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Despite strong start, Hawks playing a waiting game

Saturday, 11.21.2009 / 1:00 AM / Quarterly Report

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

 
Hold all of your questions, please. In fact, stop the presses.

Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman wouldn't normally be ready to give a complete evaluation of his team after 20 games anyway, but he is reserving any and all judgment until Marian Hossa not only makes his Hawks' debut, but makes an impact in the lineup.

Only then will Bowman, the first-year GM with the famous last name, realize exactly what kind of a team he has inherited from Dale Tallon.

Hossa, who had offseason shoulder surgery, should be in the lineup soon, maybe even next week in California. He could skate on a line with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

"You're starting to see it now, guys getting into their rhythm, but we have one guy coming back and ice time will get moved around so we need to see how that plays out," Bowman told NHL.com. "It's a necessary step for us to assess how it is with Hossa."

Without him, the Hawks have done just fine.

That, though, was to be expected from a team that has all the ingredients necessary (yes, even without Hossa) to contend for the top seed in the Western Conference.

Through 20 games, Chicago is 13-5-2, first in the Central Division and third in the Western Conference. The team built on speed, power and puck possession is one of the best teams in the NHL in keeping the opposing offense in check.

Bowman loves it that way and you know coach Joel Quenneville, himself a former NHL defenseman, does too.

"I am pleased for sure because I think that's something we stress and that's been a strength of Joel's as a coach," Bowman said. "He understands the importance of keeping puck out of net. Last year we were one of the highest-scoring teams, but we were also very good defensively.

"We wanted to make that a priority this year. We haven't had Hossa in our lineup, so I guess our scoring is down a bit from where it was a year ago, but defensively we have been sound and we have gotten very good goaltending as well."

Let's start in the net because, well, that's where every critic seems to start with the Hawks.

Cristobal Huet is silencing his doubters one save at a time. After a slow start, he's been rock solid with a 10-4-2 overall record, 2.17 goals-against average and .907 save percentage. Antti Niemi has played a quarter of the games and has been just as good.

"(Huet) has been confident, composed and is playing well," Bowman said. "There is always a lot made about Huet outside the team, but internally he has been pretty cool and calm and focused. We never had a lot of discussions about him."

Huet, though, hasn't had to work all that hard in some of the games because the Hawks, due to their puck-possession game, have done a tremendous job in limiting the shots against.

They are allowing a League-low 23.4 shots on goal per game.

"A lot of times when you watch our team play, we'll get to center ice and if we don't have a play we'll go backwards and we'll try again," Bowman said. "We don't typically give up a lot of shots because we don't typically give up the puck."

It's not just the shots and goals-against (second in the NHL with 2.25 GA per game), either. The Hawks are giving themselves a chance to play that puck-possession game because they are winning better than 54 percent of their faceoffs.

John Madden has had a lot to do with that success, winning 58 percent of his 302 draws. Toews, though, has improved by eight percent to lead the team at 62.8 percent (150-89).

Chicago's penalty kill, although not used as often as 24 other teams in the NHL, has also been spectacular at 86.3 percent (second in the NHL). They were 17th last season at 80.6 percent.
 
All of it, though, could change in a flash.

The Hawks have played two-thirds of their games at home, but they started a six-game road trip with a 7-1 victory in Calgary Thursday. They play two more games in Western Canada and three in California before returning home to play 10 of 15 at home in December.

"Obviously this is a big point for us and I think it's good to get on the road," Bowman said. "Matchups are different. Sometimes you're in a hostile environment. We saw early in the year when we were in Europe it can bring your team together."

This time, though, it should be the whole team. Yes, that means Hossa.

"You don't want to just rely on him," Bowman warned. "He's one of the best players in the League, but you don't want to assume everyone will exhale and let him do it. That's a danger you can get into. We have to make sure to ramp up our game."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com
Quote of the Day

I remember the first time at Wrigley Field all of us had the long johns, the turtlenecks and the extra equipment because we were afraid of being cold. Halfway through the first period everybody's ripping everything off and we just ended up wearing what we would normally wear for a game at the United Center.

— Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp on the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic