It's easy to look at the first quarter of the season and declare that it's been a mixed bag for the Chicago Blackhawks, as that's exactly what it has been. The Hawks had a hard time maintaining a grip on a playoff spot out of the Western Conference (although there's very little, if any, meaning to that in October/november), while also finding it difficult to develop any semblance of consistency on the scoreboard in the first couple of months of the year.
Then came the Circus Trip. On November 14th, the Hawks were coming off of a harsh 4-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, in which sloppy play really was their downfall. Nonetheless, the team rebounded in the best possible way, stringing together the type of success that we all knew they were capable of coming into the year. They decimated the Dallas Stars at home, thanks to a third period explosion, before carrying that success onto the road with them, laying waste to much of Western Canada, as well as Southern California.
With the conclusion of the trip now upon us, the Blackhawks sit a measly three points back of the top playoff spot in both the Central Division and the Western Conference as a whole. There's obviously still a ton of hockey to play, which bodes well for the Hawks as they chase a Nashville Predators squad that is improved, but could find it hard to continue the torrid pace they've set to start the year. With the conclusion of the trip came excitement, not only over the success that the Hawks had related to their record, but some individual successes as well.
The Blackhawks finished the trip with 10 out of a possible 12 points, with their only loss coming at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks, a 4-1 tilt that could best be dismissed as tired legs on the part of the Hawks more than anything. Not including that game, the Hawks outscored their opponents by a count of 22-8, with a seven goal effort against the Edmonton Oilers, in addition to a trio of four-goal performances scattered throughout the trip. They snuck out a win against the Colorado Avalanche, in a typical game in which they dominated the Corsi chart, but barely grabbed a one-goal victory, before running circles around two of the Western Conference's best, in the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings.
But about those individual successes. There's a lot to like about what the Hawks did throughout the trip. Their Corsi figures and possession numbers were characteristically high, as they outplayed all of their opponents on the trip, with the exception of Vancouver. The puck movement in the offensive zone was off the charts, particularly in games against Anaheim and Los Angeles. This was in addition to an outstanding power play, that had a nice little run throughout the trip, and that now ranks 15th in the league.
One of the most positive things about the trip overall was the emergence of that second line of Patrick Kane, Brad Richards, and Kris Versteeg, which was established following the loss to Detroit. Kane was a wizard with the puck throughout the trip, finishing with nine points in the six games. Versteeg continued his comeback campaign after an abysmal year last year, with eight through the six tilts, while Brad Richards continued to look like a bargain, with five points. There's clear chemistry with the three, with a competent offensive center for Kane, and a complimentary offensive piece on the other side of the ice, in Versteeg.
It was an overwhelming success for Corey Crawford as well. The Hawks' netminder continues to go about his business as one of the most solid goaltenders in the game, starting all six games on the road trip and allowing only 11 goals overall. He has just a 1.87 goals against average on the year.
The scary part for a lot of teams is that this team still has a way to go to reach its peak. We saw what this team is capable of on offense, particularly in these last couple games. And this is with a forward that can't buy a goal right now, in Marian Hossa, and a still-injured Patrick Sharp. Duncan Keith has continued his quest toward a third Norris Trophy, while (for the most part) Brent Seabrook seems to have found his game again. Oh yeah, Jonathan Toews is his typically consistent self.
This Blackhawks team was always among the league's best, regardless of what the first month-and-a-half of the season might have indicated. They just needed a six-game road trip out west in order to help find and showcase what they're really capable of. Watch out.
Randy Holt is a staff writer for Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.