The Blackhawks and Avalanche are both first place teams, and their team statistics would lead you to believe they’re a fairly evenly matched pair of teams.
But numbers on paper haven’t told the story about how evenly these two teams are; in all three games they’ve played in the early going this season, they’ve ended in a shootout.
In the Hawks home opener, the longest shootout in franchise history ended with Andrew Ladd beating Craig Anderson as the ninth shooter. Last Friday, in Denver, it was the Avalanche’s turn to win a shootout, this time after eight shooters.
Wednesday night, in Chicago, it was again the Blackhawks’ turn to win the shootout. It was fitting that Cristobal Huet would shut down the Avalanche, as he played his second consecutive great game against another top Western Conference team at home. It was Patrick Sharp, going top shelf, that netted the winner.
Huet was magnificent in goal for the Hawks, stopping 25 of 27 shots, most of which were in heavy traffic. Since the discussions about Huet’s job security gained steam after his poor performance against Dallas, the $5 million Frenchman seems to have found his groove. Monday night, Huet was exceptional. On Wednesday, he was great.
The defense in front of Huet has been stellar as well. On Wednesday, from the 300 level where I sat, it appeared the Avalanche probably had closer to 40 shots on Huet than the 27 the official scorekeepers credited them with, but the Hawks defense did a good job of blocking shots and getting the few rebounds Huet left out from in front of the net.
The Hawks were credited with 12 blocked shots on Wednesday night, led by John Madden, Brent Seabrook and Brent Sopel, each of whom had two.
Jonathan Toews undeniable impact was again on display during the game, as the speed of play and the flow of the puck on the ice when he was on the ice was noticeable from the stands. But the stat sheet lends more proof to his value after a great game from the team’s 21-year old captain.
Toews won 17 of 22 faceoffs on Wednesday night (77.3 percent). Surprisingly, the only forward to play more minutes than the captain (20:50 ice time) was Patrick Kane, who skated 21:05 against Colorado. He skated 31 shifts, and spent 1:51 on the PK.
The Hawks’ PK unit was great again as well. They entered Wednesday night’s game ranked second in the league in penalty kills, and effectively stopped all four of Colorado’s chances. The Blackhawks were unable to score on either of their power play opportunities on Wednesday night, though.
The Blackhawks have been in a tough seven day stretch where they have played four games against three of the better teams in the Western Conference, and their defense has been up to the task. The offense has been limited over this stretch in three of the games (two against Colorado, one against Phoenix) but those two teams happen to feature likely All Star goalies.
Wednesday night the Hawks appeared to wake up when the third period started. The tempo of the game on the ice was faster, the Hawks were hitting more, and the passing was more crisp than the first two periods. The increased intensity showed in the stats, too. The Hawks allowed 24 shots on goal in the first two periods, and only allowed three in the third and overtime combined.
Colorado led 2-1 entering the third period, and despite the increased intensity the Hawks struggled to get a good shot on Anderson. Finally, at 4:54, Cam Barker (yes, Cam Barker) took the puck from coast to coast and flipped the tying goal over Anderson’s shoulder. He was assisted on the goal by Colin Fraser and Brent Sopel.
The significance of the assists is that Sopel, in 15 games, had not been credited with a point yet. Consider him off the schnide. Sopel was effective against Colorado again, earning over 15 minutes of ice time in the victory.
The hitting was solid in the third period as well. For the game, Dustin Byfuglien led the Hawks with eight credited hits.
Somehow, Niklas Hjalmarsson seems to be invisible to the scorekeepers in the league. He skated 31 shifts on Wednesday night and didn’t record, officially, a single statistic. Watching the game in person I can tell you that Hjalmarsson was the Hawks’ best blue liner on Wednesday night and has been robbed all year of hits and blocked shots. There are plenty of reasons why Hjalmarsson is playing over 20 minutes a night, but somehow the scorers appear to ignore him.
But that’s the difference between the naked eye and the stat sheet: seeing the game and then reading the stat sheet in the NHL, many times, reflect two totally different games. Wednesday night was no exception.
Fraser spent less than eight minutes on the ice, but was in the penalty box for 10 after picking two fights in the first period. It appeared that Fraser lost both boughts, too.
Overall, though, the Blackhawks played very well against a good Colorado team. As the team now deals with the absence of Dave Bolland for up to four months, the offense is going to continue its evolution. With the likely return of Marian Hossa just a couple weeks away, this team that hasn’t yet been healthy will hopefully continue their time on top of the standings in the Central Division.