It has largely been an ordinary start for the Chicago Blackhawks this season, but the annual "Circus" road trip scheduled around Thanksgiving is normally a jumping-off point for Joel Quenneveille's team.
The trip got its label because the circus commands the United Center in late November every year, forcing the Blackhawks and the NBA's Chicago Bulls into long road sojourns.
Through the first half of the trip, it looks like the Blackhawks are starting to make progress from their early-season goal-scoring woes.
The Blackhawks have recorded wins in two of their first three games on the trip, beating a tough Calgary Flames outfit and pummeling the Edmonton Oilers before getting beaten by the Vancouver Canucks. They are in third place in Central Division with a 12-8-1 record, four points behind the first-place St. Louis Blues.
The toughest part of the trip remains, with the Blackhawks scheduled to face the Colorado Avalanche (Nov. 26), the Anaheim Ducks (Nov. 28) and the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings (Nov. 29) before they return home to face the St. Louis Blues next week.
Scoring was the primary issue for the Blackhawks coming into the trip. Despite having stars on the roster like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the Blackhawks were not putting the puck in the net at the kind of rate that was expected.
They have already been shut out twice this season at the United Center; in their Stanley Cup-winning years of 2009-10 and 2012-13, they were not shut out at home at all. In their previous 13 games prior to the road trip, the Blackhawks went 6-7-0 and averaged 2.54 goals per game.
Toews and Kane were doing a decent job on the scoring front, but Hossa was slumping and star right winger Patrick Sharp has been out with a knee injury suffered in a 5-0 victory at Montreal Nov. 4.
In the first game of the road trip at Calgary Nov. 20, the Blackhawks scored a 4-3 victory in a game that was encouraging for a number of reasons.
The Blackhawks broke out on top in that game with two early goals from unexpected sources. Defenseman Adam Clendening scored (1:01 mark of video) on a blast from the point in his first game after getting called up from Rockford, while Daniel Carcillo also added a goal. Carcillo is known more for his hard hitting and rough play than his offensive capabilities.
After the Flames tied the game, Seabrook scored to give the Blackhawks a 3-2 lead, but the Flames squared the game with a goal in the second period.
The Blackhawks won the game on an artful goal by Kane (11:25 mark). Scoring four goals on the road is usually enough to earn a victory, and goalie Corey Crawford made it stand up.
Crawford thought he would have the night off in Edmonton during the second game of the road trip two nights later since he had started nine straight games for the Blackhawks. However, he was back in net again against the Oilers because backup Antti Raanta was too sick to play.
The Blackhawks had their way with Edmonton and put any past goal-scoring issues out of their minds as they rolled to a 7-1 victory. Toews scored two goals, Hossa broke out of a slump with a goal (4:49 mark) and Kane also put the puck in the net for the fourth straight game.
The Blackhawks were back at it the next night against the Canucks, who were waiting at home while the Blackhawks played in Edmonton. The well-rested Canucks were sharp and ready to go against Chicago, and while the Blackhawks played on even terms for 40 minutes in a 1-1 tie, they simply did not have the energy in the third period and dropped a 4-1 decision.
That kind of defeat is understandable in the NHL, because it's difficult to play back-to-back road games against a rested and motivated opponent.
It wasn't necessarily acceptable to Quenneville, Toews or any of the other Blackhawks players, but there was no loss of perspective. "They definitely had more pace and energy than we did," Quenneville said via CSNChicago.com after the game. "We were lucky to be in the game going into the third period."
|Blackhawks' Recent Circus Trip Records|
Quenneville was not angry after the game, and he gave his players the next day off to regain their strength. If he had sensed a lack of effort, it's not likely he would have rewarded them with a day away from the rink.
The Blackhawks tend to bond on these long road trips, and they seem to be forging an identity once again on this trip. They are demonstrating that they can score, and perhaps their early-season scoring problems are now behind them.
The true test will come in the final two games of the road trip against the Western Conference-leading Ducks and the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings. If they can beat those two teams and regain their scoring touch in the process, they can plant a seed in those teams' minds that the road to the Stanley Cup goes through the Windy City.