First Quarter Report: Three Impressions of 2014-15 Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks are a quarter of the way through their 2014-15 season, and over the next few days, we’ll be looking at where they stand 21 games into the season.

Today’s question is this: what are the big impressions fans should be coming away with through the first quarter of the season?

Shots, Shots, Shots

To anyone who has ever watched a Blackhawks game on TV or heard Joel Quenneville give a postgame press conference, the mantra is always the same: get bodies and pucks to the front of the net.

So far this season, the Blackhawks have certainly fulfilled the latter part of that equation, averaging 36.1 shots per game. That is good for the top spot in the NHL and is nearly three shots per game better than the second-place team, the New York Islanders. To put that disparity in perspective, if you go 2.7 shots per game below what the Islanders average, you drop all the way down to 13th place on the list.

That kind of shot dominance wasn’t providing much in the way of scoring for the Blackhawks, as they were averaging just over two goals per game after a dozen games. They were only converting on 5.6% of their shots on goal at that point, which was the worst mark in the league and nearly half of what they averaged last season.

That number has since turned around, and the Blackhawks have since climbed to seventh in the league in scoring. If both trends (tons of shots, improving shooting percentage) continue, then the Blackhawks should see their results improve in terms of wins and losses.

Quenneville Finally Getting the Chemistry Right

Going into the season, the Blackhawks looked as though they would have Brad Richards centering the second line with Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad. People were understandably happy about this development as it both validated Stan Bowman’s decision to sign Richards in the first place and meant that Kane would finally get the second line center he deserved (and not a possession-draining anchor like Michal Handzus).

Instead, Quenneville opted to put Andrew Shaw in the role, and Kane struggled out of the gate. The coach, seeing the offensive decline on that line and on others, feverishly switched line combinations like crazy, and continued to see inconsistent results.

Now, with Richards once again with Kane on the second line, things seem to be improving quite dramatically. Richards has had a solid November with three goals and five assists, and Kane has certainly blossomed with the veteran center, racking up eight points (four goals, four assists) in his past five games.

The question now is whether or not Quenneville will have the itch to shuffle things up again when Patrick Sharp returns (likely around December 3 against the St. Louis Blues). Will he put Shaw back as the second line center? Will he bump Kris Versteeg down in the lineup? These questions have yet to be answered, but it will be interesting to see how the coach approaches things.

Special Teams Have Been Special

When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2013, their penalty killing unit was one of the big reasons why. Led by Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik, the group was arguably the best in the entire league, and their ability to erase the mistakes of their teammates through an aggressive blend of forechecking and responsible positioning made them the envy of the NHL.

When Frolik was traded to the Winnipeg Jets in the summer of 2013, things took a turn for the worse. That penalty killing unit that had been so good the season before vanished, and they went from being the best to one of the worst groups in the NHL. Things did improve as the season wore on, and they ultimately wound up 19th in the league in that category, but the dominance wasn’t there.

Fast forward to this season however, and things are right as rain. Kruger is still arguably the most important component, and several other forwards have joined him in that fight. Ben Smith has been excellent in the penalty killing role for the Hawks, benefitting greatly from all the even-strength time he’s gotten with Kruger. Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa also continue to be excellent in short-handed situations, and Brandon Saad has even gotten in on the act.

It’s exceedingly rare for a team as adept at scoring as the Blackhawks are to be so good defensively, but it’s truly a team-wide mentality. Forechecking and backchecking are critical parts of the game to a team that emphasizes puck possession as much as the Blackhawks do, and that dedication to doing the little things right has been apparent on the penalty kill all season long.

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