Fifteen games into the season, three shootouts are all that separate the Chicago Blackhawks from a perfect start.
One of the teams that beat the Blackhawks was the Vancouver Canucks, who did so on Feb 1. Now, in the midst of the Blackhawks' seven-game homestand, the Canadian club pays a visit to Chicago looking to make a repeat.
And with a high-powered offensive squad, the Canucks will feel confident in their abilities to test their hosts. But the Blackhawks' fantastic defensive work has been important for them thus far, and will be the biggest key in this impending matchup.
On the surface, the defensive numbers look very promising. Through 15 games, the Blackhawks have allowed just 31 goals, tied for second-best in the NHL. Their plus-20 goal differential is six better than any other team in the league.
Additionally, they boast a lineup featuring only one regular starting player (Dave Bolland, minus-one) with a negative plus/minus ratio. And that player has five goals to his name to make up for it.
The list of results tells a pretty good story, too.
They've allowed more than two goals just twice (not counting shootouts), in wins over the Phoenix Coyotes and San Jose Sharks. They've since held those two teams to two goals and one goal, respectively, in more recent matchups.
Continued defensive solidity against strong offensive sides will bode well going into playoff time, and they certainly face one in Vancouver. In the earlier matchup, goalie Corey Crawford and Co. held the Canucks to a solitary first-period marker before the shootout.
Looking a little deeper shows how big the impact has been throughout the entire defensive unit. The Blackhawks are the only team in the league to boast two players in the top ten in blocked shots. Brent Seabrook leads the league with 44, while Niklas Hjalmarsson has stopped 37.
Of course, the man between the pipes stopping the shots that get past his defenders has been very good too. Crawford currently boasts a 1.65 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage, both in the top five in the NHL.
However, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, Crawford has been dealing with an injury possibly suffered in last week's shootout loss to the Anaheim Ducks. Luckily, the Blackhawks have an able deputy in the veteran Ray Emery.
Emery has been very strong when called upon. He's won all five of his starts, including the 6-4 win over Phoenix early on, and the team's last two wins over San Jose and Los Angeles in which he allowed just three total goals.
It's unclear who will start against the Canucks, but regardless of who it is, head coach Joel Quenneville will be calm knowing he has two hugely reliable options to choose from. And with a unit of players guarding his netminders that have dominated the league thus far, he'll be confident of getting a victory.
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