The annual "Circus Trip," in which the Chicago Blackhawks go on a long road trip so Barnum and Bailey's can occupy the United Center, is a rite of fall for the Hawks. Trips that long are not easy. Just two years ago Chicago had a lengthy road trip that coincided with a nine-game losing streak which led to rumors coach Joel Quenneville's job was on the line.
This season, Chicago's "Circus Trip" pitted it against stiff competition, including the Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver Canucks and Phoenix Coyotes, to add to the rigors of seven games and nearly two weeks living out of a suitcase. The Blackhawks may have dropped the first game, but they responded, amazingly, by winning the last six in a row, including a dominant 5-2 win in Phoenix against the stingy Coyotes to put an exclamation point on the trip.
To me, this says that not only are the Blackhawks a team you need to consider on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders -- after all, we already know that -- but this team is now a little tougher than it used to be. The Blackhawks are turning into the Detroit Red Wings of the late 1990s or the New York Islanders of the early 1980s. They expect to win every game and they expect to have a shot at the Stanley Cup every year. They've got that mentality where they think, "Why can't we win every year? Why should we have a down year?"
Teams that think like that are tough to handle, particularly when it's a team like the Blackhawks that never stands pat. Chicago proved it wouldn't sit still by bringing back Kris Versteeg, a player who has proven he can succeed there but is motivated after a tough few seasons. Chicago also has some good young rookies in the lineup like Brandon Pirri, and I think that's great for the team. It's important to get fresh blood in the locker room that hasn't won yet, that doesn't think it's old hat to win six in a row on one road trip.
That keeps a team young and it keeps it hungry, and for a team that has two recent Stanley Cup championships and is fighting to be No. 1 overall this season, that's important. It makes you tough to beat. It makes you dangerous. And it makes you a team that can go on its longest road trip of the season and close it out with six straight victories.
JUMPING THE SHARKS
The only team that might have played better recently than the Blackhawks is the San Jose Sharks, who have just rocketed up the standings to take first place in the Pacific, which is probably the toughest division top to bottom in the NHL. You can talk about how great and dangerous the Sharks are, but it's the same old story in San Jose right now.
We've been down this road before. We've been sitting at the end of the year with the Sharks atop the Western Conference and they just haven't gotten it done in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Sharks have been to the Western Conference Final twice recently, but each time they went out with a whimper.
We know what we're going to get with the Blackhawks. The Los Angeles Kings have won a Stanley Cup with their mix of players. Vancouver has reached the Stanley Cup Final and the Ducks still have players on the roster from their championship season in 2007. The Sharks however, just haven't gotten it done the same way these teams have, and until we see them make a serious run at the Cup, you'll always have that doubt in your mind that they'll be able to pull it off.
The most amazing thing about this is that when you look at the Sharks' roster, it's hard to find a weakness. Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton are as productive as ever up front. Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns have provided an impressive offensive boost while rookie Tomas Hertl could be a 30-goal scorer added to an already impressive lineup. On defense Dan Boyle is still a great quarterback on the power play and Antti Niemi, as stout as they come in net, is one of the few guys on the roster with a Stanley Cup ring at home.
All of that talent makes this team all the more maddening when it comes to spring every year. They're immensely talented. They don't have a weakness. But they just haven't gotten it done. They'll continue to be great through the end of April, but until they can finally take that next step, I'll have trouble thinking of them as one of the teams to beat. They've got to show me when it matters this spring.
FLYING IN PHILLY
The Philadelphia Flyers' season looked lost a few weeks ago when Peter Laviolette was relieved of his duties as coach and Craig Berube was given the reins. Suddenly though, the Flyers have climbed up the standings and are right in the thick of things in the Metropolitan Division.
It seems pretty clear the coaching change made a difference. Berube brought a different philosophy, he gave the locker room a new voice after a few years with Laviolette and now the lineup is playing with a little bit of hunger and some passion. The Flyers are playing like the Flyers again, gritty and hard, but they're also playing with discipline. They're not taking a ton of penalties and putting themselves shorthanded seven or eight times a game. Players like Claude Giroux are scoring again, Vincent Lecavalier is proving to be a good pickup and Steve Mason has quietly been very good in net.
The result is a November with a 9-4-2 mark, one of the best in the League.
Berube has gotten the Flyers back on track. They were playing very un-Philly-like for a while, but he's brought that pride and confidence back to their game. That's made the Flyers a very tough team to play against right now, and it's showing in the standings.