Artemi Panarin laced a shot past Brian Elliott on Sunday night, giving the Blackhawks a critical 1-0 lead over the Blues.
It took a little time – the goal came nearly 15 minutes into the second period – but it had its desired effect. Some of the pressure was off the tired Blackhawks and put on the equally-fatigued Blues. A little more than 25 minutes later, the Blackhawks were claiming their 13th victory in their last 15 games.
It goes without saying that getting that first goal gives the scoring team an edge. For the Blackhawks, that edge has been tremendous. They have a league-leading 30 victories (30-4-2) when scoring the first goal, and their ability to parlay that early lead into victories is a big reason they’re atop the Central Division.
“It’s huge,” said Andrew Shaw. “You never want to be behind in a game, especially in this league where guys shut down and play solid defensively. It’s nice to get the early lead. It all comes from our starts: we’ve been coming out pretty fast, doing the little things right, getting pucks in and putting the pucks in with traffic.”
The Blackhawks had their share of fast starts when they went on their franchise-record 12-game winning streak. During that, they scored the first goal in 11 of those 12 games – the one exception was in Colorado on Dec. 31, and they came back to win that game in overtime.
With those leads, the Blackhawks have avoided the dreaded chase game. As much as there have been games in which the Blackhawks have gone into full defense mode to protect that lead, they and Corey Crawford have done so plenty of times.
“It’s a huge advantage, scoring first in games, having the lead and playing with it. The other team has to press, take chances, and when you’re playing patient and playing the right way, you can capitalize on some of the chances based on them trying to be creative,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Defend-first mentality is something we stress a lot. Teams really are in the checking mode this year and it’s hard to score. It just seems to add to your advantage if you can score early.”
[SHOP: Get your Blackhawks gear here]
Again, it adds to the defensive mode. Goaltenders have to be that much more on their toes against a desperate team, and Crawford has been that this season. Still, there’s a small sense of relief when the Blackhawks score first for Crawford, knowing the firepower he has on his side.
“Every shot’s important throughout the game. You can’t let up at any point in the game but I think us scoring first, with the amount of skill wehave, teams when they’re behind they have to press a little more than usual to take some chances, and maybe that gives us a couple more good chances to score goals,” Crawford said. “It’s just a see-saw battle like that when you’re leading. It forces them to try and do something.”