CHICAGO – While elephants, tigers and clowns roam the United Center over the next couple weeks, Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks will be banished to the road for a draining six-game trip through Canada and California.
And get this. They’re actually looking forward to it.
That’s how crazy this season has been for the defending Stanley Cup champions, who are quickly learning all about how difficult it is to repeat in the salary-cap era.
“This year guys are coming in, trying to get comfortable and see what it’s like as a team,” Kane said after the Blackhawks beat the Anaheim Ducks 3-2 in overtime Sunday to stop a three-game slide. “Even the veterans are trying to get comfortable with players that are coming in that weren’t here last year. I think it’s picking up a little bit.
“Now a road trip can really help bond some teams and teammates.”
A little more time together couldn’t hurt, not after Chicago’s uneven start to its title defence. The speedy Blackhawks (9-9-2), led by Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, rank among the NHL leaders in goals but their defence has been shaky and they’ve struggled at home.
Next up is a stretch of six road games in 11 days, beginning with Edmonton on Wednesday. And everyone on Chicago seems to think the trip comes at a perfect time.
“In the past, this road trip has always been good for us not only as far as how we play on the ice, but we’re still a relatively new dressing room,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “I think we’ll do a lot of bonding and get to know each other off the ice.”
Everything went right for Chicago last season, when it defeated Philadelphia in six games for its first title since 1961. Kane, Toews and the rest of the youthful Blackhawks were celebrated all over town after the Stanley Cup win, riding in the obligatory parade and hearing cheers whenever they popped up in public in the Windy City.
What followed was a harsh summer and a mediocre beginning to the season.
The NHL’s US$59.4-million salary cap forced general manager Stan Bowman to shuffle the roster, making over Chicago’s goalie situation completely and trading away key forward Dustin Byfuglien, who had 11 playoff goals—including five game-winners. The Blackhawks lost 10 players in all from their Cup roster.
“You win together and then you see five, six guys are gone,” said Ducks centre Teemu Selanne, who helped Anaheim win the Stanley Cup in 2007. “It’s a very different thing.”
But Selanne said the biggest challenge with defending the title is the mental grind.
“It’s a huge push, what you have to go through, and you’re so empty after that,” he said. “So it’s really hard to get there. It’s hard to get emotional at the same level you were before. … To put yourself on the line again, in the regular season and especially early season, it’s hard.”
The biggest difference so far has been on defence. Chicago is allowing 2.90 goals per game, 18th in the league entering play Monday, after yielding 2.48 last season, tied with Calgary for fifth-best in the NHL.
Marty Turco, who replaced Stanley Cup hero Antti Niemi as the Blackhawks’ top goalie, is 1-3-1 in five starts this month. Defencemen Duncan Keith, the defending Norris Trophy winner, and Niklas Hjalmarsson, who signed a $14 million, four-year deal over the summer, haven’t played nearly as well as they did last season.
Keith had a costly turnover in the Blackhawks’ zone Sunday, helping Anaheim tie it at 1, and Corey Perry shook loose from Hjalmarsson in the third before scoring his second goal of the game.
But all was well after Viktor Stalberg scored in overtime to give the Blackhawks some momentum heading into the circus trip, one they hope is more cotton candy than high-wire act.
“The way we’ve approached the last two or three games, we like the trend, the energy in our game and the rotation of our lines as well,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “It’s taken us a little while here, but I like what we’ve been doing and we have something to build on.”