CHICAGO – The day before scoring the game-winning goal of Friday night's NHL historic performance for the Chicago Blackhawks, rookie Brandon Saad was the "Saad man out."
Left Wing - CHI
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 3
SOG: 33 | +/-: 2
As teammates changed in front of their lockers at the Blackhawks' practice facility, Saad sat in the middle of the small room on a black folding chair. His "locker stall" was a hockey bag -- and he couldn't have cared less.
A day later, Saad rushed down the ice at United Center at the tail end of a big penalty kill early in the third period and fired a shot from the left circle that not only beat former Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi, but eventually decided Chicago's 2-1 victory against the San Jose Sharks.
"It's a huge win to be a part of," the 20-year old Saad said after being named the game's first star and scoring Chicago's first shorthanded goal of the season. "To end up getting the winning goal … it's a special time."
The win gave the Blackhawks a 14-0-3 record, giving them the longest season-opening streak of getting at least one point in NHL history. But it's fitting that Saad's goal was scored shorthanded by a guy who didn't even have a place to hang his clothes the day before.
Chicago's core group of stars has led the way during this streak, but the supporting cast has been nearly as big. That includes a penalty-killing effort that remains one of the League's best. The Blackhawks finished ranked 27th in the NHL in penalty-killing last season at 78.1 percent. This season, prior to going 4-for-4 in penalty kills against the Sharks, Chicago was ranked third in the League at 87.9 percent.
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In all, Chicago's penalty-killing unit has kept teams within striking distance, preserved slim leads and helped force overtime. In games like Friday night's, it's breathed life into the team and put the "Madness" back into the Madhouse on Madison Street. Look no further than the Blackhawks' first goal against the Sharks, scored by Viktor Stalberg to tie it 1-1 with 3:20 left in the second period.
The goal was sandwiched between a pair of big kills.
"[Penalty-killing] is a huge part of the game nowadays, especially now when it's usually five penalties a game," Hjalmarsson said. "If you always let in one or two goals, like we did last year, it's tough to get points. Now, when our penalty kill has reached another level and we're playing really good – being in the shooting lanes and getting pucks out of the zone – we get momentum off of our penalty kill. It's been really good so far."
Last season's struggles are part of the reason. The Blackhawks are out to prove they aren't as bad as those numbers seemed to indicate -- and so far, they're proving it.
"We wanted revenge," as Hjalmarsson put it. "Hopefully, we can keep rolling here."
No team has seen Chicago's PK units doing their best work quite like the Sharks – who haven't scored on 11 power plays in three games, all losses, against Chicago. Last week, the Blackhawks killed off a big four-minute power play against San Jose that resulted from Toews' fight with Joe Thornton. Friday night, the Sharks got 8:00 of power-play time in a 13:23 stretch and didn't score. Meanwhile, Emery faced only 10 shots in that sequence.
"We've done a great job so far, but we all take pride in doing that work," Kruger said. "We try to prepare before games and do our homework about the other teams, so I think it's just preparation and pride in doing that [job]. It's an ongoing process and we have to work on it every day to keep it up."
A big part of that work is getting into shooting lanes and absorbing shots, which is another area the Blackhawks have improved. They finished 23rd in the NHL in blocks last season, but entered Friday's game ranked 10th.
Against San Jose, the Blackhawks blocked 15 shots, with Oduya's three leading the way. Hjalmarsson, Seabrook, Kruger and Bryan Bickell all stopped two each. They didn't all come during penalty kills, but enough did – and have during the streak – to make a noticeable difference.
"Special teams a lot of nights can be the differential," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "Tonight you could definitely say the key factor was our PK. Everybody [has] a part of that, goaltending as well, but it was certainly an area that we wanted to improve upon this year and the guys are very diligent in doing the right things."
That includes the guy who sits in middle of the room on a folding chair sometimes, with a smile on his face and a hockey bag as his locker stall.