December dawns, and the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks have, if their recent record can serve as evidence, found firm footing. After staggering through the first half of November going 2-4-1, they scorched through the next two weeks at 5-2-0 (though their loss in Calgary was, to pardon the expression, a flame-out). Evaluating their status at the quarter pole, this column suggested, “If the Hawks can find strength in their recent adversity, and come back from their road trip with a solid harvest of points, December will look a whole lot better.” They did, and it does.
The Jekyll-Hyde persona the Hawks were assuming showed its face in the first half of the Western ‘road trip’ as Chicago dominated in Edmonton, got smoked in Calgary, then nuked the Nucks before getting chomped by the Sharks (following a team party in Vegas that made headlines in the Sin City gossip columns). Whatever the reason, the squad was not playing smart defensive hockey in front of Marty Turco, who dropped six of his eight starts in November. With Corey Crawford, who plays a more conservative style, in net, the Blackhawks appeared to return to sound execution and sustained effort. Beating Anaheim at the Honda Center, stifling the Ducks’ top line of Getzlaf-Perry-Ryan was critical. Coach Quenneville stayed with his young netminder and Chicago won a tight battle in Los Angeles to attain their objective of eight points out of twelve on that leg.
Something else happened on that road trip. John Scott has become something of a controversial figure among Hawk fans and bloggers. His supporters and detractors square off even more often than he does. But for those who accept management’s decision to add the towering (6’8” 258lbs) Scott to the roster, they were delighted to see him demolish the Kings’ Kevin Westgarth as the Hawks won in Los Angeles. There are plenty of discussions as to whether an enforcer is needed in the NHL, but the fact is John Scott is the best value, at $500K per year, as a ‘physical utility player’ (as Faceoff.com puts it) in a group that includes George Parros, Derek Boogaard, Cam Janssen, Raitis Ivanans, Darcy Hordichuk and Chris Neil, all of whom are paid more, some, like Neil and Boogaard, much more. And Scott, apparently, doesn’t ever lose a fight.
Is there a psychological advantage to having such a player on board? The debate is more heated than the bouts themselves. But Hawks fans who have longed for such a sheriff since the days of Bob Probert and Stu Grimson are satisfied. As long as the Blackhawks continue to win games, Scott remains the nuclear weapon held in reserve to be deployed strategically, as the Blues’ Cam Janssen discovered to his dismay Tuesday night.
More importantly, the Blackhawks’ main arsenal is now firing again. Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews all scored important and timely goals during the recent three-game win streak and now have 16, 11 and 11 respectively.
Marian Hossa’s absence due to injury is a gap in the lineup management hopes will be filled in part by 19-year old prospect Jeremy Morin. Called up for a second showing, Morin showed his worth: he is a skilled, tenacious player whose ability to ‘play both sides of the puck’, creating opportunities in offensive and defensive mode, augur well for his and the Hawks’ future. The young man has also showed his readiness to scrap, check, block shots, in other words, do whatever it takes to win. Refreshingly, he seems also to be rather humble. His talent and energy evoke a former number 27, another American-born Jeremy. Will Morin follow in the skate tracks of Roenick as a new Hawkey hero? Stay tuned.
The rest of the forward contingent appears to finally be playing as units rather than individuals. Viktor Stalberg continues to improve his two-way play, and has added hitting to his menu. Troy Brouwer picked up his play as well, with smart hits and goals resulting from determined effort and good decisions. Tomas Kopecky, who seemed to be on the edge of taking a seat in the press box, delivered a four-point performance against St. Louis that resembled his Olympic and playoff form. David Bolland’s checking is less obvious, but keeping the big guns in Anaheim and LA quiet showed he might be back on his game. Dowell, Skille and now Bickell are blending well into the mix. Once Fernando Pisani comes back, he adds to the group. Consistency will continue to be the main issue; every one of these players has to put himself on notice.
After experiments with a variety of defensive pairings had mixed results, Coach Quenneville re-united the Top 4 that led the team to the Championship. The time apart appears to have been beneficial; during the recent uptrend, Keith-Seabrook and Campbell-Hjalmarsson have played with the assurance and precision the Hawks need if they are to defend the Cup.
The bottom pairing is vulnerable, however, and questions remain as to whether Jassen Cullimore and Nick Boynton can deliver reliable minutes. Garnet Exelby is apparently on deck in Rockford, but Exelby’s strengths are his pugnacious play rather than his defensive tautness. This is where Brent Sopel’s versatility is clearly missed, though his cap hit is not.
The goaltending, at this stage, stands in good stead with Crawford and Turco. Crawford is proving to be Chicago’s equivalent of the Wings’ Jimmy Howard, which can only be good if he continues to win the way Howard has been for his club. With Turco on the other side of the ledger, if the former Stars goalie hit a rough patch, he appears to know that he just has to be ready when called upon. The Hawks need wins now, however they get them.
Hockey is an ugly game, and winning ugly is what separates Champions from also-rans. The Blackhawks have had more than their share of ugly losses so far this season; hopefully the bad taste of those defeats spurs them forward.
A ‘winning ugly’ mindset will be mission-critical in December and beyond. The Western Conference standings are a traffic jam. Only four points separate 4th and 11th spots. The Hawks have played more games than anyone, and their winning percentage is inferior to the teams chasing them. So they have no margin for missteps.
As Joel Quenneville reminded everyone after the Blues clawed back to make what should have been a romp at the UC, a nail-biter, “It’s always tough, no matter what you try to do or say. We got a little bit casual there. You’ve got to stick with it mentally in games like this.”
Those words of wisdom from a veteran warrior like Quenneville should, and must, be heeded, by the Blackhawks, for every game, from now on.
About the Author: David Morris' hockey writing has been featured at KuklasKorner.com and Chicago Sports Then & Now. He is also the North American correspondent for leading Swiss hockey site, Planete Hockey.