When the schedule for the lockout-shortened season was released, the Blackhawks were handed one of the toughest opening series in the league. Road games at the defending champion Kings and at the Coyotes – who eliminate the Hawks from the playoffs in April – followed by a home opener against the Blues presented a very real challenge.
Three teams with goaltenders that were, last season, among the game’s elite.
Three teams that play a strong, physical game that has, in recent seasons, given the Blackhawks trouble.
And three teams that most people expect to be battling for the Western Conference crown in April.
When the final horn sounded at the United Center on Tuesday night, Chicago improved to 3-0-0 and, most importantly, had beaten all three in regulation.
Corey Crawford had a fantastic game against St. Louis, allowing only two goals against 34 shots. His positioning was better, his rebounds were directed away from the net more consistently, and he made big saves when the Hawks needed them.
Crawford faced 16 shots in the third period alone, as the Blues tried desperately to come back from a three-goal deficit. While he did allow two past him, he made a number of big stops to preserve the victory.
The game-winning goal was credited to Viktor Stalberg, his second tally of the young season. He was also tied with Brent Seabrook for a team-high three hits in the game, and appears to be excelling in the third line role he’s been given to start the season.
Seabrook scored the Hawks’ second goal, getting a piece of a Duncan Keith shot in the second period. Seabrook and Keith combined to block nine shots in the game and looked better as the game progressed. It still looks like the Blackhawks’ top defensive pair is getting into game shape, and Tuesday night was another step forward for them.
Coach Joel Quenneville continued to spread out the ice time among his defensemen, a trend that has played out through all three games so far and could be a major factor in the Hawks’ ability to make a deep playoff run. Keith and Seabrook led the defensemen in ice time, but neither was over 23 minutes in the game; last year, they were regularly skating around 30 minutes per game early in the season.
Oh, and Patrick Kane continued his hot start to the season by undressing Brian Elliott to open the scoring.
There were a number of positives throughout the box score on Tuesday evening. Nick Leddy was credited with another assist, giving him three in as many games. Marcus Kruger’s defensive play continued to be tremendous; he and Andrew Shaw each won five of 11 faceoffs as the Blackhawks dominated at the dot, winning 34 of 60 total draws.
Jonathan Toews was credited with another assist and won 12 of 18 faceoffs. In the early going, Toews has won 62.7 percent of his faceoffs (42 of 67) to pace an improved group. Dave Bolland had another strong game between Kane and Patrick Sharp, winning 10 of 18 faceoffs and leading the team with three takeaways.
There are a lot of positives when a team is undefeated, obviously, and this Hawks team is rolling early on. And, on this team, it’s easy to praise individuals when some of the elite talent in the league is skating on the top two lines.
But the overall team game – especially special teams – has been dramatically better this season. The Blackhawks did allow a power play goal on Tuesday night, but they have successfully killed nine of 10 short-handed opportunities in the season’s first three games. The play of Kruger and Michael Frolik on the first unit has been a major contributor to the improvement.
On the other special teams unit, the Hawks have scored a power play goal in all three games. There are still times when they look lost and unable to enter/stay in the offensive zone, but converting against three strong defensive teams shows solid improvement on this group as well.