Two dreadful defeats, two solid wins, two spirited losing efforts, and one miraculous victory later, the Blackhawks returned to Chicago on Sunday the same way they left it two weeks earlier — atop the Western Conference standings, well on their way to a ninth straight playoff berth, and still unsure of exactly who they are.
“[The trip] was a good test for us,” Marian Hossa said. “Obviously, we had some really good games and a couple where nothing went our way. But I think the team [came] together pretty good, and I think there is really good potential. I like what I see.”
“Potential” isn’t a word the Hawks are used to using this far into a season. The Hawks’ identity over the past few seasons has been constant — a puck-possession team that was fast, skilled, defensive-minded, experienced, tested. They simply owned the puck, and their speed, skill and structure took over from there.
This year, they’re all over the map. Most nights, they’re chasing the puck, a middle-of-the-pack possession team marked by lousy first periods and frantic thirds. Some days they’re young and exciting, some days they’re inexperienced and underwhelming. Some days, the stars are carrying the load, some days, they’re leaning on the kids for a spark.
About the only constant so far has been sound defense and great goaltending.
Asked if he has a sense of his team’s identity, Joel Quenneville — a man who always has said he doesn’t worry about his team scoring goals — focused on the other side of the puck for a change.
“It’s progressed here,” he said. “It’s been better as far as how we played defensively. We’re getting a little more predictable in some areas without the puck. I still think we can be better with it. That’s the area where we have room for growth.”
There’s plenty to like. The Hawks have shown a scrappiness that has allowed them to rally for wins and escape with points and victories in games in which they’re largely outplayed. Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin have picked up where they left off last season, with 23 and 21 points, respectively, in 23 games. And Artem Anisimov and Marian Hossa have significantly increased their scoring, with the ageless Hossa carrying the Hawks offense for much of the past month.
Among the rookies, Ryan Hartman and Tyler Motte have shown off a polished game and a nose for the net, with Hartman looking like a worthy heir to the irascible yet productive Andrew Shaw. And Michal Kempny has been rock solid on the blue line, a perfect partner for the more offensive-minded Brent Seabrook.
There are plenty of concerns, too. Poor starts continue to plague the Hawks, and they can’t keep relying on Corey Crawford and Scott Darling to bail them out for a period or so before they start actually playing. Jonathan Toews — who missed the last two games with an upper-body injury — has struggled offensively, though his two-way game remains strong as ever. There isn’t much depth scoring beyond the Kane line and Hossa, a familiar problem dating back to the start of last season.
Nick Schmaltz has had an underwhelming start to the season, with a goal and three assists in 23 games as he makes the difficult transition from college to the NHL without a stop in the AHL. He’s shown occasional flashes of skill, and he found another level defensively during that memorable third-period comeback in Vancouver, but he too often is a non-factor, with a frustrating reluctance to shoot the puck (just 13 shots on goal in 23 games). And Gustav Forsling clearly has a high ceiling, but his offensive gifts are countered by some shakiness in his own end. On the plus side, the Hawks are being patient with both Schmaltz and Forsling, giving them time to adjust and adapt, which is something they haven’t done in the past. But they can only wait so long.
One thing is certain: The Central Division (and the Western Conference) is hardly the daunting gantlet it has been in recent seasons. The Hawks have taken a step back, but the rest of the conference has taken a bigger one. That affords the Hawks some leeway — time to get all the rookies at the same level, time to figure out a lineup that sticks, time to settle on defensive pairings, and time to find out just who they are.