The Chicago Blackhawks ended the first month of their title defense in an intriguing scenario.
They’ve played the most games in the NHL (13), winning seven of them and have dealt with a number of injuries already. Based on gross points, the Hawks are in first place in the Central Division.
And yet, most fans feel like the sky is falling.
New starting goalie Marty Turco was pulled from a game after allowing four goals in the first period, Brian Campbell hasn’t played in a game yet and a handful of the team’s top players have missed action.
Injuries are nothing new for this organization, though. Last year’s team was without Marian Hossa for all of October, while this year’s team has obviously missed Campbell. Dave Bolland was struggling with a back injury that would eventually require major surgery last year, and he is again banged up this year.
But many fans forget that Jonathan Toews missed four games because of a concussion early on last year and the Hawks' roster experiments in October included names like Andrew Ebbett, Radek Smolenak, Jack Skille, Jake Dowell and Bryan Bickell.
Of course, now Skille, Dowell and Bickell have become regulars in the lineup, but last year, fans were sweating the daily bus rides between Rockford and Chicago more than they should be this time around.
Last October, many analysts thought Dustin Byfuglien had a better chance of playing in the Olympics than Toews and Niklas Hjalmarsson was a relatively unknown commodity.
Coming off a Stanley Cup Championship, the naivete of Hawks' fans was split between those who believed the departing players could never be replaced and those who thought the team at the United Center wouldn’t miss a beat.
If we’ve learned anything after one month, it’s that neither of those perceptions is accurate.
For all the hype coming into the season and subsequent emotional roller coaster that the 2010-11 Blackhawks have provided their fans, numbers are the true measure of a team’s performance.
So let’s look at this year’s team through October and compare it to last year.
|Record||8 – 4 – 1||7 – 5 – 1|
There are a few reactions to all of these numbers, but one that is consistent in almost every category: “Wow, the Hawks aren’t that different than last year!”
This year’s team has scored exactly the same number of goals as last year’s team on a pretty close number of shots on goal. That scoring has translated into a record that is different by just one loss.
The penalty kill unit continues to be around 85 percent and the number of short-handed goals scored both by the Hawks and against them is the same through 13 contests.
What are the differences? The biggest negative trend from last year to today is the number of shots the Blackhawks are allowing per game. It’s been mentioned pretty consistently throughout the year already, but 32.5 shots against is too many and cannot continue.
It’s an increase of 9.8 shots per game (43.2 percent) over last year and has been the biggest contributor to the other negative trend: goals against average. The Hawks are allowing over a half goal per game more this year than they did last year in spite of the team’s save percentage going up from .898 to .913.
Where Blackhawks' fans can look at these numbers to feel encouraged is the improved power play unit. Last year, the Blackhawks' power-play was the biggest weakness early in the season, but even with the injuries already this year, the Hawks rank third in the NHL in scoring efficiency with a man advantage.
Patrick Sharp has been the October leader in goals both seasons, improving from six last year to 10 this season.
Last year’s team had five players with more than eight points, including Kris Versteeg and Cam Barker. This year, seven players have more than eight points and twice as many players (four) have achieved double-digit points already.
Quietly, Troy Brouwer and Tomas Kopecky have more assists (seven each) than Toews (six) while fourth-liners Dowell and Viktor Stalberg have as many goals as Toews and Kane (three apiece).
Across the board, this year’s team is doing most things as well or better than last year’s team. The chemistry hasn’t been there yet this year, but last year’s team didn’t have championship experience all over the roster yet.
The roster may have changed as much as the expectations, but the production has, in many ways, been similar.
Hawks fans should take the month of October in its proper context: the first month of a six-month regular season.