that brings Henrik Karlsson over from Calgary in exchange for a 2013 7th round draft pick. Karlsson was brought in for depth, as his contract is expiring at the end of this season. He has been assigned to Chicago's AHL affiliate in Rockford.
Sure, the sample size is small, but the numbers aren't to be taken lightly. The first two opponents on the schedule happened to be the last two standing in the Western Conference last year, so the hot start is not to be dismissed. The Blackhawks return to the Madhouse on Madison for 2 of their next 4 games before 6 more on the road and will undoubtedly try to further improve these numbers. Every point is going to be important in a 48-game season and the Hawks are rested, focused and primed to reestablish themselves as a Cup contender.
Steve Peters is a staff writer for nhlfanchat.com. Follow on twitter: @stevepeters_ and @nhlfanchat
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