Chicago, in defiance of all the gloomy pre-season predictions which called for the Blackhawks to be the fourth or fifth seed in the Western Conference, is leading the Central Division and is vying with the Montreal Canadiens for the President’s Trophy lead. Still, what Chicago is doing shouldn’t come as a surprise to the veteran hockey fan (or even the veteran sports fan). Sports history is replete with instances when dynastic teams were not favored to finish in first place or win it all but still did so because they won the games that needed to be won when they needed to be won.
The Blackhawks are in first place because other teams like the Nashville Predators (who were heavily favored to lead the Central Division) and the Dallas Stars (who won the Central last season) are not playing up to their potential thus leaving a vacuum which Chicago has filled with ruthless gusto; not bad for a team which is still in rebuilding mode after having to do a salary cap-purge last season resulting in the loss of much of the Hawk’s reserve strength. Even more amazing is that Chicago is the second best team in the NHL even though they have the worst penalty-killing unit in the NHL and an average power-play offense. The Blackhawks overcome these tactical disadvantages by playing strong overall offense and overall defense, ranking among the top ten in both categories. The Hawks overcome their weak penalty-kill by skillfully avoiding the penalty box altogether by ranking 26th in the NHL in team penalty minutes.
With the exception of Jonathan Toews (who has sat out nine games due to injuries) it’s the usual suspects: Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Artem Anisimov, and Artemi Panarin leading the way on offense while Brent Seabrook, Richard Panik, and rookie blue-liner Michal Kempny, along with Corey Crawford, anchor the defense.
Interestingly, though, Kane and Keith are having sub-par performances in terms of goal-scoring. Kane has scored only eight goals in 30 games while Duncan Keith has scored no goals at all thus far. (At this same point last season Kane had 19 goals) Still, Patrick Kane has compensated for his lack of goals by leading the Hawks in assists and points, happily setting up his Russian Allies: linemates Anisimov and Panarin in their goal-scoring efforts. The same goes for Duncan Keith. Even though he’s goal-less Keith is second in assists after Patrick Kane. The unselfish play of both Kane and Keith are hallmarks of what makes a dynasty a dynasty.
On paper Chicago shouldn’t be leading the Central Division but in defiance of all expectations, Chicago is doing so. Defying the odds can foster inspiration, determination, and perseverance. Whether Chicago can maintain its lead or whether they will fade in the weeks and months to come remains to be seen. Still, they are determined to remain defiant and to maintain their hold on the Central Division lead. They are a proud team with three Stanley Cups on their escutcheon led by the fifth greatest NHL coach of all-time (in the eyes of my rating system) in Joel Quenneville. Determined to overcome their weaknesses; determined to maximize their strengths, the Blackhawks manufacture victories through collective grit with no one player standing above the others; instead, everyone working together like true champions do every night.