The Blackhawks are pacing ahead of the 2015 championship squad after 53 games despite battling in the NHL’s toughest division with 15 skaters in the lineup who didn’t finish last season with the team. Helped by a team-record 12 straight wins, the Blackhawks entered the All-Star break with 70 points compared to 68 points last year.
There were several trades caused by the salary cap and injuries that allowed several first-time players to make their NHL debuts. Leading the pack is Artemi Panarin, who not only ranks second on the team in points, but is currently the top rookie scorer. Phillip Danault has stepped in for the injured Marcus Kruger, while Erik Gustafsson has earned a spot on the blue line. And while no longer classified as rookies, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Teuvo Teravainen have been making tremendous strides.
Patrick Kane has been on fire and leads the league in points after setting a franchise and U.S.-born skater record with a 26-game point streak and tallying his first regular-season hat trick. Goalie Corey Crawford has been outstanding as well and leads the league with seven shutouts; he may surpass his career best of playing more than 59 games in a campaign.
The keys to staying on pace for a strong finish include winning at home, where the Blackhawks can eclipse last season’s 24 wins and match or beat their team mark of 30. Their results when scoring first and leading going into the third period has also been outstanding this season: Last year the team was 25-0-0 with the lead after two periods and 35-9-2 after scoring first.
Head Coach Joel Quenneville knows his team has to play better on the road if they are going to match last year’s 24 victories. The line of Kane, Panarin and Artem Anisimov has carried the bulk of the scoring thus far, but Jonathan Toews, Andrew Shaw and Marian Hossa have recently come alive. While the third and fourth lines concentrate on checking, they have come through with timely goals as well.
Chicago’s top blue-liners, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, remain strong in contributing goals and assists. Van Riemsdyk and Niklas Hjalmarsson lead the team in blocked shots. Special teams have improved from last season, and the Blackhawks currently rank fourth on the power play and sixth on the road, while the penalty-killers are in the top third of the NHL.
With the tight race continuing in the Central Division and Western Conference, there are no easy games, and it will remain a battle until the regular-season schedule ends on April 9.