For a team that's regularly been among the most explosive in the league the past few years, the Blackhawks felt like a rocket waiting for its launch signal in recent weeks. Maybe it was the summer tweaking to the roster, or the need to shake off some rust, but the offense felt muddled and lethargic rather than sharp and methodical.
The Blackhawks we saw the first few games this season, whether underwhelming with second line or hardly showing up on the power play, weren't bad -- they just weren't dominant.
However, it turns out the guys just needed a few games to warm up, some lineup tweaks and the right opponent to get that lamp lighting with some regularity. The Blackhawks offense finally came alive Tuesday night in a 4-0 smackdown of the Flyers at the United Center, taking advantage of a subpar defense to build some rhythm that hopefully lasts beyond the game.
Even if the first few contests were relatively successfully, with three wins and an OT loss, there weren't a ton of examples of commanding play from Chicago. League-leading Corsi and Fenwick numbers showed the team was keeping to its identity and dominating possession, but the final results reflected a team that still needed to bridge the gap from getting shots to capitalizing on them.
So coach Joel Quenneville did what he knows best -- stir up the lineups with the return of Kris Versteeg to the mix -- and on Tuesday it came together. The matchup against Steve Mason and the Flyers was just an added bit of fortunate circumstance.
The Blackhawks' first goal came on a rebound that Mason couldn't locate before Brandon Saad tapped it in. Patrick Kane scored the second on a Patrick Sharp slapper that bounced off the boards behind the goal and in front where the winger wrapped it in. The third was a Bryan Bickell shot that Mason whiffed on. All three were scored in just over two minutes.
The team wouldn't score again until Kane's second goal in the third period, but that stretch in the first was as good as the Blackhawks have looked all season. The feel of the game changed like quicksilver with those two-plus minutes, the message loud and clear that Chicago had taken control and wouldn't relent. Unlike the win over Buffalo, in which the Hawks piled on late goals to make the game seem more lopsided than it was, this felt like a more commanding victory against a superior opponent.
Calling the Flyers superior to the Sabres is very much faint praise, however. Philadelphia might be one of the most potent offensive clubs in the league, but its defense has been established as something of a mess early this season. The Coyotes are the only teams allowing more goals this season (Buffalo is right above them), and on Tuesday, the team lived up to its recent history with a number of sloppy plays on the defensive end. Mason isn't remotely good enough in goal to make up for the kind of chances that the Blackhawks got against him.and
And while we can add that grain of salt to that was ultimately a delicious meal, it's hard not look at the positives. A 2-of-4 power play performance, even against that group, represents some progress. Bickell scored his first goal of the season, and Brad Richards finally got his first point in a Blackhawks uniform. The team showed up on national TV and straight up pounded an opponent that reached the playoffs last year.
Should we attribute it to the lineup changes? That's hard to say after one game, but suddenly the idea of sticking with Versteeg-Shaw-Kane and Saad-Richards-Bickell for the second and third lines doesn't sound so crazy. October is the time to experiment with this stuff, anyways, and if tougher opponents stifle this current mixture, you can bet Q will return to the lab and concoct something new.
Still, this was the game we were waiting for from the Blackhawks, and it was encouraging to see. The old questions remain, because 60 minutes of good hockey can only do so much to indicate legitimate progress, but now we at least have some potential solutions at hand. Oh, and Antti Raanta was pretty freaking awesome, too.