For most Chicago teams, the prospect of long road trips is a frightening one. Whether it’s the Chicago Cubs when they make their annual pilgrimages out to the West Coast, or the Chicago Bulls when they hit the road for the Circus Trip, Chicago teams tend to look at the road as a source of consternation rather than an opportunity for renewal.
The Chicago Blackhawks, on the other hand, have looked at the road not as a menace, but as a blessing, and their record away from the United Center this season reflects that. On their Circus Trip in November, the Hawks did lose their first game to the Colorado Avalanche, the Hawks reeled off six straight wins, outscoring their opponents 22-10 over that stretch.
The Hawks have experienced similar success on this trip, losing their first game in overtime to the Calgary Flames but then winning three of their last four, including two in a row against the Kings and Ducks that have put them back to within one point of the lead in the Western Conference.
Unlike that first trip in November, however, the Hawks didn’t have momentum on their side. In fact, they had lost their last three games before the trip started, and after the stumble in Calgary they had lost a season-high four contests in a row.
The question then is what changed for this bunch? For starters, their penalty killing unit has improved by leaps and bounds in recent weeks, and the results speak for themselves. They have killed off 18 of their 19 power plays against during their current road trip, and overall they have killed off 32 out of the last 33 power plays they have surrendered to their opponents.
The reason for this success on the penalty kill is simple: guys are actually filling their roles in the Hawks’ strategy when they’re down a man. Forwards like Marcus Kruger and Jonathan Toews are there to aggressively hound the puck at the point, and their job is to try to disrupt passes across the ice and shots in. On the back end, the Hawks are getting some great play recently from their blue liners, with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Duncan Keith really doing a nice job of not only keeping guys in check near the net, but helping to prevent rebound opportunities near the net.
Another big factor on this recent trip has been the play of Corey Crawford. He struggled at times with consistency earlier this season, but lately he has looked a lot more confident in net, and this road trip has showcased all of his abilities. He is an excellent technical goaltender, and his positioning recently has been top-notch. Add to that the improvisation he has displayed when under duress against high-scoring teams like the Ducks and Sharks, and you have a recipe for success.
Having fresh forwards is playing a big role in things too. Being able to move guys like Michal Handzus, Bryan Bickell, and Brandon Pirri in and out of the lineup, as well as resting Marian Hossa during morning skates and practices, has paid dividends for the Hawks’ offensive effectiveness. They are moving the puck better, getting more traffic to the front of the net, and most importantly of all, they are getting production out of their key contributors AND their role players, a huge boost to their chances of success.
After a couple more road games (one against the Coyotes before the Olympics, and one against the Rangers after), the Hawks will head home to Chicago for a home-heavy March schedule. The team is going to have to hope that the momentum that they have generated from this road trip will carry over when they’re in more familiar confines (although it’s hard to argue that Soldier Field fits that bill for the Hawks), and that their run at another Central Division title will be a smooth one.