With the United Center hosting Barnum and Bailey’s Circus for the next 10 days, the Chicago Blackhawks are hitting the road Thursday to begin their annual circus road trip.
The Blackhawks will open the trip with a set of games in Alberta, taking on the Calgary Flames on Thursday and the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday. The trip will make its way through Vancouver and Denver after that, with the team wrapping it up with back-to-back games against the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings over Thanksgiving weekend.
Last year’s circus trip started out with a thud as the Hawks were walloped by a 5-1 margin by the Avalanche, but it ended with a bang as they reeled off six consecutive victories and generated a lot of momentum for the team.
This time around, the road will be far from easy. The Flames have struggled in recent seasons, but things are looking up for the team as GM Brad Treliving and Team President Brian Burke have begun to acquire talent for the organization. Led by one of the best defensive pairings in the league, the Flames have the second-best record in the Pacific Division and are arguably the biggest surprise of the young NHL season.
Mark Giordano, who is one of the most underrated blue liners in the league, and TJ Brodie have combined for 10 goals and 27 assists so far this season for the Flames, and both have been playing for over 24 minutes per contest. Add in the solid goaltending that Jonas Hiller has given the team, sporting a 2.33 GAA and a .920 save percentage, and you have a recipe for success through the first quarter of the season for Calgary.
On Saturday, things will get easier for Chicago as they head to Edmonton to take on the Oilers, but the team is gaining strength as Taylor Hall returned to the lineup on Sunday after missing several games. The number one overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Hall leads a young group of forwards with a ton of potential, but not much success, into action against the Hawks.
The Canucks await as the second game of a back-to-back set for Chicago on Sunday night, and they too are on the rebound after a subpar 2013-14 season. Despite losing Ryan Kesler in a trade to the Anaheim Ducks, the Canucks’ offense is firing on all cylinders, ranking seventh in the league in goals per game. Former Blackhawk Radim Vrbata has found a niche in Vancouver this season after a successful stint in Phoenix, scoring eight goals to lead the team in that category.
The Hawks will get a few days off after that game before heading to Denver to take on the Avalanche in a Central Division showdown. The Avalanche, who won the division last season amid an incredible turnaround under head coach Patrick Roy, are struggling mightily this season as injuries and poor play have derailed the team so far. They do still have plenty of weapons to work with against Chicago, with Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon both shining on offense so far this season.
After the game in Denver, the Blackhawks will get to warm up a bit as they head to Southern California for the Thanksgiving holiday. A Black Friday showdown with the Ducks will kick off the final leg of the trip, and a date with the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings will wrap up the six-game journey for Chicago next Saturday.
With a mix of teams on the rise (Calgary, Vancouver) and teams who are struggling to find their footing (Colorado, Los Angeles), this trip could be a critical one for the Hawks as they look to find some consistency of their own. If the playoffs began today, the Blackhawks would not be in, currently sitting one point behind the San Jose Sharks for the second wild card spot. Their scoring has been inconsistent to say the least this season, with Friday’s debacle in Detroit (one goal) standing in stark contrast to Sunday’s lambasting of the Dallas Stars (six goals, including four in the third period).
Road trips generally enable teams to simplify the game (at least that’s what Joel Quenneville always says), and that could be a good thing for the Blackhawks right now. They are a team that gets plenty of shots on goal, but if the netfront traffic isn’t there, goaltenders get clean lines of sight and rebound opportunities fall by the wayside.
As the Hawks make their way across the western part of North America, they will need to find more consistency in that area, and if they can emerge from the trip with at least eight out of the possible 12 points, then they can consider it a success. More important than just the number of points they get however is that they continue to move toward more consistent results on offense, and that’s what fans should keep an eye on as this trip goes on.