The Blackhawks take the ice and greet their hometown fans.
The Chicago Blackhawks are unbeaten in regulation in their first 15 games of the abbreviated season, making it apparent they would be atop the NHL even with the inclusion of inter-conference games.
Their stranglehold over the Western Conference is undeniable. They’ve defeated conference rivals like the Detroit Red Wings and even made dismantling the Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings look like child’s play.
Jonathan Toews and company went undefeated for six games at the beginning of the season before suffering an overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 30.
Even so, they’ve earned a point in every game they’ve taken the ice for.
Playing Eastern Conference powerhouses like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins or the surging Carolina Hurricanes wouldn’t have slowed the Hawks on their warpath.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Hawks would be undefeated in regulation, though.
Inter-conference games could have ended the point streak that has earned them comparisons to Stanley Cup teams like the 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers or 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks. That wouldn’t change the fact that the Hawks are the most dominant team in the NHL right now.
And they don’t seem to be letting up any time soon.
With players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, even Corey Crawford and Ray Emery would struggle to prevent the Penguins from finding twine.
The same would go for the Penguins, though. Even elite goaltenders like Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun would have a hard time preventing Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa from scoring.
Chicago boasts arguably the most depth at center ice. The team’s four centers combine for 18 goals—contributing over a third of the team’s 50 goals.
They’re not the grittiest group of centers, but they do their job as well as anyone else in the league. Toews has been winning about 60 percent of his faceoffs while Dave Bolland, Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger have been winning somewhere between 42 and 45 percent of their draws.
They don’t need to be the grittiest centers, either. On the third line, Shaw has the 6’4”, 233-pound Bryan Bickell on his wing—providing him and Viktor Stalberg with plenty of muscle for grinding it out with the opposition.
The same goes for the Hawks’ bottom line. Kruger and his right winger, Michael Frolik, are two hard-working players that play great hockey on both sides of the ice. Since neither of them is very big, they have the 6’2”, 223-pound Brandon Bollig to work the puck from the opponents and, on occasion, create space to develop scoring plays.
He's also a nasty enforcer.
Even as good as the Hawks’ third and fourth lines have been at controlling the play, they would be hard-pressed keeping the puck against the forecheck of Eastern teams like the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers.
The New Jersey Devils are another aggressively-forechecking team that would present major problems for Chicago. They’ve made a habit of forcing turnovers in the offensive zone.
The Hawks have been challenged by strong forechecking teams in the Western Conference, but while the St. Louis Blues have displayed a relentless forecheck this season, the Hawks managed to overcome the pressure and only allowed them to force six turnovers.
There’s no reason to believe that Chicago couldn’t rise to the challenge presented by Eastern Conference opponents.
The Hawks possess plenty of blue-line depth, too.
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are both adept at creating plays through passing and simply launching the puck at the net. Johnny Oduya has also shown he can contribute to his team’s scoring.
Chicago’s defensemen have excelled at shutting down enemy offense, too. It’s not often you see a goal scored with the second defensive pairing of Oduya, plus-10, and Niklas Hjalmarsson, plus-eight, on the ice.
Their defensive corps isn’t the only reason the Blackhawks are second in the NHL for fewest goals against.
Corey Crawford and Ray Emery are proving to be the NHL’s best goaltending tandem. Crawford has carried the Hawks to many of their wins so far—giving up more than two goals on only one occasion and registering a shutout in just his ninth start of the season.
With Crawford out due to an upper-body injury, Emery stepped up big time. In his first pair of consecutive starts this season, he turned away 53 of 55 shots.
Other NHL teams, such as the Penguins or the Washington Capitals, also boast impressive goalie tandems. They’re also in a good position to bounce back from an injury in the net, in addition to avoiding netminder burnout.
Crawford and Emery could still give those duos a run for their money.
From top to bottom, the Chicago Blackhawks are undeniably the strongest team in the NHL. They’ve proven time and time again that they can adapt their game to meet whatever challenges the opposition presents.
Would they have gone 15 games without losing in regulation if not for the lockout whipping out their games versus Eastern Conference foes? Maybe not.
However, you better believe the Blackhawks would still be looking down on the entire NHL—inter-conference games or not.