CHICAGO- It was a Saturday evening around 7:23 PM when I sat into my seat - beer in hand I looked around at the other 22,000 people doing the very same thing - thinking the very same thoughts. That's when the lights went out - that's when the decibels inside the Madhouse began to rise. The Chicago Blackhawks in recent years have become the epitome of what a professional sports franchise should be. Accountable, honorable and humble - they repay their fans just as much as they pay their team - the home opener was sure to please. Before the game could begin however, there was to be a pre-game ceremony and video, or life wouldn't be normal - that's when it happened -that's when it caught my eye. It wasn't a banner raising - it was a "rally cry". As my ears waited for music, my eyes found the thought being presented to us all...
"IT HAS TO START SOMEWHERE! WHAT BETTER PLACE THAN HERE!? WHAT BETTER TIME THAN NOW?!
Phrase by phrase, one by one, the words came across the screen - until now I couldn't have agreed more.
Of course the beginning of anything is the perfect place to start. For the Hawks, the home opener was a chance to rid their memory of last years Western Conference Final - of what could've been - of what very well should have been. Offering up the opportunity to replace it with, "what can be" or even "what will be". In two days time, the Hawks will embark on the annual "circus trip" that comprises of a six game Western Conference swing over nine days. With the Hawks 4 points back in the Central Division and having an opportunity to make a statement amongst serious Western Conference foe - let me ask you again, "What better place than Calgary? What better time than Thursday!?
The Circus trip is special in and of itself, both for the Bulls and for the Hawks. But for the Hawks, it's something different. For the Hawks, it takes them away from real life for nine days. It reminds them of what's special about what they do - the Circus trip is childlike and at the bottom of it all, these men play a game. The most fantastic thing about the trip, it allows the Hawks to bond with the year still incredibly young, usually around 20 games into an 82 game season. Even for this group of guys a majority of whom have won a cup together, nine days of hotels, Mario kart, and pranks can bring even the closest of teams closer. It can be a whole new and special thing each and every year. This year, after having just dispersed of Dallas so easily - the Hawks as a whole unit can start to build - they can start to dominate.
Speaking of dominating, the Hawks did just that Sunday night against the Dallas Stars and mainly goaltender Kari Lehtonen. The first period began flashy and quick as all would expect with these two offensively loaded teams - the 1st frame ended even at 2. Hawks goals came from Keith and Seabrook - Mackenzie and Horcoff tallied for the Stars. But it was the third period that blew the game wide open - specifically, it was the newly formed line of Versteeg - Richards - Kane that got it all going. Richards, playing in his 1000th game was monstrous in and of himself most the game, but when he got the puck right in front of Lehtonen with the game deadlocked at 2, instead of shooting, he dished it to Kane who stood just inside the right dot. Kane didn't disappoint, burying a narrow angled wrister over the shoulder of Lehtonen to give the Hawks the edge 3-2, ultimately the game winner. From there, it was a two line show if all you did was check the box score. It wasn't long after that Toews took a Hossa shot behind the net and jammed it home with the wrap around (4-2). Less than two minutes later Richards threw the puck into the slot with precision, finding Versteeg's stick waiting patiently for the one timer, which again found its way over Lehtonens left shoulder (5-2). Capping the night, the captain showed how selfless hockey and teamwork makes the game all the easier. Exactly 1 minute and 10 seconds later, after Brandon Saad hustled for a loose puck and was able to get it to a wide open Toews tearing through the slot - the Captain deked and was able to get Lehtonen down. But instead of shooting, fed a soft pass to Saad who buried it at the back door. Toews was one on one with Lehtonen - but true captains reward their teams hard work, they don't steal the show because they can - Saad would be the one to cap the scoring. And I openly admit I'd follow Toews into battle anywhere with leadership like that. As usual, with the blender returning to purée, Q seems to have stumbled onto a solid two lines - of which combined for 13 points on the night, 8 points (Richards line) and 5 points (Toews line). Only thing left is to work out the last two while trying not to forget that Patrick Sharp is still a Blackhawk in the meantime.
Have I mentioned the 2nd best thing about the Circus trip? No? Well, allow me... That'd be the six games the Hawks are about to play against Western Conference opponents. Not only that but of those six, five are potential playoff contenders and four of the sixth are the top four teams in the Pacific Division. So if the 1st positive is the comradery, then the 2nd is most certainly the opportunity. With the Hawks hitting the road having won three of their last four, two of which came against Western Conference teams - the other against the Easts second place Tampa Bay Lightning, the chance to attack hasn't come at a higher premium so far this year.
This years trip will play out like this...
11/20 Calgary (24 pts, 3rd in Pacific); 11/22 Edmonton (14 pts, 7th in Pacific); 11/23 Vancouver (24 pts, 2nd in Pacific); 11/26 Colorado (17 pts, 6th Central); 11/28 Anaheim (26 pts, 1st Pacific)
11/29 Los Angeles (22 pts, 4th Pacific)
With the current level of success for the Hawks in recent past, winning three of four certainly isn't anything to parade through Grant Park about - especially with the Hawks holding the current points streak record. But as we've also learned in years past, though the Hawks indeed are an all-star caliber team - they certainly like to keep things interesting both for themselves, and for the Feather Faithful. However, coming into the trip the three most predominant issues, if there are any, seem to already be working themselves out.
1. The Power Play
The power play for the Hawks is a mind boggling thing to say the least. With the talent level on this team, one assumes that the man advantage would pose to be the most dominant force on the ice for the Hawks every night. As known all too well, this is hardly the case. In order for the entire world (to exaggerate) to be happy... The Hawks would have to click at around 32% conversion. That's astronomical - I'll take the current 17.81% and smile. The Hawks have converted at least one power play in the last five games - without Patrick Sharp and Richards still finding his footing at the point for Q - trust me, this number deserves a smile. At worst, it deserves some confidence. But again, just looking at the names on this roster does that inherently. Keeping this issue an almost "non issue" will certainly help the Hawks through the West Coast circus.
2. The Quenneville Blender
Many have an issue with Q's mixology, then again, many don't know hockey the way the man does. Many of us assume, like Miami did with their "Big 3", that the stars should play with the stars, and because they're stars - they should dominate. Well, this is hockey - it doesn't work like that. The greatest part of this years blender, it's blending a group of men together that could cruise through May and June. The current Hawks roster is a puzzle of talented, hard working, and intelligent hockey players - it's Quenneville's job to figure out which Champion takes the ice with whom - which puzzle pieces fit with whom. 18 games in, I have no qualms with it all, because aside from plugging Sharp back in, Q's stumbled upon two lines that seem to mesh and mesh pretty darn good. If the so called third can continue to formulate itself out and the fourth line can contain and even produce some points over the trip, the Hawks will be in prime position to string five, maybe even all six together. Setting them up for a serious showdown with the Saint Louis blues at the madhouse on Dec. 3rd to potentially set a new win streak mark for the NHL in the 2014-2015 season - but I'll digress, that's too far in the future for this group.
Though the injury to Trevor VAN Riemsdyk is troubling, it shouldn't slow the Hawks back end down much. Yesterday's organizational action ended with the call up of rookie Stephen Johns from the IceHogs, but finished today with the addition of Adam Clendening instead after Johns was sent right back down. Turns out the Stephen Johns move was just for creating cap space - Clendening will be the guy for this years trip. This could set the stage for a potential competition in a few months between Clendening and Rundblad - all to decide who'll hold down the roster spot left when TVR returns. More to come on Clendening tomorrow - regardless, if the Hawks defensive corps can continue in its stingy goals per game ways... And not cause amateur turnovers in their own zone. It will prove difficult for any team to contend with the Hawks - then again what else is new?
With the Hawks 3-4 on the road so far this year and three of the best teams in the west upcoming, the Hawks have a chance to quiet any noise, both in their heads and in the media.There may still be some roster moves about to occur before the flight leaves, perhaps they're making some cap space - in any matter, as the team continues to take shape... The future continues to brighten.
Stay tuned Feather Faithful, it's about to get good - there just may not be a better place than here, or a better time than now.