(Author’s note: this will become a somewhat regular series here at Second City Hockey, often arriving after a cluster of games like last weekend’s three in four nights)
The Chicago Blackhawks kicked off the 2018-19 NHL season with a flurry of goals, a trio of overtime games and a month’s worth of on-ice drama. And it’s just three games into the season! After taking a few days to reflect, here are some things we’ve learned after the first weekend of the season:
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane can carry this team (again)
But for how long? That’ll be the question. Still, Chicago’s two superstars have been the biggest contributors through the first three games, with each tallying six points. Kane had a minor setback in the 2017-18 season but it was Toews who bore most of the criticism for regressing over the past few seasons. His re-emergence, in particular, is the biggest catalyst for the hopes of this Blackhawks season turning significantly brighter in just one week.
They’ve done this before of course. A more recent memory comes from the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the Hawks trailing the Anaheim Ducks 3-2 in the Western Conference Final. Kane went off for five points in the last two games while Toews kicked off Game 7 with a pair of goals that ended the Ducks’ season and propel the Hawks toward a Stanley Cup.
It probably can’t last all season. But with those two playing at such a high level, it gives Chicago two lethal scoring lines to spark the offense, no matter who’s in net.
Henry Jokiharju looks like the real deal
Take all the usual caveats of Jokiharju being just 19 years old and having played just three NHL games if you must, but there’s no denying the results of the eye test and the advanced statistics involved with Chicago’s 2017 first-round pick. He has a team-high five assists and the highest CF% on the team at 67.59 (although it should be noted he and D partner Duncan Keith have the friendliest zone starts on the team).
And Jokiharju could become an even bigger part of the offense after practicing with the top power play unit earlier this week, as Scott Powers of The Athletic reported:
New Blackhawks power play units— Scott Powers (@ByScottPowers) October 9, 2018
1: Jokiharju, DeBrincat, Kane, Schmaltz & Toews
2: Keith, Gustafsson, Kahun, Saad & Anisimov
No reason to contain your Jokiharju excitement any longer. There will almost certainly be some growing pains here and there, but 19-year-olds usually don’t look like this when they debut in the NHL.
The Chris Kunitz - Artem Anisimov - David Kampf line has been ... good?
I didn’t believe it either until I saw this tweet from Mark Lazerus of The Athletic, citing the work of hockey analytics guru Sean Tierney:
Shot rates, via @ChartingHockey. The Blackhawks' third line of Kunitz-Anisimov-Kampf has been surprisingly effective through three games. I think most of us were down on that line at the start.— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) October 9, 2018
See more of Sean's work here: https://t.co/maJE1xgnND pic.twitter.com/KLDGC2aOlr
All three players reside in the “good” quadrant on the above chart, which goes well beyond the expectations of this writer and just about everyone else who looked at that lineup.
(Also: look at where Jokiharju is.)
Slow starts for Brandon Saad and Nick Schmaltz
Schmaltz has four points through three games but won just 27.8 percent of his faceoffs. Saad has one assist. It’s early. But should Toews and Kane’s incredible starts slow down, guys like Saad and Schmaltz will need to take over the goal production. Considering the third player on Saad and Schmaltz’s line, who’s more than capable at setting them up with quality chances, nothing about this feels like reason for concern at the moment.
Cam Ward thoughts
We had to get here at some point. In the first two games, Ward was far from stellar, but he did make enough clutch saves to keep Chicago within striking distance and allow for overtime victories. In the third game, he was not. But that last game must be placed into context: Ward, 34, was making his third start in four nights and on the second end of a back-to-back. He figures to be back in net on Thursday night against the Minnesota Wild. With three days off in between starts, there will be no excuses if Ward turns in another performance like did on Sunday night.
The Blackhawks are fun again
For my money, that’s the best news out of this opening week of the season. After an up-and-down first half of the 2017-18 season followed by an agonizing slide out of the playoff picture coupled with injury issues, the 2018-19 season was the first enjoyable Blackhawks hockey in what’s felt like years. I saw endless social media posts of fans finding themselves transfixed by a game — especially that bonkers game against Toronto on Sunday night — for the first time in months. It’s a wonderful shift to have emotions invested in the Blackhawks again that aren’t inducing depression.
And a 2-0-1 start feels pretty great, too.