There’s just something about the moments leading up to a hockey game at the United Center — the 22,000 screaming fans, the cacophonous national anthem, the excitement in the building. Perhaps no rink in the league this side of the Canadian border can match Chicago’s for pure energy when the puck drops.
Even visiting players routinely say they feed off it early in a game.
“It’s a great building to play here, a great atmosphere,” Artem Anisimov said. “I think we’re always pumped, ready to play the game.”
And it shows. The Blackhawks have a gaudy 7-1-1 record at home this season, second only to the league-leading Montreal Canadiens.
Away from the United Center? Well, that’s been a different story. A troubling one, at that. The Hawks are 1-5-0 on the road, and have been outscored 21-11 in those six games. They barely showed up in Philadelphia and Washington, were sloppy and disjointed in Winnipeg and Minnesota, then got nearly run out of the building in New Jersey. They’ve scored just three first-period goals in their last five road games, all regulation losses.
And, don’t look now, but seven of their next games are on the road, including the six-game circus trip which begins next week. Given the fact that they’re currently in sixth place in the Central Division, it’s an issue that has to be addressed quickly.
“We’ve never had an issue winning away from here [before],” Joel Quenneville said. “That’s where we’ve got to bring our consistency. That’s where we’ve got to be better. That’s the balance we’re talking about — we’re starting from behind in a lot of the games, we’re not setting the tempo of the game, and we’re getting behind early. And it’s tough to come back on the road.”
It’s an unusual issue for the Hawks, who have been one of the league’s top road teams under Quenneville. In the last seven seasons, they’re 144-93-33 on the road, a perennial top-10 road team. During their three Stanley Cup seasons, they finished ninth (2015), first (2013) and fourth (2010) in road victories.
“That might be the biggest concern right now, how we’re playing on the road,” Patrick Kane said. “I guess we’ll get a good test of that coming up with the two-week trip. I don’t know if we have some newer guys on our team that get really excited to play here at home [but not on the road]. Obviously, it’s never easy to play on the road, but I feel ever since I’ve been here, the Hawks have been a pretty good road team.”
Duncan Keith said he especially likes playing on the road, in hostile environments when the whole crowd is against him. There are plenty of reasons why a team might struggle on the road, including the home team getting the last change, and a general familiarity with an arena’s unique quirks. But Keith thinks the Hawks’ road woes are simpler than that. They’re simply not ready when the puck drops.
After all, it’s a long season, and not every game can feel like a big game, especially away from the raucous pregame environment at the United Center.
But for the other 29 teams, every game against the Hawks is a big game.
“Teams are excited to play the defending Cup champs, and when they get us in their own building, they’re going to come out playing hard,” Keith said. “That’s something we’ve got to realize going forward, that teams are always ready for us. And it’s that much more amplified when they’re at home against us, and they want to make a statement.”
NOTE: Quenneville was optimistic that Keith could return either Saturday at St. Louis or Sunday against Calgary. Keith skated for more than an hour on Tuesday, and expects no injury-related limitations when he returns. “It’s just a meniscus,” he said. “It’s not like getting my leg amputated.” Michal Rozsival also is expected to return to the lineup sometime over the next few games.