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Blackhawks' start even better than realized

by Barry Melrose

If you pay attention to the NHL on a regular basis, you're already well aware of the special season that's brewing in Chicago, but I'm not sure we all realize just how special it is.

After Monday night's 3-2 overtime win against Edmonton, the Blackhawks are now 16-0-3, which is the longest any team has ever gone without a regulation loss to start the season. When you do something that's never been done before in a league that's 96 years old, that's pretty impressive.

Not only has it never happened, but they did it basically without any training camp as a result of the lockout. You also need to remember that, yes, the Blackhawks have been pretty healthy for the most part, but they've also beaten Vancouver a couple of times, they've beaten San Jose a couple of times, they've beaten St. Louis. They've really beaten everybody. This isn't just a case of them beating up on the weakest horses in the field every night.

To play 19 games while using two goaltenders and not have a game where you let up or get tired is amazing.

This is particularly remarkable considering Chicago opened up its season with 10 of 12 games on the road. When you're on the road for that length of time in the NHL, it's not uncommon to have a night where everyone looks at each other and says, "Man, we're beat." That can happen sometimes, and it really looked like it might have on Feb. 5. Chicago was on the fourth stop of a six-game road trip at San Jose and went down 3-1 just 11 minutes in. Sometimes those are the games when you're on the road and players all look at each other in the room and just say, "Well, this isn't our night. We'll get 'em tomorrow." The Blackhawks rallied to win that game 5-3. They did it again to San Jose last Friday night, trailing 1-0 before winning the game on a shorthanded goal by Brandon Saad in the third period.

These types of wins show just how good this team is. Chicago certainly has an unbelievable amount of talent, but there is also an unbelievable amount of character on this team.

Duncan Keith looks like the guy that won the Norris Trophy, Patrick Kane has done something special every night and he's among the leading scorers in the NHL, and Jonathan Toews is having a great start as well, to say nothing of the leadership he showed when he fought Joe Thornton recently, knowing he was probably going to get beat up.

When you look at their weapons, the talent they have up front in Saad, Viktor Stalberg and Michal Frolik, the tough and deep defense with Keith, Brent Seabrook, Nick Leddy and Johnny Oduya, and the size and scoring they've got all over the ice, this team is starting to look better than the one that won the Stanley Cup in 2010.

The only question to me is the goaltending because Ray Emery took a team to a Stanley Cup Final, but it was six years ago, and Corey Crawford has the demons of last year to contend with. Then again, the goaltending has been excellent to this point.

With all that said, though, we have to be realistic. The Blackhawks aren't going to go 48 games without a regulation loss. They're going to lose at some point. Someone will catch them on an off-night somewhere; they simply can't play like this for 48 games with no letdown. The bigger question is whether or not anyone will be able to beat them in the playoffs.

The team with the best start prior to Chicago's this season, the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks, ended their season by engraving their names on the Stanley Cup, so you have to wonder who could stop these Blackhawks from doing the same. I think any team with a chance at it would need superior goaltending and a solid defense. St. Louis could be that team if Jaroslav Halak plays like he did with Montreal in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs. I think Boston matches up well against Chicago -- the Bruins only have two regulation losses this season, after all.

Whomever it is that faces the Blackhawks with a chance at beating them, though, it's going to be a team with excellent goaltending, much like Phoenix was a year ago when Mike Smith was unbelievable. It will take Mike Smith from last year, Pekka Rinne or Jonathan Quick like he played last postseason. It will need to be a goalie that is playing on that level, because really, if Chicago is playing this well in the postseason, it's not going to be a team that beats it. It's going to be a goaltender.

Right now, the Blackhawks are the best team in the West. They've beaten everybody and they've shown no weaknesses. Their power play isn't great, but it's a lot better than it was last season. Unless this team suffers massive injuries, there's no reason to think it won't win the vast majority of its remaining games. Unless something dramatic happens that none of us can perceive, the Blackhawks will finish first in the West and get home ice for the rest of the playoffs. At that point we'll see if anyone has the goaltending and the defense to beat them four times in seven games.

The most amazing thing about all of this, though, might be that I think the Chicago Blackhawks aren't just the best team in the NHL, but right now they're also the most fun team to watch in the NHL. It's nice to see entertainment and winning go together.

That's good for the NHL, and it's good for hockey.

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