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The Verdict: Friday win achieves landmark status

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
Photo by Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks

So now the Blackhawks, who already effected one of the most dramatic revivals in professional sports history, have achieved the best regular or irregular season takeoff in National Hockey League annals.

What are they going to do next? Televise practice? Wait, they already did that. The franchise that once would not put home games on the tube, the franchise that refused to air the first period on the radio from the old Stadium, showed Chicago’s boys of winter doing drills Friday morning. The broadcast signed off before the team meal, but you never know.

There’s a reason for this: Hockey hysteria rarely has been more pronounced in this city, especially in the middle of February, and never has a team broken from the gate with such fury. Friday nights are becoming a favorite for fans at the United Center anyway, but this Friday night before 21,670 fans—the 197th consecutive sellout—merited landmark status.

With a 2-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks, the Blackhawks raised their gaudy record to 14-0-3, breaking the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks’ standard of 16 consecutive games from opening night with at least a point. The Blackhawks had already bettered the Ducks’ haul of 28 points by reaching 29 in their sweet 16th, but just for fun, young Brandon Saad blasted a shorthanded bullet past an old Hawks friend, Antti Niemi, early in the third period to sever a 1-1 tie.

The Blackhawks are piling up wins like the Harlem Globetrotters, which reminds us of veteran voice Pat Foley’s remark during the 2009-10 Stanley Cup run. Said he, the crisp tape-to-tape passing and what amounted to keep-away with the puck begged for “Sweet Georgia Brown” as background music. Thing is, the Blackhawks aren’t playing the Washington Generals. In 17 games, only two have featured opponents who presently are under .500—Columbus (who are here Sunday) and Calgary.

On Friday night, which began with a celebration of Eddie Olczyk’s recent induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, the Sharks were noticeably livelier than they were a week ago. Still, the Blackhawks found a way to win by implementing speed, depth, pluck a bit of luck. When San Jose’s Tommy Wingels wound up for a potentially dangerous rip at Chicago’s undefeated goalie, Ray Emery, the guy’s stick shattered. When Saad burrowed in during one of his handful of penalty-killing assignments, he launched from the left circle and it beat Niemi on the glove side with a ping off the pipe.

“Huge,” enthused Saad, not about his contribution but the overall binge being enjoyed by the Blackhawks. Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik have been killing penalties with such aplomb that radio analyst Troy Murray compared them to Bill Gardner and Rick Paterson, who handled those duties not all that long ago while also being productive at even strength. Now Saad is doing some dirty work, gladly and efficiently.

It was 1-1 after two periods. The Sharks clicked at 19:45 of the first when Patrick Marleau tapped a rebound off Emery’s pad, the puck barely slithering into the net. In the middle period, Niemi was hugging the right post when Viktor Stalberg flung the puck from deep on the left. When the red light went on, Niemi gazed at the Jumbotron for a replay explanation. He couldn’t figure out how it happened either.

Health is with the Blackhawks, too. Corey Crawford dressed as Emery’s backup. Brent Seabrook rejoined Duncan Keith after missing a game. Daniel Carcillo, injured in the season opener at Los Angeles, got a nice welcome, took 10 shifts and said he felt a bit slow. And Marian Hossa was accorded a huge ovation; he was hurt in the third period Tuesday night against Vancouver when Jannik Hansen, who said he was reaching for the puck, led in an unusual manner, with his elbow.

Meanwhile, how would you like to be Jamie Kompon? After winning the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in June, he joined the Blackhawks as an assistant coach in July, right around the team’s annual summer Convention, which is already sold out for this July. Since joining Joel Quenneville’s staff, Kompon has yet to experience a 60-minute defeat. True, there was a lockout, but it’s not as though we’re discussing a tiny sample size. After all, spring training baseball begins Saturday for the Cubs and White Sox.

Then there’s Johnny Oduya, acquired at the trade deadline just about a year ago from the Winnipeg Jets for a second- and third-round draft choice this summer (one of Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman’s trophy deals). Upon joining the Blackhawks lineup, Oduya endured only two regulation defeats before the end of the 2011-12 regular schedule—in St. Louis and in Nashville. The team went 12-2-4 with him on the blue line.

After Friday night’s triumph, the Oduya-Meter reads: 26-2-7.

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