Coming into the season, most Chicago Blackhawks fans were expecting the worst. The team had a tremendous amount of question marks, with very little answers. Would Corey Crawford be available sooner than later? Would Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad rebound? How would the defense hold up after such a disastrous showing last year? Would Henri Jokiharju show that he was ready for his first taste of the NHL?
So far, the team has been outperforming expectations while getting some much needed answers. Crawford is expected to make his first start of the year on Thursday, October 18th, after the team finally disclosed what had kept him on the shelves for the past nine months. Nearly every fan knows that as soon as Crawford went down, it spelled the end of the season for the Blackhawks. Getting him back this early is amazing to say the least.
There are still questions about his health though. Even if he does come back, will he be the same goalie that was so crucial to the Blackhawks success? Can he stay healthy for the entire year? Perhaps most importantly, will he help bring Chicago back to competing for the Stanley Cup?
Perhaps the second-most talked about question was if Toews would re-discover his dominant self. Coming off his worst professional season points wise (not counting the lockout-shortened season), Toews has been a man on a mission, and the early returns are eye-popping. In five games, Toews has scored five goals and four assists, totaling nine points. He has already recorded a hat-trick, a game-winning goal, and an overtime goal, while providing a spark to Chicago’s top line.
Putting him on the same line as Alex DeBrincat has proven to be effective, as the Hawks’ leading goal-scorer from last season has continued his hot streak. It was evident in the pre-season that Toews and DeBrincat were forming a stellar connection, and it’s carried over into the regular season. Along with Dominik Kahun, the top line of the Blackhawks looks like the real deal.
Unfortunately, Saad cannot say the same thing. Despite starting on the same line as Patrick Kane and Nick Schmaltz, Saad has mostly been absent, recording a measly two points with no goals scored. It’s gotten so bad that he was demoted to the fourth line, and in the Blackhawks recent overtime victory over the St. Louis Blues, he didn’t see the ice during the extra period.
It’s also getting worse for the young winger. There has been speculation that Saad might be a healthy scratch on Thursday, as the most recent practice had Saad in a white jersey, which usually indicates a healthy scratch. Coach Quenneville can hopefully use this to light a fire under Saad and get him to return to his scoring ways.
That’s not the only question mark for the Blackhawks. Despite having a defense with more holes in it than a slice of Swiss cheese, they returned a majority of the same group, which got even thinner as injuries took two starters out of action. And while Duncan Keith has been great, and celebrating a milestone along the way, the Hawks have given up 21 goals as a whole in five games. Cam Ward has done nearly everything he could, and while the Hawks have obtained eight out of a possible 10 points, it’s unsustainable. The defense has to get better.
Not everything is bad for the defense though. The Hawks did make one change, as 19-year-old Jokiharju made the team out of training camp, thanks to the injuries to Connor Murphy and Gustav Forsling. However, Jokiharju’s play has impressed Quenneville, which most hawks fans know very few rookies can do.
He’s scored five points in five games, and has been second in the NHL in ice time, spending just over 21 minutes per game on the ice. More importantly, he’s been getting more ice time, as his per game totals have gone from 19:16 to 19:30 to 20:10 to 22:44 and finally 24:04. Jokiharju isn’t going to be the lone answer to this Hawks defense, but he is the first of an extremely talented group of blue-liners that are expected to come to Chicago in the next couple years.
The bottom line is that the Blackhawks first five games have been fun to watch. They’re competing in every game, the stars are leading the way, and the team is finding ways to win. They still haven’t lost in regulation, Crawford is expected to make his return, and Toews has regained his scoring touch. It’s only been five games, but this team has seen some highs and lows. The defense needs to be cleaned up and Saad has to rediscover his form from his first run with the Hawks if they want to make a serious run at the playoffs. Make no mistake about it; this team is going to be fun to watch all season long.