Were you watching on Wednesday night? Did you see it? Between drinks at your favorite hometown bar or while stealing glances at the TV while preparing a mountain of food for Thanksgiving, did you see what I saw?
For 20 minutes of hockey time and about 45 minutes of real time, I got that warm, fuzzy feeling again. Like the one you get when you’re hanging out with old friends and you’re reminded why you started following these people around in the first place.
For the first time this season, I saw a Chicago Blackhawks team that looked like the team that won three Cups.
Now, the obvious counter here is that the Hawks looked like that when they dismantled the Pittsburgh Penguins in the season opener. But that game was so bizarre and so lopsided that I thought drawing any significant conclusions from it would be a fool’s errand. But Wednesday’s game was different.
You had a Tampa Bay Lightning team that has torched the rest of the NHL for the first seven weeks of the 2017-18 season, looking perhaps even better than the 2014-15 team that reached the Stanley Cup Final. And while the Hawks had picked up some recent victories, they hand’t looked quite right all season long.
Well, until that first period.
Patrick Kane looking like his old self, sniping one past a goalie for an early 1-0 lead was certainly part of the reason I reached this conclusion. But it was the complete hockey presentation that was so encouraging to me. When the Hawks were attacking, it was as a five-man unit, not the disjointed one or two-man show we’ve seen too often.
On the other side of the ice, Chicago’s defense had just as much teamwork involved. For the first time I could remember this season, Blackhawks defenders were standing up to on-rushing Tampa forwards at the blue line while a ravenous backcheck from Chicago’s forwards thwarted multiple zone entries by Tampa. That collective defending between the forwards and defenders is a hallmark of this team when it’s clicking.
The special teams were just that: special. The Hawks were shorthanded for a 5:16 stretch of the first, including a full 2:00 at 5-on-3, and kept the league’s most electric (get it?!) power play from scoring. When Chicago got a 5-on-3, they put together a mesmerizing series of tic-tac-toe passes that had Andrei Vasilevskiy baffled and left Pat Foley tongue-tied.
In a period where the Hawks were shorthanded for over five minutes, they still owned a 60 percent share of the Corsi events in the period. That’s absurd.
But those are the kinds of things that happen when a team is really, really good at hockey. And for 20 minutes, we got a reminder of how good this team can be. And they did it against the top team in the league, which has been another trademark of the Hawks’ best teams — they rise to the occasion when facing the NHL’s elite.
The trick, now, is to get that team to come around more often to make the frustrations of October and November a distant memory.