Blackhawks coach Denis Savard has a simple New Year's wish for his club ... Stay healthy!
There's little doubt since Savard took over at the end of November that the players have responded, and the return of injured players has made a big difference. With a favorable schedule this month, Savard knows that it is important to build momentum before heading into Chicago's longest road trip of seven games starting February 1 in Los Angeles.
Everything in hockey starts with your goalie and moves forward from there. Nikolai Khabibulin is probably his own biggest critic. He appears to have put last year behind him and has given his team a chance to win every night. His teammates recognize what he has done, and so have opposing players and coaches. In the past month, he steadily has lowered his goals against average and raised his save percentage into the top 10 of the NHL.
While Martin Havlat, Tuomu Ruutu, and Radim Vrbata are expected to be your highest scorers, there have been several pleasant suprises. Bryan Smolinski, a proven veteran, is among the leaders in shorthanded goals. Free agent Jeff Hamilton has shown he can score at the NHL level after toiling in the AHL.
The addition of 500 goal scorer Peter Bondra bodes well, plus Denis Arkhipov is coming on to fill the loss of Michal Handzus. Rene Bourque, coming back after a neck injury, should regain the scoring touch he displayed as a rookie. Patrick Sharp is off to a slow start, but it seems when he gets going, he scores in streaks.
Greater depth on defense has given Savard several pleasant options. The tireless Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook started slow in their sophomore campaigns, but have been very strong of late. Since being promoted from Norfolk because of injuries, James Wisniewski has been one of the team's top four blueliners.
A healthy Adrian Aucoin has given the defense more experience and veteran Jassen Cullimore has picked up his play, which helped Tampa Bay win the Cup two years ago.
Special teams will continue to be a key factor in the race for a playoff slot. The penalty killers are doing fine, and Savard knows that his power play has to get better as he experiments with different combinations.
It appears it will be a dog fight for the final three playoff spots in the Western Conference. Looking back at the Hawks' 2001-02 season, the team wound up December 11 games above .500; improved to 13 in January on their way to a playoff spot; and finished at 14 games above .500.
The following season saw the team end December 18-13-6-0 and January 22-19-9-3. But the Hawks won only 7 of their remaining 27 games to miss the postseason. While the previous playoff season of '96-'97 saw the Hawks below .500 by five games in December, and eight at the end of January, the team won 14 and tied five in their final 27 matches.
The key to continued success this season and returning to the playoffs will be staying healthy and having a strong January. Although many call it a cliche, Savard says he is trying to keep things simple and play one game at a time.
One thing is certain, he has helped to make Blackhawk hockey more exciting.
A happy and healthy New Year to all!
Harvey Wittenberg served as the Blackhawks' Public Address Announcer from 1961 to 2001 and is currently a contributor to chicagoblackhawks.com. Buy Harvey's book -- Tales from the Chicago Blackhawks.