CHICAGO -- Jonathan Toews might still be out of the lineup, but his Chicago Blackhawks teammates are starting to figure out a formula that works pretty well without him.
It involves a strong 200-foot game, controlling the puck and doing something the Blackhawks have added to their repertoire in the last two games that makes them even more dangerous -- scoring early. After scoring two quick goals on Friday in Dallas to spark that win, the Hawks did it again two days later at United Center.
This time, early goals by rookie Andrew Shaw and Viktor Stalberg gave Chicago a quick two-goal cushion that led to a big 5-2 victory Sunday night against the Washington Capitals.
"Especially the last couple games, [success] is attributed to our starts," said Hawks star forward Patrick Kane, who scored his 19th goal and now has 6 goals and 10 points in the last 10 games. "Getting up 2-0 in games really helps. Especially from where we were the past couple games before that, we had to play from behind a lot and it takes a lot of strength and effort to come back in those games. It's nice to get a lead and hold onto it too."
Shaw added a second goal in the second period on a pretty wraparound into the far side of the net to make it 4-1 and added an assist on an empty-net goal by Bryan Bickell (1 goal and 2 assists) for each of the wingers on the Hawks' third line to finish with three points.
Mike Knuble and Alex Ovechkin scored for the Capitals (36-30-6), who lost their second straight game on a season-long five game road trip and again failed to put any distance between themselves and the Winnipeg Jets in the battle for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Corey Crawford (16 saves) started for Chicago and picked up his third straight win, while Michal Neuvirth (24 saves) took the loss. It was also the Caps' first defeat to the Hawks in three straight games spanning the last three seasons.
The Blackhawks (40-25-8) are now starting to put some heat on Nashville for third in the Central Division and fifth in the Western Conference standings with just nine regular-season games left. Chicago still sits four points back of Nashville after the Predators won in Anaheim on Sunday night, but the Predators need to keep winning to hold off the streaking Hawks.
The Detroit Red Wings, fourth in the West just two points ahead of Nashville, would be wise to follow suit. The Blackhawks are now 7-1-1 in their last nine games, but are also more focused and confident despite not having Toews -- who's missed 13 straight games with what's believed to be concussion symptoms.
"Right now you can look in the rearview mirror or you can look ahead," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "Detroit, Nashville and St. Louis have done a nice job of extending the lead on the division or the conference. I think we're just looking ahead and trying to win the next game. I think that's the smaller picture that we’re focusing on. You’re always looking to move ahead ... and don't feel comfortable."
The last two games, thanks to early success by Chicago's offense, it's been the opposing goalie feeling most uncomfortable -- which is exactly the way Quenneville envisioned it. As his team has learned of late, it's a lot easier to protect an early lead than it is to claw your way back late in games to earn points -- something the Hawks happen to be well-versed doing.
On Friday in Dallas, Dave Bolland scored just 10 seconds into the game followed by Patrick Sharp's goal 1:32 later to give Chicago the early cushion and spark a 4-1 rout. On Sunday at home, it took only a little longer for Shaw and Stalberg to do the same.
The effect was similar, as the Hawks dominated the rest of the period. They didn't even allow a shot on goal until Mike Green's slapper with 3:58 left in the first and Chicago wound up leading 12-3 in shots at the first intermission.
Shaw's goal came just 3:35 into the game after his own shot was saved and the rebound slid out to the top of the circles -- where Duncan Keith fired it through traffic. Shaw leaped in the air and the puck caromed off his left shin protector, heading straight through Neuvirth's pads for a 1-0 lead.
“A goals a goal," said Shaw, who's making a habit out of hanging out in the so-called dirty areas to score most of his goals. "They don't ask how, just how many. Right?"
Stalberg made it 2-0 a little more than four minutes later with his 18th goal of the season after a remarkable individual effort.After racing past Dmitry Orlov in the Capitals zone to scoop a loose puck in the right circle, Stalberg cut sharply toward the net at near top speed and tucked it between Neuvirth's pad and the left post to light the lamp again.
Those two goals were just two examples of how dominant Chicago was to start the game. They played keepaway from the Caps for most of the first 20 minutes and nearly blanked the sluggish visitors in shots for the entire first period.
As expected, that did not sit well with the Capitals -- who head to Detroit for the second half of a back-to-back on Monday night at Joe Louis Arena.
"It's probably just showing them a little too much respect and not coming out with much jam in our game," said Knuble, whose fifth goal drew the Caps within 2-1 just 2:22 into the second thanks to a turnover by the Hawks in their own zone. "Look up at the scoreboard three-quarters of the way through the first period and we're down 12-0 in shots, you can't come out like that this time of year. It can't be acceptable."
After Knuble scored, Kane and Shaw got the momentum right back for the Hawks by scoring unanswered goals just 3:36 apart to make it 4-1 not even halfway through the second. Shaw's came first, his second of the game, on the nice wraparound while Kane scored into a wide open net by sliding the puck under diving Caps defenseman Karl Alzner after a getting it back on a nifty give-and-go from Andrew Brunette.
Ovechkin's 30th goal, which he roofed to the short side over Crawford's shoulder, then pulled the Caps within 4-2 at 14:28 of the second but was memorable only because of the move he made to set it up.
After entering the offensive zone with a head of steam, the Russian star first zipped around Keith with a reverse between-the-legs move before beating Crawford -- but Chicago made sure it was nothing more than a play for the highlight reel.
The Hawks played well defensively in the third and Bickell added the only goal in the final period into the empty net for the final score. The Hawks won their third straight game and travel next to Columbus on Tuesday feeling pretty good.
Their third line, centered by Bolland with Bickell and Shaw on the wings, is especially looking strong, which is good news as the playoffs loom ahead. The checking-line specialists did another solid job defending the Caps' top line featuring Ovechkin and both benches took notice.
"Their checking line, David Bolland's line, was very good," Caps coach Dale Hunter said. "I saw [Shaw] play last year [in junior]. He’s a hard-working kid. He knows his role and with hard work you get rewarded with a couple goals."
The game was also the final one for linesman Dan Schachte, who worked 2,009 NHL games in his career for the most by an American-born official in League history. His career also started in Chicago in 1982 at the old Chicago Stadium across Madison Street and he was given a standing ovation in the second period when his retirement was announced and shown the scoreboard screens.