CHICAGO – If Viktor Stalberg is starting to get some hands to go with his deft skating ability, the groan from the rest of the League might be audible soon.
The 25-year old Stalberg has always had great top-end speed, but rarely finished the scoring chances those quick skates created. He's also had some trouble hanging onto the puck at times. Lately, however, neither of those things has been the case.
Stalberg is red hot and it's paying dividends for the Blackhawks, who downed the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets 4-1 on Monday night at the United Center thanks in large part to a pair of second-period goals from their speedy Swedish forward.
"I think I'm playing alright and the puck is coming a lot to me right now," said Stalberg, who has now scored in three straight games and has a four-game point streak. "Guys seem to be finding me and sometimes when you start scoring a little bit you get a little more confident out there and you seem to be wanting the puck a little more, too."
Stalberg now has 9 goals for the season and with 22 points is just two shy of his career high set last season over 77 games. He's also recorded points in four straight games and tallied seven points in that span for the Hawks (23-9-4) – who are the first team in the League to reach 50 points.
Are Stalberg's other skills truly catching up to his impressive speed?
"That's probably a good analogy of where he's at," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "His speed is at the very high end of the League, but I think his patience with the puck is definitely improving and protecting (it) is an area where he’s still got to get better. But that's an area where he’s improving and his speed is something that really keeps the defensemen on their heels."
Stalberg's big night ran in conjunction with another strong performance from goalie Corey Crawford (37 saves), who came up with some big stops to keep the game scoreless in the first period and in the third to preserve a two-goal cushion.
It was Crawford's second straight win in as many starts after sitting for six straight games while working out some kinks in his game after some struggles. The extra work appears to have paid off.
"I'm just trying to be focused and a little better prepared before games," Crawford said. "I felt pretty good today."
The Hawks really didn't feel that great in the first period, after having four days off for the Christmas break. They got outhit and outshot by sizeable margins and didn't take control until Patrick Sharp scored his 19th goal to get the scoring started early in the second.
The goal was scored on Sharp's tip of a nice feed by Marian Hossa – who extended his point streak to eight games and then made it a 4-1 game at 15:45 of the third via the power play with his 16th goal. Hossa and Sharp remain hot for the Hawks, as the former has six multi-point games in the last 10 outings and the latter has potted 12 goals in the past 14 games.
Still, the Hawks aren't content with their success this far.
"(Complacency) is always a danger," Sharp said. "It doesn't matter if you're a first-place team or a .500 team. You can never feel comfortable. The way our League is now, you could have a bad week and find yourselves battling for a playoff spot or out of the playoffs in some cases. There's definitely no complacency in here. We realize we have a good thing going right now, but that can change at any moment and we've got to work to keep it going."
On the other side, the Blue Jackets can only wish complacency were the issue. After five straight losses and dropping six of its last seven games, Columbus is still searching for the key game that will turn around what’s been an ugly first 35 games.
James Wisniewski scored early in the third for the Jackets' lone goal to make it 3-1, but it was the lack of scoring despite 38 shots on goal that did them in this time. The effort was there after dropping their last game before the Christmas break in gut-wrenching fashion to the Nashville Predators, but the goals weren't.
"I think that if you look at the game we outchanced them," Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel said. "They certainly capitalized on theirs. We didn't. In that first period, it was kind of back and forth. we had some chances to get a lead and we didn't. Even at the start of the second, we had some chances to get a lead and we didn't. (Against) a team like that, that's dangerous. Sooner or later, they're going to bury one – and obviously we can't make mistakes right now."
The Jackets did hit everything that moved in the first and targeted Hawks rookie center Marcus Kruger several times in his first action after a one-game absence due to a suspected concussion. Kruger was drilled early in the first by Aaron Johnson and also got into an altercation with 6-foot-4, 219-pound Rick Nash in front of the Chicago bench.
Kruger knocked Nash halfway onto the Hawks bench with a big hit not long after a Columbus penalty expired and Nash took exception to it – picking up a roughing minor for throwing a slight elbow and gloved punch at Kruger.
The Jackets proceeded to outhit the Hawks 14-7 and outshoot them 13-5 in the first, but had nothing to show for it. Sharp scored almost five minutes into the second and then it was Stalberg time.
The Swedish forward made it 2-0 at 8:13 of the second by putting a rebound of his own shot from the right circle through Mason's pads for his eighth goal. Then, after nearly setting up a goal with a pass through the crease, Stalberg found the net again late in the second to make it 3-0 on another wrist shot through traffic – this time from the left circle with Bryan Bickell providing a screen in front of Mason (18 saves).
Hossa and Wisniewski scored in the third to complete the scoring.