Sidney Brown brings his weekly dispatches from the front lines of Blackhawks fandom every week during the hockey season.
With its most recent November Circus Trip behind it, the Chicago Blackhawks have reason to celebrate, as they for a second straight year have gone through the extended early-season road test with only one loss, improving their Circus Trip record to 11-2 in that time.
It is safe to say that this 15-8-1 team — winners of eight of their last 10 games — are back to playing hockey the way they want to play, making them once again into the consistent winners that we have come to love.
Many reasons are at hand for the turnaround, more than enough to overshadow whatever needs for improvement there are currently. No team is perfect, but for the most part the Hawks have found the formula for success. Here are some of the key players who have contributed to Chicago’s recent turnaround:
1) Kris Versteeg — 11 points in the last seven games, eight of which came on the road trip (6 assists).
2) Corey Crawford — Stopped 143 of 154 total shots for a .929 save percentage while allowing two or less goals in four of six games. (Update: Crawford will be reportedly sidelined for the next couple weeks due to an injury he suffered at a concert. Hope it was worth it.)
3) Patrick Kane — This MVP candidate is working his usual skillful style, posting four goals along with five assists during the road trip. Playing with Versteeg and Richards on the second line has clearly boosted his confidence along with his stat sheet.
4) Brad Richards — It’s obvious that he’s found his role on the team and on the second line, posting three goals and one assist in the last five games.
5) Andrew Shaw — After missing the first half of the road trip with an upper body injury, Shaw returned to the lineup and made an enormous impact, tallying two goals and one assist for the trip. With his presence back in the lineup, expect Shaw to cause havoc for more opponents.
6) The 4th Line (Marcus Kruger, Dan Carcillo, Ben Smith) — No team can win a Stanley Cup without contributions from all four lines and this reserve line has been the backbone of Chicago’s recent efforts, totaling three goals and one assist in the last 5 games.
The offensive pressure has been noticeable and greater than you’d expect from players this far on the bench, typically its more about shutting down the opposition’s top scoring lines, but with what they have to offer, opposing goalies will have to be on their toes that much more while Kruger, Carcillo and Smith are on the ice.
Circus Road Trip Records (since 2008)
With the last month of the calendar year now upon us, the Hawks are hitting their stride and it looks like things can stand to improve as this season goes along. The Hawks will have 13 games for the month with seven home games at the United Center and four of their six road games coming in an uninterrupted stretch next week. Opponents will include division rivals St. Louis, Nashville (x2), Minnesota and Colorado.
With the expected return of sniper Patrick Sharp to the lineup, expect the Hawks to ramp up their goal scoring even more. Will Sharp start on the third line or will he be back on the second line? With the recent success of Versteeg, Kane and Richards on that second line, it mat not be that great an idea to move Sharp there. Put Sharp on the third line until he gets his timing and conditioning back. It will be only a matter of time when Sharp starts to produce and is able to be moved back to his natural spot.
I expected Corey Crawford to get some rest at some point in this month and with the recent news of his injury coming down we now know that he’ll have at least most of December to recover, which isn’t that bad a thing as he’s worked through a stretch of playing in 14 straight games. As far as the Hawks go, moving forward whether with Annti Raanta or Scott Darling, they’ll still have more than a chance to compete.
If the Hawks can take care of business within their division, expect them to climb back to the top of the Central while becoming more dangerous atop the Western Conference standings. After this past week they’ve shown that they can play with and beat the likes of Anaheim, the L.A. Kings and San Jose.
Player of the Week
Brad Richards — Richards tallied three goals and one assist for a total of four points over the past week, including a two-goal performance against the Kings on Saturday in a 4-1 victory to wrap up the road trip. It’s very clear that with Kris Versteeg and Patrick Kane by his side on the second line, Richards is part of the best overall line for the Hawks.
Goals per game: 3.0 (8th in NHL)
Goals against: 2.0 (2nd in NHL)
Power Play percentage: 19.4 (15th in NHL)
Penalty Kill percentage: 91.3 (1st in NHL)
Goals — Patrick Kane (10); Assists — Marian Hossa (14); Points — Kane (23); Goals Against Average — Corey Crawford (1.87); Penalty Minutes — Andrew Shaw (19).
The Week Ahead
Tonight — vs. St. Louis, 7 pm; Friday — vs. Montreal, 7:30 pm; Saturday — at Nashville, 6 pm.
*All times Central
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