Recapping the Circus Trip: What Lessons Did We Learn About the Hawks?

Kane emerges as a Hart contender, and the fourth line shines as Hawks go 6-1

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When the Chicago Blackhawks are booted from the United Center for Barnum and Bailey’s annual circus each November, there are plenty of folks who would be satisfied for the team to grab at least half of the available standings points in the ensuing games.

This season was no exception, as the Hawks had to start out their trip in Denver and also had to travel to a couple of rough environments in Vancouver and Phoenix as they trekked around the western part of the continent on a seven game journey.

Things got off to a bit of a rough start for the Hawks as they got levelled by the Avalanche in a 5-1 blowout loss. Nerves were admittedly a bit frayed after that one, as the Hawks had already dropped a big road loss just three days prior to that against the Nashville Predators, and there were some whispers that the Hawks might need to shake some things up as the trip got underway.

Those fears were quickly assuaged however, as the Hawks racked up six consecutive victories to end the trip and ended the journey with the league’s best record at 20-4-4. More importantly, the Hawks were able to bank five all-important regulation victories, which are an important tiebreaker when it comes to playoff seeding. They also picked up two wins against divisional opponents, giving themselves a little bit of a cushion in a division that is insanely top-heavy so far this season.

All things considered, what did we learn about the Blackhawks during this road trip? Over the course of an 82-game season, a span of seven contests can’t possibly paint a full picture of a team, but this road trip did provide us with a couple of key insights that could be used to draw some conclusions about this team’s chances for another deep playoff run.

The Fourth Line Has Gelled Nicely

One of the biggest strengths of the Blackhawks over the past few years has been the team’s ability to integrate free agents and youngsters into the team seamlessly, and this season has been no exception. Through a combination of established veterans like Kris Versteeg and youngsters like Ben Smith, the Hawks are able to roll out four really good lines on a nightly basis, and the offensive results have spoken for themselves.

Focusing on that fourth line for a moment, they have really made a name for themselves in recent games for the Hawks. With Smith serving as a tremendous catalyst both on offense and in the defensive area of the game, both Brandon Bollig and Marcus Kruger have also stepped up their games in a big way, and Bollig’s third period goal on Saturday against the Coyotes was the culmination of a lot of hard work by the group.

Patrick Kane is Establishing Himself as a Serious Hart Contender

After an outstanding 2013 season that culminated in his selection as the Conn Smythe winner for the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, Kane has been working on a heck of an encore for the Hawks this season.

Before he was held off the board against the Dallas Stars on Friday, Kane had racked up at least one point in 12 straight games, and his performance on the circus trip hammered home just how hot he’s been on offense. He ended up with five goals and four assists in the seven games, and his game-winning goal with only 18 seconds left against the Calgary Flames on Wednesday was the icing on the cake for what was a wildly successful trip for the Hawks’ forward.

With his performances in clutch situations lately, it’s not a stretch at all to say that Kane belongs in the conversation for the Hart Trophy, given to the league’s MVP. Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Steen of the St. Louis Blues also have very good cases for the award, but despite playing on a team with several other superstars, Kane has been able to stand out from the pack a bit and has really caught the attention of NHL observers with his play this season.

Crawford Might Get a Bit More Rest with Raanta in Town

When the Blackhawks inked Finnish goaltender Antti Raanta to a contract during the 2013 playoffs, there was some speculation as to what exactly they had in mind for him. After all, the last Finn the Hawks had brought in was Antti Niemi, and he eventually morphed into a key contributor to the Hawks’ 2010 championship.

Some of that speculation was put to rest over the summer after Nikolai Khabibulin was signed as Corey Crawford’s back-up on the opening day of free agency in July, and things got even clearer when Crawford himself signed a massive six-year extension to firmly establish himself as the team’s present and future starting goalie.

Over the course of the past few games of the circus trip though, Raanta’s role as a back-up to Crawford looks like it could be a really good marriage. Crawford looked sharp in his quality performance against the Stars on Friday, and in the two games that he was given the night off in, Raanta shone just as brightly. Raanta picked up his first career NHL victory on Wednesday against the Flames, and his performance against the Coyotes Saturday was even more remarkable.

No, Raanta is not threatening at all to usurp Crawford’s role as the starter for this team, but judging by how well Crawford played after actually being given a night off, Raanta could see a bit more time than the Hawks had anticipated allocating to Crawford’s original back-up this season.

Hawks Have to Take Better Care of the Puck

Alas, the Hawks did have a couple of bad tendencies that they revealed at times on the circus trip, but perhaps the most disturbing was their habit of turning over the puck in the defensive zone.

Friday’s game against the Stars provided several examples of this habit, as Brent Seabrook’s giveaway forced Crawford to make a sprawling save on a Ryan Garbutt shot. Later in that period, it was Nick Leddy misplaying the puck at the blue line that set up Rich Peverley’s tap-in goal at the front of the net, and even though the Hawks were able to overcome the miscue, it still was bad to see those kinds of mistakes occur in such close proximity to one another.

If there is one downside to being a team that thrives in being a quality transition offense, it’s that the puck often is moved around the defensive zone in order to expose holes in the opposition. That does come with the occasional turnover, but it seemed as though the Hawks were being a little bit sloppier than usual in some of these games. They’ll need to clean that up moving forward if they are going to continue to intimidate teams with their speed and offensive prowess like they have been all season long.

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