Red-hot Chicago Blackhawks facing two big tests
If the Chicago Blackhawks were school kids and we were the teachers, it would be tough to give coach Joel Quenneville's 10-3-1 squad anything but an "A" for their performance thus far.
But as the first quarter winds down, the Hawks are about to face major tests against two of the best the Eastern Conference has to offer: The 8-3-1 Washington Capitals and the 12-1-1 Montreal Canadiens.
The first assignment for a Hawks team that has won seven straight involves trying to contain 50-goal scorer Alex Ovechkin on Friday. Since Quenneville took over as coach in 2009, the Hawks have limited Ovechkin to 5 goals and 3 assists in nine games, but they also are just 3-4-2.
"Well, it's always a big game," Quenneville said. "You know you've got to be at your best against them."
After practice Thursday, Patrick Kane and Niklas Hjalmarsson both admitted this is an opponent they look forward to facing.
"Yeah, it's always fun to play against superstars in the league," Hjalmarsson said. "Maybe it's a little bit easier to get into the game mentally."
Said Kane: "It's fun to play against guys like that. They had a great year last year; they're a great team. So it'll be a good test for us."
Last season Washington (56-18-8) racked up 120 points and won the Presidents Trophy while finishing second with 252 goals and No. 1 in goal-differential at plus-59.
This year the Capitals actually are struggling to score but have given up fewer goals per game (2.25) than every team except Minnesota (2.0) and Montreal (2.21). Much of that can be attributed to Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Braden Holtby, who sports a .920 save percentage.
"Very competitive kid," said Quenneville, who helped coach Holtby in the World Cup of Hockey. "You have to like the way he approaches the game."
After the Capitals come to town, Andrew Shaw and the Canadiens invade the United Center on Sunday.
Shaw has just a goal and 2 assists, but Montreal's only loss was a 10-0 shellacking at the hands of Columbus last Friday. To no one's surprise, that loss came without Carey Price (9-0-0, .953 save percentage) in net.
Certainly, these are big games for a Hawks team that has fattened up on a favorable home schedule against mainly Western Conference foes.
The Capitals and Canadiens are part of an increasingly powerful Eastern Conference that also boasts the 9-3-2 Pittsburgh Penguins and a 10-4-0 New York Rangers squad that is on pace for a whopping 340-goal season. To put that in perspective, no team has scored more than 300 since the 2009-10 Capitals had 313.
"I think you kind of see in all sports … one conference does well for a little while and the other conference kind of comes up and proves themselves again," said Kane, who knows perfectly well that the 2016 Penguins were the first team from the East to claim the Stanley Cup since 2011.
"As the Western Conference we probably feel we've had the better teams for a little while here, but there's some teams in the East that are definitely threats."
Two of which figure to give the Blackhawks a good test over the next three days.
Scouting reportBlackhawks vs. Washington Capitals, United Center, 7:30 p.m. Friday
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: WGN 720-AM
The skinny: The Capitals had a five-game winning streak snapped in San Jose on Tuesday when they were shut out for the first time this season. … Alex Ovechkin (7), T.J. Oshie (6) and Marcus Johansson (6) are the leading goal scorers, and Nicklas Backstrom has dished out a team-best 8 assists. Ovechkin has scored 50 goals in three straight seasons and has 532 goals in a career that began in 2005. … The Hawks are 1-3 vs. Washington in the teams' last four meetings. … Vinnie Hinostroza will return to the lineup for the Hawks. He has been a healthy scratch in eight of the last 10 games. … Corey Crawford starts in net.
Next: Montreal Canadiens at United Center, 6 p.m. Sunday
-- John Dietz