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updated: 10/11/2017 11:10 PM

Five reasons behind the Blackhawks' hot start

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  • Blackhawks right wing Richard Panik celebrates his goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Toronto on Monday. Perhaps the most underappreciated player on the team, Panik quietly goes about his business while wreaking all kinds of havoc on the ice.

    Blackhawks right wing Richard Panik celebrates his goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Toronto on Monday. Perhaps the most underappreciated player on the team, Panik quietly goes about his business while wreaking all kinds of havoc on the ice.
    Associated press

 
 

I'll be honest: When I perused the Blackhawks' schedule and saw Pittsburgh, Columbus, Toronto, Montreal, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Edmonton as the team's first eight opponents, a 3-5-0 start seemed completely plausible.

After all, those eight teams qualified for the 2016-17 playoffs while averaging 46.3 victories and 102.4 points. Throw in the facts that the Hawks were breaking in eight new faces, the blue line was a huge question mark, and they looked dreadful in the preseason finale, and it was easy to envision an under-.500 opening stretch.

But a funny thing happened on the way to potential mediocrity: The Hawks have shown incredible chemistry, desire and skill in a 3-0-1 start that includes blowout victories over the Penguins and Blue Jackets.

So, before Minnesota and the hated Predators invade the United Center on Thursday and Saturday, let's take a look the Hawks' biggest stars thus far.

1. Brandon Saad

Artemi Panarin is a fabulous talent, but experts will probably agree that the Hawks completely fleeced the Blue Jackets over the summer when they reacquired Saad and added a capable goaltender in Anton Forsberg.

"We were saying he's not a man-child anymore," Patrick Kane said of Saad last week. "He's just a man."

Saad is showing why the Hawks -- and more specifically, Jonathan Toews -- missed him so much the last two years. The speed is still evident, but more importantly Saad has the bulk and willingness to crash the net night after night. All 5 of his goals came from less than 10 feet away from the goal.

Said Saad: "There's a lot of skill guys, but it's all about the work and getting to the net -- and especially for my type of game. That's how I have success."

Don't be surprised if Saad, aka The Man, hits 40 goals this season.

2. The defense

The Hawks have allowed a whopping 36.75 shots on goal per game, but that's because opponents are playing catch up from the get-go.

The Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook pairing has breathed life back into both veterans, Jan Rutta (2 goals) has been a tremendous find and Gustav Forsling (3 assists) looks like a completely different player.

If the back end continues its strong play, the biggest question mark heading into the season might just turn into an exclamation point.

3. Patrick Kane

Kane was unstoppable in the Hawks' first 2 wins. The 2016 MVP showed why he might be the best playmaker in the league with some of the nastiest shots and passes you'll ever see.

Kane lost his mojo -- and his center in Nick Schmaltz -- the last two games, but the Hawks are hoping Schmaltz can return Thursday against the Wild.

If he does, watch for Kane to pick up where he left off.

4. Richard Panik

Perhaps the most underappreciated player on the team, Panik quietly goes about his business while wreaking all kinds of havoc on the ice.

Panik (3G, 3A, plus-7) is showing last year was no fluke by fitting in perfectly with Saad and Jonathan Toews on the top line. His bone-crunching, glass-rattling hit on Columbus' Seth Jones on Saturday was a sight to see and led to Toews' first goal of the season.

Panik's fearless play combined with sharp passing and pinpoint shooting makes him one of the best overall players on the team.

5. Corey Crawford

Yes, the Hawks' offense is humming, having scored 21 goals, but their goaltender may turn out to be the team's MVP.

Crawford is in midseason form, having stopped 101 of 104 shots. He's seeing plays perfectly, making the routine and spectacular saves with ease and he's doing just enough behind the net to alleviate pressure on the Hawks' defensemen.

Ignoring the 48-game season of 2012-13, it will be interesting to see if Crawford can better his career marks in save percentage (.924) and goals-against average (2.26).

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