CHICAGO – While the streak goes on and the Chicago Blackhawks pile up points, the same words are repeated over and over.
It’s about improving each game, they say, and how you finish the season. Trying to win every night is another common refrain.
The uniformity of the message is a testament to the mindset of the streaking Blackhawks, but it’s also a vote of confidence for the gruff conductor of the best start in NHL history. While a balanced attack and two hot goaltenders get all the credit, coach Joel Quenneville’s focus on Chicago’s most glaring problems from last season has played a key role in the Blackhawks’ record-breaking run.
“It’s nice having some familiarity back behind the bench,” forward Patrick Sharp said. “He knows how to push buttons and motivate. I feel like the team that returned from last year had a head start knowing what Q demands of us, how he wants us to play. It all goes hand in hand.”
Chicago began the lockout-shortened season with a 5-2 win at the Stanley Cup champion Kings on Jan. 19. Then came a 6-4 victory at Phoenix the following night, and the Blackhawks just kept collecting points like squirrels hoarding acorns for another brutal Chicago winter.
They set the NHL record for a season-opening points streak when they beat San Jose 2-1 on Friday night to make it 17 in a row. Two more victories later, and the Blackhawks are at 19 heading into Thursday night’s game at rival St. Louis.
“We were hoping to get off to a good start,” Quenneville said. “We looked at our schedule. We had a brutal schedule, when we play 10 out of 12 on the road. So we’re thinking hopefully we can put ourselves in a position when we come home we’d be in a decent spot. But we didn’t see this happening, for sure.”
It seems as if everyone on the roster has stepped up at one point or another during the 16-0-3 opening.
Patrick Kane is among the league leaders with 10 goals and 14 assists. Goalie Corey Crawford has a terrific 1.50 goals-against average, and backup Ray Emery has won each of his eight starts. Defencemen Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook are near the top of the NHL in blocked shots.
“If you told us this at the start of the season, it would blow our socks off,” Sharp said. “I don’t think anyone anticipated this. But as the season’s gone on, it’s just come to the rink and prepare to play.”
This run actually dates to last season in more ways than one. The Blackhawks have earned at least one point in 25 consecutive games overall, the third-longest point streak in NHL history.
It’s the turnaround in a couple of Chicago’s biggest weaknesses from last year ago that has fueled the confidence.
“I think the areas that we talked about going into the season were things that we had to improve upon I think are much better,” Quenneville said. “Our penalty-killing for sure. Our goals-against average was, we had hit a different note last year as far as the quantity of goals we were giving up, the type of goals we were giving up. I think we’ve shored up our defensive zone coverage, that’s helped us. Our power play is more effective.”
The Blackhawks struggled on special teams for most of last season, and it hurt them in close games. They converted just 15.2 per cent of their power-play opportunities, which was 26th in the 30-team NHL, and killed off 78.1 per cent of their opponents’ chances, good for 27th in the league.
A year later, special teams are special once again. Chicago is up to an 18.2-per cent conversion rate on the power play and the penalty kill is a lofty 88.7 per cent, second in the NHL behind Boston.
It’s a big swing, and a major reason behind the Blackhawks’ 10-0-3 record in one-goal games.
“Whether it’s a big save, whether it’s the special teams on a given night, usually everybody plays the score and the clock, and finding ways to win is important in our league,” Quenneville said.
The 54-year-old former defenceman has been finding ways to win for a long time. He directed the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup title in his second season with the team in 2010 and is the active leader with 640 victories as an NHL coach.
His resume adds to his credibility in the locker room, but Quenneville himself is focused on the next win for the Blackhawks. And they’ve picked up a bunch of them so far this year.
“I think that’s the approach where we still want to look to improve and get better as we go along here,” Quenneville said, “and that’s a challenge we face.”
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap