The Chicago Blackhawks are just three games into the 2018-19 NHL season and they are causing a stir. After the disastrous 2017-18 season, many were predicting a rough start to this season for the storied franchise. It’s very early, but they are currently leading the tough Central Division. This has the local hockey community almost as excited as the Chicago Bears faithful in town. It’s been years since both franchises were in first place at the same time. How long that lasts is the question everyone wants answered.
Blackhawks Providing Thrills And Chills
Prior to the 2018-19 season, there were several questions facing the Blackhawks. The ability of their core to improve their play was one of them. The team needed huge bounce-back seasons from Jonathan Toews, Brandon Saad, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook. They also needed a healthy Corey Crawford to return to the net, and also an improved defence corps. So far the team has answered some of the questions, but others remain.
Oh Captain, My Captain
The play of Jonathan Toews has been sub-standard the last couple of seasons by his own standards. The Blackhawks missing the playoffs last season was a huge disappointment for the captain. Toews has always led by example on the ice, many times single-handedly carrying his team through the regular season, playoffs, and three Stanley Cups. In Last Word’s 2018-19 Puck Drop Preview, the improved play of Toews was cited as one of the factors needed for a successful season.
It appears that the captain has recaptured his former self, based on the way he’s playing so far this season. He has been dominant in every aspect of the game. His line with Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kahun has been a force with puck possession and offensive zone pressure. Toews currently has five goals and one assist in the three games. DeBrincat is close behind his centre with two goals and two assists, while Kahun has chipped in with two assists.
Toews has been a huge net-front presence in scoring his five goals, a great sign that the captain is back. He looks strong with the puck and is once again winning many puck battles. The Blackhawks number one line will need to continue its stellar play for the team to continue to compete for a playoff spot again.
Chicago Blackhawks Thrills
All three of the Blackhawks games have been wildly entertaining. The first two games featured thrilling come-from-behind overtime victories over the Ottawa Senators (4-3) and St. Louis Blues (5-4). The home opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs was an incredible game, but the Blackhawks ended up losing 7-6 in overtime. The teams scored five goals in the third period, including three goals in the last 1:30 of regulation as they battled to a 6-6 tie. Unfortunately for the home crowd, the Maple Leafs ruined the opener by scoring 19 seconds into overtime.
The Chicago Blackhawks appear to have gotten their offensive game in order based on the team scoring 15 goals in three games. Patrick Kane is tied for the team lead with six points, scoring four goals and two assists. Rookie Henri Jokiharju has five assists, Alex DeBrincat has two goals and two assists, and Nick Schmaltz has four assists in three games. This kind of production is great to see, but will probably not continue at such a high level as they go forward.
Chicago Blackhawks Chills
While the Chicago Blackhawks are 2-1 on the year, there are two areas of the team that need to be tightened up if they are to be successful this season. Goaltending and defence have been discussed as two areas that are suspect prior to the season. After three games, the play in net and on defence have been a sore spot despite the 2-1 record.
The play of Cam Ward has been less than stellar, to say the least. Ward’s 4.62 goals against average and .843 save percentage are signs that the Blackhawks need help in goal. In the first game of the season in Ottawa, Ward was a goal away from getting yanked in the first period. Ward did manage to settle down and keep the Blackhawks in the game until they won it in overtime. For better or worse, Ward has the net while Corey Crawford works his way back into the lineup.
The recovery of Crawford is still a huge question for the team and their hopes for a successful season. Check this out from John Dietz of the Daily Herald who writes about the Blackhawks competing for a playoff spot:
All they need is:
1. A healthy Crawford
If Corey Crawford can play 50 to 55 games at the level we’re used to seeing, there’s no reason the Hawks can’t be what they were last December — which is a fringe wild-card team.“When you have a goalie like Corey … it gives the whole team confidence in making plays,” Keith said in April. “Losing him hurt. There’s no question about it.”
But will Crawford be Crawford? One Hawks insider I talked with said he has no doubt.
So that’s a good first step.
The Chicago Blackhawks defence corps is a work in progress. As a group, they are still turning the puck over too much in their own zone. In three games, they have 15 turnovers and only one takeaway. They are also having ongoing coverage breakdowns in front of Ward, often leaving their goalie to fend for himself. This needs to improve for Ward to be successful for his team.
Rookie Henri Jokiharju has been a pleasant surprise leading the defence with five assists in three games. Jokiharju has been the offensive force the Blackhawks expected from him as their first-round draft pick in 2017. His only flaw is his size and ability to battle for pucks against bigger wingers. That too will come with time and game experience. Currently, coach Joel Quenneville is protecting Jokiharju by not playing him when the Blackhawks are short-handed and has given him less than a minute of power play time in three games. Time on the special team units will be handed to Jokiharju in small doses while he learns his position. Expect more power play time for the rookie as the season moves along. His ability to create offence is something the Blackhawks need to improve their current 0-10 power play. Yes, 0.00% power play success, you read that correctly.
Nowhere To Go But Up
The 2018-19 Chicago Blackhawks are going to be more entertaining compared to last season. This squad is led by captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, two of the most dynamic forwards in the league. Their improved play and leadership will help carry their team while it works on improving the suspect areas of defence and goaltending. It will definitely be an uphill climb, but one that will be fun to watch.