There’s a fine line between sloppy and entertaining.
In the NHL, it’s the blue line.
Through the first few days of the Sprint Cup, defense has been optional and scoring through the roof, though not at all surprising with the lack of training camp and practice time.
For the coaches, wide-open hockey is a nightmare, for the players it’s a test, and for the fans it’s a gift, but if anyone’s due a gift, it is hockey fans after what Gary Bettman put you through during another lockout.
So it was appropriate Tuesday night at the UC that it felt like a celebration of the paying customer, as the Blackhawks defeated the Blues 3-2 and remained undefeated through three games.
The Hawks tightened it up nicely in their own end while continuing to pressure St. Louis with four strong lines, and the result was a very solid victory against a strong Central Division foe.
“All three games have been a little different, but this was our best team game,” said Duncan Keith, who picked up his first point Tuesday. “It was definitely our smartest game.”
It’s too soon to draw any conclusions about the season based on a few games, but the Hawks’ strong start is a reminder that they led the NHL in points last season as late as 367 days ago, before a brutal road trip, injuries and poor goaltending led to a nine-game losing streak.
A couple of things do, however, look markedly different.
The biggest change is having Johnny Oduya from the start. It’s had a huge impact on the defense in general and specifically on his partner, Niklas Hjalmarsson, who has slowed the game down and is playing his best hockey in two years.
As the second pair of defense, they have also taken pressure off Nick Leddy, who was probably asked for too much, too soon last season. Leddy as the No. 5 also looks terrific and Michal Rozsival has been very steady next to Leddy the last two games.
The move of Dave Bolland to second-line center has given the Hawks a strong second unit and is creating matchup problems for the opposition. If they can find someone to play with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa on the top line, the Hawks will give anyone fits.
Several young (or inexperienced) players — like Leddy, Marcus Kruger, Viktor Stalberg, Michael Frolik and Andrew Shaw — look more prepared and confident, and the result is a much deeper Hawks team. Stalberg’s second goal in as many games — a simple wrist shot — was the eventual game-winner Tuesday.
“I really liked our puck movement in the defensive zone, and we played smart, team hockey,” said an almost-smiling Toews, who has 3 points in three games. “Our penalty kill was great and our forwards’ work ethic was strong.
“When we are responsible, and we come back with our sticks on the ice and moving our feet, and we don’t get caught watching the play, it allows our defense to move up and take away those seams.”
As big as anything, Corey Crawford has looked poised and sturdy through six periods.
“I feel really good,” Crawford said. “I feel like my preparation is better this year and my focus is good.”
If you’re looking to complain, the power play looks as dreadful as ever, with too much standing around, little puck movement and shots failing to get through to the net.
The Hawks need more east-west and north-south with the puck in order to get the penalty killers moving their feet, thus creating shooting lanes.
One of the few times the Hawks got a shot through on the PP Tuesday night was when Toews carried it the length of the ice and before St. Louis had a chance to get in their box, Toews hit the brakes on the half-boards, fed Keith at the point and his quick shot got through, deflecting in for a power-play goal and a 2-0 Hawks lead.
“Every good power play has good puck movement, but we’re sometimes guilty of trying to be too pretty,” Keith said. “We try to stay on top of that and make sure we let the puck do the work.”
Yes, the power play is lacking, but that would be nitpicking when a lot is going well for a team that — for the first time in 367 days — leads the NHL in points.
ŸHear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.