CHICAGO – A little more than a decade ago, the Chicago White Sox had an advertising slogan that played off the promising young talent on their roster.
It went: "The kids can play."
The Chicago Blackhawks marketing department is too creative to borrow it for their own use now, but it does seem to fit. The Hawks' kids really can play – especially relative newcomers Andrew Shaw and Jimmy Hayes – and opposing teams are finding out the hard way.
The team's stars and other regulars aren't too shabby, either, and it was the struggling Buffalo Sabres' turn to learn that lesson on Wednesday night at the United Center.
Hayes and Shaw both scored goals and added an assist each, while Hawks captain Jonathan Toews scored a pair of goals in a 6-2 blowout win that increased Buffalo's road losing streak to 10 games. The win also vaulted Chicago back to the top of the Central Division and Western Conference standings.
"It's awesome," Toews said of the rookies' continued hot play without injured star forward Patrick Sharp. "They're playing great hockey. It's making a huge difference for our team right now that all four lines are working and making things happen. It doesn't matter who we're playing against. If we play that smart defensive game and we roll four lines the way we have, all four lines can score right now and it's good to see that confidence as a team."
Toews' 25th goal, scored late in the first period, gave Chicago a 2-1 lead heading into the second and his 26th – scored during a 5-on-3 power play early in the third – capped the game's scoring. The Blackhawks also got goals from Marian Hossa and Dave Bolland (1 goal and 1 assist), who has quietly put up six goals and three assists in the past six games.
In fact, Chicago had 11 players record points in this game and six tallied two points each – including two assists each from top defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who both had point blasts turn into rebound goals in the first period.
Keith also set up Hossa with a mini-break for a goal off a careless Sabres turnover that gave the Hawks a 3-2 lead a little more than two minutes after Jason Pominville tied it 2-2 with his second goal of the game early in the second.
Hossa beat Buffalo goalie Jhonas Enroth (29 saves) with a hard wrister from the low slot and soon the rout began in earnest. Hayes made it 4-2 at 13:25 of the second with his fourth goal in 10 career games and Shaw almost picked up his second assist of the game with time running out in that period.
After grabbing the puck out of mid-air off a rush to the net, he quickly put the puck down and tapped it with his stick – which caused it to lightly clip Enroth's pad and go straight to rookie Marcus Kruger for an easy tap-in goal.
Only the goal was waved off because an official ruled the play a hand pass, which blew it dead on the spot and cannot be reviewed.
"They called it a hand pass on the ice, so they had to blow it dead right away even thought I got a stick on it," said Shaw, whose goal before that play was his fifth in just eight NHL games. "Once they call that, it's an instant dead play, so the goal doesn't even matter."
The continued contributions by both Shaw and Hayes -- not to mention the yeoman work of another rookie, Kruger, centering the second line -- does matter quite a bit for the Blackhawks. Sharp's season was interrupted four games ago after 20 goals and 20 assists by an undisclosed upper-body injury that could keep him out for at least a couple more weeks.
The fear was that without him the offense cold struggle. Instead, Chicago is averaging 4.4 goals a game since Sharp got hurt and have three wins in regulation to go with an overtime loss at Detroit last weekend.
"I think that's something we're trying to strive for is to get four lines rotating and you find out a little bit more about your team ... and how good we can be," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "We want to make sure that it's a standard and we can improve off of these levels, but we've been striving to get there all year and I like the trend recently."
Quenneville also liked what he saw out of his defense corps in this game, after stating on Wednesday morning that he wanted to see more point shots get through to the goalie. That's exactly what happened on Shaw's goal that tied it 1-1 just 3:28 after Pominville's first marker gave the Sabres an early lead.
Keith bombed a shot from the point that Enroth couldn't control and Shaw whacked the loose rebound home into a wide open side of the net for his fourth straight game with a goal scored. Chicago's second goal, scored by Toews off a rebound tap-in, was prompted in almost the same fashion.
Seabrook blasted a slap shot from the top of the slot into traffic on a power play with 4:19 left in the first and the puck hit Shaw before landing in the crease for Toews to swat it home. The Hawks' second pairing of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy also added assists to their stat lines to give Chicago some solid offensive production from the back end.
"We were just able to get a few shots through and we had guys there to bang in some rebounds," Keith said. "The key was getting some good shots through there and guys bearing down on a breakaway. Hoss makes a nice shot there. Sometimes the goalie makes the save and everybody forgets about it, but he buried that one and our forwards were good tonight."
The Sabres couldn't say the same thing.
Pominville, Jochen Hecht and a few others were good, but Derek Roy and Drew Stafford each finished with a minus-3 rating, Nathan Gerbe was a minus-2 and three others were also on the ice for goals against.
"If we were going good, probably that goal [by Hossa] wouldn't happen," said Ville Leino, who was a minus-1 and didn't record a shot on goal. "You've got to try to eliminate those, but at the same time they made a lot more plays than us. If you don't make plays, and if you don't create chances, you won't score and you won't have the puck ... and you won't have a chance to win."