Chicago Blackhawks: 6 Reflections from a 6-Win Road Trip
The Chicago Blackhawks return from a marathon seven-game road trip with a stunning 6-1 record. After opening the annual Circus Trip with a 5-1 loss in Colorado, the 'Hawks stormed back to take six in a row from Western Conference foes.
Saturday night, Chicago capped a successful road jaunt with a 5-2 win in Phoenix in front of an audience laden with Indian head sweaters. The Blackhawks got five goals from five different scorers as they increased their NHL-leading point total to 44.
It was a long excursion to say the least. The trip was also an eventful one, as a lot was revealed about the 'Hawks over the course of the seven games.
Here are some reflections from the Circus Trip as we wait for Chicago to return to action at home against Dallas Tuesday night.
1. The 'Hawks Are Finding Ways to Win
Chicago came from behind to win three of the six games it won on the road trip. Two of them came on lightning strikes in the final 20 minutes.
The 'Hawks put up a pair of goals in the space of nine seconds in Vancouver to beat the Canucks 2-1. This was a game on which the success of the trip may have hinged, as a loss would have resulted in a 1-2 mark through the first week of travel.
Four nights later in Calgary, the Blackhawks rallied from a 2-0 deficit with two goals in less than a minute midway through the third period. They won the game with a Patrick Kane backhand shot with 18 seconds to play.
Friday night in Dallas, the 'Hawks tied the game in the third and went on to prevail 2-1 in an 11-round shootout. Chicago used some third-period resolve to turn what could have been a 3-4 trip into a 6-1 trip.
2. Antti Raanta Held Up Just Fine as the Backup
All a team really requires from a backup goalie is an occasional start that gives his team a chance to win. Nikolai Khabibulin struggled to provide that before becoming injured. Antti Raanta proved quite serviceable in the role on the Circus Trip.
Raanta relieved Corey Crawford in the loss to the Avalanche and started two of the final three games of the trip. The unproven rookie wound up with a 2-0 record, a 2.16 goals against average and a .917 save percentage.
Raanta still has much to learn about NHL hockey, and he will likely have his ups and downs. However, the fact that coach Joel Quenneville had enough confidence to rest Crawford twice in three games suggests that the 24-year-old Finn performed well on the road. The numbers back that up.
3. Joel Quenneville Trusts His Fourth Line
What we are seeing from the 'Hawks is a different strategy from seasons past in terms of how Quenneville uses his lines. The 'Hawks are rolling four lines, but what was the energy line in the past is now Chicago's checking line.
That would be the fourth line of Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith.
Quenneville has not been afraid to send the fourth line out in a variety of defensive situations, regardless of the opponent or the time of the contest. This line is consistently starting in the defensive zone and finishing in the offensive zone.
Kruger's improvement on draws is a big factor in the line's success as well as Bollig's stepping up his limited game. Smith had the deciding shootout goal Friday, and Bollig's third-period tally helped put away the Coyotes.
You can bicker about whether Bollig (3 goals, 4 assists) should be in the lineup all you want. The bottom line is that Quenneville trusts this line defensively and is using them as stoppers. By the way, Kruger, Bollig and Smith have also combined for 28 points in 28 games and are plus-12 together.
4. Quenneville Does Not Trust Brandon Pirri
On the flip side, Quenneville is showing that if he has any other viable option, Brandon Pirri is going to play limited minutes.
Pirri did not score on the road trip. His minutes were curtailed the instant Michal Handzus returned to the lineup. Most noticeable was Quenneville's benching of Pirri after the second Calgary goal Wednesday night.
In back-to-back games in Dallas and Phoenix Friday and Saturday, Pirri played 9:52 and 7:07, respectively. He was almost immediately demoted to the third line once Quenneville had his veteran center back.
Pirri played some good hockey on the road trip despite being held off the scoresheet. I though he provided a fierce forecheck and helped make the second line tough to handle. However, it looks like Pirri might be in for some mind games from his coach in the near future.
5. Kris Versteeg Is...Well...What Is He?
Since returning to the Blackhawks in a trade with Florida, Kris Versteeg has a goal and three assists in nine games. He had an assist in the Winnipeg game back on Nov. 21 and has a plus-one skater rating.
Versteeg had some quiet outings on the Circus Trip, which is not to say that he played badly. He has added versatility to the lineup and has appeared on each of the top three lines since coming aboard.
One thing Versteeg hasn't been asked to do so far in his second tour with Chicago is kill penalties. This seems strange because he's a decent penalty killer and the 'Hawks could still use the help on that unit.
Versteeg hasn't been spectacular for the 'Hawks but has provided depth, especially in the face of Bryan Bickell missing time with a lower body injury. Let's just be patient and see if Versteeg can make himself more noticeable in a positive way.
6. This Was a Wildly Successful Circus Trip
I'm stating the obvious here, but the 'Hawks had themselves a hell of a road trip.
Chicago started the trip tied with Anaheim for the top of the Western Conference and comes home with a three-point lead on San Jose. They saw Patrick Kane run up a 12-game points streak. Duncan Keith went on a scoring binge (eight points in seven games) and added some Norris-quality defense.
The lower lines did their part. The backup goalie came through twice. The 'Hawks rallied to win some big road contests. Chicago also got healthier by the time all was said and done.
Sure, you could pine for a 7-0 record over the last two weeks. However, I'll take a six pack of wins on the Circus Trip.