Beware of Blackhawks in shortened seasons
Lone NHL team without regulation loss boasts 8 road wins, share of penalty-kill lead
There appears to be something when it comes to the Chicago Blackhawks and shortened National Hockey League seasons.
After winning eight of their final 12 games to end the 2011-12 regular campaign, the Blackhawks have carried the momentum into this year’s lockout-shortened season with 10 wins in their first 12 contests.
At 10-0-2, Chicago is the only club in the 30-team league that has yet to lose in regulation. The Blackhawks went 8-3-0 to open the 48-game campaign in 1995 and went on to make the playoffs, losing in five games to Detroit in the Western Conference finals.
Chicago is approaching some of the best starts in NHL history. The 2006-07 Anaheim Mighty Ducks started 12-0-4 and the 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers opened the season 12-0-3 when ties counted. Both teams went on to win the Stanley Cup.
"We have a lot of depth and everyone is contributing right now," Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith said after Thursday’s 6-2 win over Phoenix. "Coaches have been good about giving us time off to rest, and guys are using that time wisely. It's huge to have this kind of start with all the road games and to put that part of the schedule behind us the way we're doing it."
Some would say the Blackhawks’ play on the road is most impressive about this year’s strong start. Chicago already has eight wins away from the United Center including four on its just completed six-game road trip, capped by Sunday's 3-0 victory at Nashville.
It’s worth noting that the 1995 Blackhawks, led by Bernie Nicholls, Joe Murphy and Chris Chelios, were one of only three teams to have a better regular-season record on the road (13-9-2) than on home ice (11-10-3).
Last season, Chicago sported a stellar 27-8-6 mark at home and played decently on the road at 18-18-5.
Depth is key: Sutter
Darryl Sutter, who coached the Blackhawks to a 24-19-5 record 18 years ago, is the only man to coach in both shortened seasons. Now running the bench in Los Angeles, Sutter told the Los Angeles Times last month that having depth on his roster was key to Chicago’s success in the previous 48-game season.
"Everybody’s talking about the importance of a good start," said Sutter, "but the one thing that I take out of the forty-eight game schedule that year was how you needed lots of players. I bet if you look back at Chicago that year we probably used 16 or 17 forwards."
For the record, Sutter employed 21 forwards, nine defencemen and three goalies in 1995, according to hockey-reference.com. In the first three weeks of this season, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has used 14 forwards, seven blue-liners and two goaltenders.
The ’95 Chicagoans were led by a league-leading power play and goaltender Ed Belfour, who appeared in 42 of 48 games and helped his team allow the fewest goals (115), or an average of 2.40 a game. Murphy, with a team-leading 23 goals in 40 games, and Nicholls led an offence that averaged 3.25 goals per outing.
This year’s Blackhawks are on a similar path in goals for (3.5 average) and against (2.08). But instead of boasting the NHL’s top power play, it’s their penalty that ranks the best in a share of the lead with Boston with a 92.7 per cent success rate, thanks largely to the play of forwards Michael Frolik and Marcus Kruger.
"There’s a lot of things that go into having a good penalty kill," Keith told reporters recently. "First and foremost, I think we got everybody contributing. I think Frolik and Kruger have done a real good job of stepping up and being part of the penalty kill."
Chicago ranked 27th among 30 teams on the penalty kill last year (78.1 per cent) and 25th (79.2) in the 2010-11 season.
Another important aspect of the Sutter-coached Blackhawks in ’95 was a balanced attack as seven players scored at least 10 goals. This year’s squad has five players eyeing double digits: leading scorer Patrick Kane (nine goals, 19 points), Marian Hossa (six goals), Jonathan Toews (six), Dave Bolland (four) and Viktor Stalberg (three). Nine other players have found the back of the net this season.
"It’s great to see different guys scoring," said Hossa, who led the Blackhawks with 77 points last season. "It’s just great for everybody’s confidence. … We just spread the power all over the team."
Kane, with two goals, Bolland and Stalberg scored in the opening 20 minutes at Phoenix, giving Chicago a 16-8 advantage over the opposition in first-period scoring this season. San Jose is the only other team with at least 16 first-period markers.
The Blackhawks will open a seven-game homestand Tuesday and play 11 times in a 15-game stretch at the United Center, where they are 2-0-0 this season.