Blackhawks

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Blackhawks

Here are 10 things we've learned about the 6-2-2 Blackhawks through the first 10 games of the 2018-19 season:

1. Corey Crawford is still Corey Crawford

At the Blackhawks Convention in July, it appeared doubtful that Crawford would be ready by the start of training camp. It was difficult to forecast if he would return, at all. Once those questions were answered, then it shifted to whether or not he could return to form. Those have also been answered.

After a 10-month layoff because of a concussion, Crawford has a 1.52 goals against average and the second-best save percentage (.946) this season among goaltenders with at least four starts. It's been remarkable to watch.

"Surprised? Let's put it this way: We're all excited," coach Joel Quenneville said. "You never want to look too far ahead as a coach, so you're forecasting, 'let's just see how he is, let's see how he handles it one game at a time' and at the end of every game he's played we all say, 'Wow, that was a pretty impressive game by the Crow.' He's done a heck of a job for us. Outstanding start for his season and for our team. We know his importance."

2. Patrick Kane making early case for MVP

It's hard to believe, but Kane is off to the best start of his NHL career with nine goals through the first 10 games, becoming the first player in franchise history to do that since Jeremy Roenick in 1993-94. For reference, Kane didn't score his ninth goal until the 14th game during his Hart Trophy season in 2015-16 when he had a career-high 40 goals and 106 points.

 

He's only one goal away from the league lead in goals (9) and two points shy in points (14). Seven of his nine goals have come in the third period or overtime, and two of them have been game-winners.

"He has the knack of scoring some big goals, important goals," Quenneville said. "The puck follows him around, he wants the puck and he's probably played with everybody on some shifts this year. He elevates that line no matter who he's with."

3. Jonathan Toews regaining form

You know who else is off to the best start of his professional career? The Captain. And it's not even close.

Toews finished last season with a career-low 20 goals and 52 points in 74 games; he's already at six goals and 11 points this season. His career-high in goals is 34 (2008-09) and points is 76 (2010-11). 

Right now, Toews is on pace for 50 goals and 90 points. It's unlikely his offensive production will continue at that rate, but it's not unreasonable to think he'll continue to be a driving force while also being equally effective playing a 200-foot game. He just looks quicker and stronger.

"He's got that like power stride going, which you've seen so much in the past," Kane said of Toews. "You saw it last game against Anaheim, he kind of had that stutter step and went around the guy. He had a chance to score [Thursday against the New York Rangers] coming up the middle with speed, was able to get around one guy, they kind of click heels and he's got a breakaway. We've seen that a lot from him where he's had some power moves, taking it to the net and able to create a lot. It seems like he has that first step going this season."

4. Alex DeBrincat emerging into legitimate star

The Blackhawks' leading goal scorer last season was a 5-foot-7, 165-pound rookie who finished with 28 goals. What's even more impressive is that it was unclear whether or not he'd even make the team out of training camp.

This season, DeBrincat is averaging nearly a goal per game (eight in 10 games) while playing against top competition on a nightly basis and he's growing into an elite offensive player in the NHL. He may already be there. 

"We watched him in camp [last year] and said, 'we'll see how he does at the start of the season,'" Quenneville said. "Immediately he seemed like he was always in the right spot. Offensively, he always had the puck a lot and made a lot of good plays in different areas of the rink. His positioning awareness and the way he played our team game was the best part. Right away we knew we were comfortable putting him in all kinds of situations and he handled it very well and that line was always doing the right things. That's what surprised us the most is how well he played without the puck and his awareness to what's going on around the game."

 

5. Brandon Saad receives Blackhawks message

It's been a rollercoaster of a season for Saad and we're only 10 games in. He went from starting on the second line with Kane and Nick Schmaltz, to a fourth-line demotion, to getting removed from the power play, to nearly being a healthy scratch before eventually playing his way back into a top-six role.

He went eight straight games without scoring a goal before potting two in his ninth, which was a relieving sign as the city of Chicago had grown impatient. Now the Blackhawks are looking for consistency and for Saad to bring that urgency each and every game. And he knows it.

"It definitely feels good, yeah," Saad said after his two-goal performance. "But that just goes back to keep coming consistently, keeping a level head, keep shooting the puck and they're going to go in. Regardless if they go in or not, you've got to take the positives and stay confident."

6. High quality chances still an issue

The Blackhawks have done a great job in the past two games of limiting their opponents' high-quality scoring chances. But they still rank among the league's worst in that department at even strength, and it's going to be something they'll be looking to shore up on a consistent basis all season long from all five guys on the ice, both the forwards and defensemen collectively.

7. Special teams a work in progress

The Blackhawks' penalty kill is noticeably improving. Part of that is because Crawford is back between the pipes. Another part is having a variety of players who can take faceoffs and kill penalties. 

The power play, however, is looking for anything at this point. The Blackhawks changed up their formation in training camp to a 1-3-1 and the team is still getting used to it. They tried a top-heavy unit to start and that didn't work. They separated Kane and Toews to provide balance on both units and we haven't seen the payoff yet.

It appears it's going to be a work in progress all year long and you'll see stretches where they get hot, but also periods where they are cold. The Blackhawks are hoping for something in the middle. Predictability and consistency, as Quenneville would say.

8. Henri Jokiharju's growth

The Blackhawks were comfortable with giving the 19-year-old rookie more responsibility because he was handling it so well early on. He had five assists through the first three games, but since has one point in the past seven games and has been taken off the power play.

Yet, he's still averaging north of 20 minutes of ice time per game and is drawing the top lines every night playing alongside Duncan Keith. They're the only defensive pairing that has stayed together in all 10 games, showing just how much confidence the coaching has in Jokiharju's game playing with Keith.

 

9. Depth scoring lacking, but getting better

The Blackhawks have scored 37 goals this season. Twenty-three of them have come from DeBrincat, Kane and Toews. Three of them have come from defensemen. One of them has come from Dominik Kahun, who's playing on the top line.

That means the Blackhawks have gotten only 10 goals from their bottom-six forwards. On one hand, it's great that the top guns are doing the heavy lifting. On the other, they're going to need depth scoring at some point because they can't rely on three forwards to carry the load over the course of an 82-game season.

10. No days off in the Central Division

The Blackhawks enter the weekend with the seventh-best record in the league, yet find themselves sitting in a wild-card spot in the Western Conference because five of the top 10 teams reside in the Central Division.

Picking up 14 of 20 points is a terrific start, but there are no days off in arguably the toughest division in hockey. This is why getting off to a strong start was crucial for the Blackhawks.

"We've got a lot of work ahead of us," Toews said. "But to think too far ahead or try and bite off more than you can chew, you're just getting ahead of yourself. ... We can't be scoreboard watching for the next 75 games or whatever is. Focus on the little things we can control and improve upon and enjoy the road."