After an ordinary start, the Chicago Blackhawks have been focused and driven throughout November and December.
They have asserted themselves with a brilliant 11-1-1 run that came to a harsh end Tuesday night when the Winnipeg Jets waltzed into the United Center and treated the Blackhawks as if they were the Edmonton Oilers and hung a 5-1 defeat on them.
Uninspired and distracted? No doubt, but all it proves is that the Blackhawks are human and can be impacted by events like the holiday season as well as tragedy.
That loss ended an eight-game home winning streak, and it means that the Blackhawks slipped to 23-10-2 on the season. But the Blackhawks have already established their signature for the 2014-15 season as they attempt to establish a strong playoff position in the Western Conference and make a run at their third Stanley Cup in the last six years.
They dominate in the third period. They have a 12-0-0 record when they take a lead into the final period, and they have outscored opponents, 40-21, in the third period.
That's the kind of championship form that can help a team reach it's long-term goals, and it speaks of the team's confidence that regularly comes to the surface when the game is on the line.
The Blackhawks roster is loaded with superstar talent in the form of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. While the usual assessment is that the Blackhawks excel at scoring big goals and filling the net, the defense and goaltending have been the backbone of this year's strong showing.
Going into the Winnipeg game, goalies Corey Crawford, Antti Raanta and Scott Darling all had goals-against averages of less than 2.00 goals per game. Crawford had a serious hiccup against the Jets and gave up three goals on 13 shots before he was removed in favor of Raanta. That performance increased Crawford's goals-against to 2.00 goals per game.
Even with the loss to the Jets, the goaltending has been outstanding this season. Crawford has keyed that performance with a 12-6-2 record and a .923 save percentage. Unlike last year, Crawford has not been leaking bad goals this season, and head coach Joel Quenneville has appreciated his top goaltender's consistency.
"Two years ago I thought he had an outstanding year and last year was OK," Quenneville told Mike Spellman of The Daily Herald. "I think this year he's probably been at his best as far as consistency game in and game out. This year, he's gone to that next step."
Additionally, the team has been at the top of the league's penalty-killing standings all year. The Blackhawks are killing 90.7 percent of their opponent's power plays, well ahead of the second-ranked Detroit Red Wings, who are stopping 87.9 percent of their opponents man-advantage opportunities.
When a team is getting outstanding goaltending and killing penalties better than any other team, that is going to give it the confidence to perform at its best in the third period.
That has been in even sharper focus since the Blackhawks dropped a 4-1 decision at Vancouver Nov. 23. Since that time, they have outscored opponents, 17-9, in the third period.
It's not a surprise that their top players have been coming through for them in the third period to key that hot streak. Kane has registered six goals and four assists in third-period action since the Vancouver loss, while Toews has two goals and five assists in the third period over that same span.
Goaltending, penalty killing and outstanding production from their superstars has keyed the Blackhawks' third-period success.
Coming through when the game is on the line should put the Blackhawks in a strong position to assert themselves in the playoffs again next spring.