CHICAGO – Now riding an 18-game point streak to begin the season, the record-breaking Chicago Blackhawks are finding ways to win, even on nights where they're not at their sharpest. Count a 1-0 win over the last-place Blue Jackets Sunday night in that category, but still count it as two points in the standings.
“We're playing to the score,” said coach Joel Quenneville. “We're playing to win.”
Though the Hawks are still led in scoring by Patrick Kane and leaning on Duncan Keith on the blueline, duties are more evenly split than they were last season when this was a team riding its stars hard. Keith played more than 26 minutes a game in 2011-12, but has “only” logged 24 a night so far in 2013. In fact, last season the Hawks had seven players average more than 20 minutes a game with an eighth just a shade under. This year, it's five.
In Sunday night’s victory, with the team protecting a one-goal lead and Mason pulled for an extra Columbus attacker, it was Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya doing the defending, not Keith and Brent Seabrook – despite the fact the Jackets called a timeout on the previous whistle. When it came to the margin of victory, it was Bryan Bickell's beautiful backhand pass to a charging Andrew Shaw that got the job done, not the derring-do of a Kane or Marian Hossa.
“Every night we have guys like Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw scoring goals and it's great,” said captain Jonathan Toews. “It takes the pressure off the guys who are expected to score every night. It makes our team that much more dangerous and difficult to play against.”
On many other teams, it would be a weakness to see young players getting so much responsibility, but the Hawks have steadily folded kids into the mix, like all good recipes. It's Nick Leddy playing all 82 games last season, then Shaw catching on at the end of the campaign, then Saad putting in a regular shift this year.
“We're sharing the wealth,” Shaw said. “Everyone is getting minutes and it builds my confidence, helps develop my game.”
At some point the Hawks are going to lose a game in regulation. It hasn't happened in the regular season in 11 months (March 25, 2012), but it will happen. So where do you attack if you're an opponent? The top six is both responsible and offensively intimidating (I haven't even had time to mention Patrick Sharp) and the blueline minutes are being distributed more equitably. Even in net, where goaltending had been an Achilles' heel, the Hawks are now getting excellent efforts from both Corey Crawford and Ray Emery.
But it's the emergence of the kids, those oh-so-important secondary pieces, that put Chicago back on top and staring at the very real possibility of another Stanley Cup.
“Over the course of the season, your depth is going to be challenged,” Quenneville said. “We've got four lines we're very happy with.”
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.