The Blackhawks were focused on a good start, but nobody could have predicted this.
The Hawks are still without a loss in regulation (19-0-3), own a nine-game winning streak and, perhaps most impressive, a 17-point lead on both Detroit and St. Louis in the Central Division.
If the Hawks get at least 1 point Tuesday against Minnesota, they would own the second-longest point streak in NHL history at 29 games dating back to last season.
The only team left ahead of them would be the 1979-80 Philadelphia Flyers, who went 35 games without a loss.
This is certainly rare air in which the Hawks find themselves. And every team is gunning for them.
“We know now every time we step on the ice the other teams really, really want to beat us, and that’s good for us to have that challenge,” defenseman Johnny Oduya said. “We know we’ve got to be at our best and if we’re not we’re going to lose. Just keeping that short notice and staying in the moment is important.”
Wednesday’s game against Colorado at the United Center marks the official halfway point of the season, which has been filled with drama and late goals for the Hawks, who show no signs of letting up.
“We still have yet to play our best 60 minutes so I think that’s pretty fun too, knowing that we have that ahead of us,” winger Patrick Kane said.
“Getting key contributions from a lot of players has helped,” defenseman Duncan Keith said. “When you have that depth everything is easier. It’s a group effort and a team effort.”
Most valuable player:
Since goalies Corey Crawford (10-0-3) and Ray Emery (9-0-0) cancel themselves out because of their superior play, who else but Kane?
Kane has points in 18 of the Hawks’ 22 games, including a team-leading 11 goals, but it’s defensively where he has made his most noticeable improvement.
Kane is a plus-10, which ties him for best mark on the team, and is second on the Hawks with 23 takeaways.
“I think I’ve gotten better at it over the years just by watching guys like (Marian) Hossa, Johnny (Toews) and even (Pavel) Datsyuk,” said Kane. “I think it’s something guys pride themselves on, looking at the stat sheet after the game and seeing the takeaways column. It can be good for our offense too.”
Most underrated player:
On a team with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson often gets overlooked.
But Hjalmarsson is plus-8 and is tied with Seabrook for the team lead in blocked shots with 53. Hjalmarsson and partner Oduya have played so well it has allowed coach Joel Quenneville to cut back on the minutes of Keith and Seabrook.
“I think we have three really good D-pairings here this year,”Hjalmarsson said. “We can pretty much put any of the three pairs out there. I think all of us in the back have been contributing to the team and have played real solid so far.”
Emery’s 45-save game in Calgary on Feb. 2 stands by itself.
Emery saved the Hawks on a night they should have lost, but thanks to him and a late goal in regulation by Hossa, they won 3-2 in a shootout.
“That was criminal,” Quenneville said of Emery’s effort. “We should all be wearing masks after that.”
With a condensed schedule thank to a short 48-game season, managing days off has been a key to the Hawks’ success.
Quenneville has always been good at this, but this season he has taken his knowledge and understanding of what the players need to a new level.
The game in Detroit on Sunday was played at a playoff-like pace and featured a bit of everything, from great goaltending by Crawford and Jimmy Howard to the drama of Kane’s late power-play goal that made it 1-1.
“An amazing game,” Quenneville said. “What a pace.”
Most improved player:
Marcus Kruger has taken his game to another level.
Not only does he have 3 goals and 4 assists playing on the fourth line, but he has teamed with Michal Frolik to give the Hawks a third pair of forwards who are aggressive, dangerous and dependable as penalty killers.
Most respected player:
There isn’t a player in the dressing room that doesn’t look up to Hossa.
“The ultimate pro,” as Quenneville has called him, Hossa appeared in the 1,000th game of his career on Sunday in Detroit and there wasn’t a teammate who didn’t want to win it for him.
The Hawks will honor Hossa on Tuesday for the 1,000 games with everyone wearing No. 81 jerseys in warmups with Hossa’s name on the back.
“It couldn’t happen to a better guy,” Toews said.
Ÿ Follow Tim’s hockey reports on Twitter @TimSassone and check out his Between the Circles blog at dailyherald.com.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.