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February 26, 2013 | 9:07am ET
Hawks have eyes on the prize
By Tab Bamford
TheFourthPeriod.com

CHICAGO, IL -- In case you haven't heard yet, the Chicago Blackhawks haven't lost a game in regulation yet.

Through the season's first 19 games, Chicago has been dominant. Patrick Kane has 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists) already, leading the team to the top of the NHL standings in remarkable fashion.

Certainly, Chicago's superstars are going to (rightfully) steal headlines. Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp have 15 points each, combining to score 20 goals and add 25 assists. With Kane, the Hawks' top four stars are plus-30 combined.

But what might be the most remarkable part of the streak is the overlooked contributions from players all over the roster.

Dave Bolland, who has missed the last two games with an upper-body injury, has scored five times already this year. And Duncan Keith has ten assists through 19 contests. Meanwhile, Brent Seabrook (48) and Niklas Hjalmarsson (49) are among the league-leaders in blocked shots.

But those guys were on the roster when Chicago won the Stanley Cup. This year's team is getting significant contributions from players that many hockey fans aren't familiar with.

Yet.

Viktor Stalberg, who was acquired from Toronto for Kris Versteeg in one of the trades after Chicago won the Cup in 2010, has five goals already. Bryan Bickell, who was a second round pick all the way back in 2004, leads the team with 43 hits.

Youngster Andrew Shaw, who has taken Bolland's place as the team's third-line center (with Bolland now on the team's second line) continues to be a revelation. He was a social media darling in Chicago last year, but has elevated his game once again this year. He has 31 hits to go with four goals and three assists.

Perhaps the biggest difference between last year's Blackhawks and the start of the new season has been the team's penalty killing. Coach Joel Quenneville made Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik his primary forwards on the unit, and they have been magnificent in the early going.

Another young Hawks forward that has received increasing confidence from the coaches has been Brandon Saad, a second round pick by Chicago in the 2011 Draft.

After a stellar season with Saginaw in the OHL last year, Saad has spend most of this season skating on the Blackhawks' top line with Hossa and Toews. He has three goals, the most recent of which was a short-handed game-winner against San Jose on Friday night.

The evolution of Chicago's role players has allowed Quenneville to skate all four of his lines in any situation this season, and it has paid off. Through Monday, 11 different Blackhawks have been credited with a game-winning goal already this season.

If the rotation of the forwards has afforded Quenneville additional flexibility, the play of his defensemen has been even more extraordinary.

Michal Rozsival, who was among the ice-time leaders in Phoenix a year ago, signed a one-year, $2M deal with Chicago as a free agent over the summer. He registered 13 points in 54 games for the Coyotes last year. So far in his Chicago career, Rozsival has seven assists in nine games.

The additions of Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank on the blueline, and the re-signing of Johnny Oduya, have made an enormous impact on the ice time for the Hawks' established rearguards. Keith (23:53) and Seabrook (23:06) have seen their average ice time per game come down three minutes and almost two minutes, respectively, as the Chicago coaches have utilized all six of their defensemen.

Oduya (22:15) and Hjalmarsson (21:05) have been a solid second pair, combining to block 87 shots and are plus-19 as a tandem. Youngster Nick Leddy, whose ice time is down more than six minutes per game this year, has been able to become a primary puck-mover on the Hawks' powerplay this year.

The play of Kruger, Frolik, Hjalmarsson and Oduya has led a renaissance on the Hawks' penalty kill. Last year, Chicago ranked 27th in the league, killing only 78.1 percent of opponents' advantages. This year, the Blackhawks are now second in the NHL at 88.7 percent.

All of the skaters are contributing in every zone for the Blackhawks, but most noticeable improvement from last year has been between the pipes. After finishing last year as the only team in the league to not record a shutout, many wondered if the two returning netminders were good enough to take Chicago to the Promised Land.

With their overtime win on Monday night, the Blackhawks moved ahead of Ottawa to lead the NHL with a 1.79 team goals-against-average. The combination of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery has allowed an astounding 24 goals in five-on-five play through 19 games. Equally impressive, the Hawks have allowed only 20 goals in 10 road games to date (they have allowed only 14 in nine home contests).

Monday night marked the end of a seven-game homestand for the Hawks in which they posted a 6-0-1 record. Crawford, who missed a couple games, returned to the lineup on Sunday to post his second shutout of the season and moved into second in the NHL behind only Ottawa's Craig Anderson in both goals-against-average (1.50) and save percentage (.941). For his part, Emery is 8-0-0 as the backup.

Do these Blackhawks have the goods to make another run at the Cup? The Hawks' players will be the first to remind you that how the season ends is more important than how it begins. But the start of the 2013 season has been nothing short of amazing in Chicago.

Tab Bamford is the Chicago Correspondent and a Columnist for The Fourth Period.


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