As devout as the Blackhawks are about thinking ahead, surely they will feel the urge to raise a vial of United Center melted ice to 2013. When Antti Raanta registered a taut 1-0 conquest over the Los Angeles Kings Monday night, the defending Stanley Cup champions closed a phenomenal calendar year with 80 victories and only 21 regulation defeats in 113 games.
One January ago, after the National Hockey League lockout ended, the Blackhawks romped to a 36-7-5 mark in a truncated schedule. They seized their second Cup in four seasons with a playoff log of 16-7. Thus far this winter, they are 28-7-7 while exhibiting no signs whatsoever of ennui or fatigue as 2014 arrives.
This binge is historic stuff. With apologies to the 1929-30 Boston Bruins, who dropped just five of 44 starts for an all-time high .875 point percentage, the modern record for regular season dominance belongs to Coach Scotty Bowman’s 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens: 60 wins, 8 losses, 12 ties for .825.
Discounting playoffs, the 2013 Blackhawks are not far off with 64-14-12. During the 1970s, however, salary cap and competitive balance were absent from the NHL lexicon. The Canadiens won their division by 49 points. Like your automobile’s rearview mirror cautions, some objects are closer than they appear. It is highly uniikely the Blackhawks can lap the Central by such a margin over St. Louis or Colorado, not to mention the Pacific depth: three excellent teams in California, plus Vancouver and Phoenix.
Still, when you consider that the Boston Red Sox claimed the World Series off a .599 regular-season winning percentage, the Blackhawks are accomplishing something special. Already, their .802 rate last season ranks fifth in NHL annals, and at least a few adversaries volunteer this team is even better. With three months to go, Avalanche Coach Patrick Roy conceded first place in the Central to Chicago.
There might not be so-called “statement” games this early in the season, but the relentless Blackhawks continue to leave clues that they are immune to the mythical Stanley Cup hangover. Only the NHL schedule has stopped them; they had to take off July and August by mandate.
However, when provoked to maintain their status quo as the franchise to beat, they respond. The Blackhawks were thought by some experts to be too soft in 2010, and again last spring. But during both championship marathons, Head Coach Joel Quenneville dismissed the number of times the Blackhawks were out-hit, reasoning that their puck-possession mode rendered the statistic meaningless. Instead, he stressed how his group is “team-tough.”
In mid-December, the Philadelphia Flyers visited the United Center. Quickly, Wayne Simmonds took a run at Duncan Keith, a fleet defenseman not often caught. Almost instantly, Simmonds was challenged to a fight by Sheldon Brookbank, who is occasionally a healthy scratch when not a role player on the blue line or the wing.
The Blackhawks pounded the Flyers, 7-2. Seven different players scored goals, including Keith, six others contributed assists, among them Marian Hossa (3) and Patrick Kane (2). But when it came time to award the “championship belt” for devotion to duty, teammates cited Brookbank, who registered three of only eight hits by the victors. Philadelphia amassed 35.
A couple weeks later, the Blackhawks raked the Avalanche, 7-2. Patrick Sharp collected a hat trick on his birthday, the first Blackhawk to do so. He absorbed the perfunctory jabs in the room for being an old goat at 32, but Sharp looked quite spry in overtaking Matt Duchene, no plodder he, as he sortied in on Raanta. Sharp lifted Duchene’s stick, pounced on the puck, and arranged a long-distance feed for Jonathan Toews, who scored his second of the evening.
That Sharp would expend such effort with a 4-0 lead is admirable, but not out of character. Sharp habitually plays a 200-foot style, albeit as he likes to say, “under the radar.” He is a leader on a star-studded roster and consistently reiiable, yet it might have taken an eye-opening defensive gem to reinforce his value as multi-dimensional. But that is the Blackhawks’ way. Sharp, a big game hunter, belonged in the Conn Smythe Trophy conversation as most valuable during the 2010 and 2013 playoffs. But he was especially proud of that breakaway he snuffed in a game that was over before it was over.
Quenneville also prefers an “under the radar” existence, but that too has an expiration date. Soon, he will pass Dick Irvin Sr., who at 692 victories with the Canadiens and Blackhawks stands third on the all-time list of NHL coaches. Quenneville will catch Al Arbour, a defenseman on the 1961 Blackhawks Cup champions who won 782 times coaching St. Louis and the dynastic New York Islanders.
One icon, however, is off-limits. Bowman, the Blackhawks senior advisor to hockey operations, owns 1,244 regular-season victories (beside 223 in the playoffs.) Amazing? Consider this: Bowman presided over 314 ties. Imagine if he had won even half of those.