Through one quarter of the season, the Blackhawks sit in fifth place in the ultra-competitive Central Division. They’ve impressively beaten the likes of Tampa Bay and St. Louis, and they’ve meekly lost to the likes of Philadelphia and Calgary. They have the best line in hockey and little else. They survived nearly a month without Duncan Keith, with a rookie on every defensive pairing. They’ve rotated 13 new players in the lineup without stumbling too badly.
So how do the Hawks feel a quarter of the way through the season?
“Bumpy,” Joel Quenneville said.
“Up and down,” Patrick Kane said.
“We can be better,” Stan Bowman said.
Of course, it all starts with Kane, the NHL’s leading scorer with 13 goals and 19 assists through 21 games. His line, with the league’s top rookie, Artemi Panarin, and the suddenly prolific Artem Anisimov, has been carrying the Hawks all season, accounting for 29 of the team’s 57 goals. In early August, Kane’s status for the season was in serious doubt as he became the subject of a police investigation into a sexual-assault allegation made in Western New York. The investigation — which yielded no charges —kept Kane off the ice for most of the offseason, and weighed heavily on him and the team in the early weeks of the season.
Kane’s teammates stood by him, and tried their best to keep everything inside the dressing room and on the ice as normal as possible.
“You can always sit there and worry about the worst-case scenario, but I don’t think that is really going to change anything,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “So worrying and dwelling on something that’s out of your control can just kind of can make things spiral out of control and make things worse in your own mind. I think Kaner’s done an unbelievable job of dealing with all of the things that have been said about him, and focusing on the things he’s had to do. I think as players an an organization we did the same thing, we just took it one day at a time and had confidence it would resolve itself, and we could go back to focusing on hockey.”
Kane has repeatedly called hockey his “getaway” from his off-ice troubles.
“It’s almost like after school or something, when you don’t want to worry about your homework, you get to go play with your friends,” he said. “That’s kind of what the feeling has been for me, just getting away from everything, playing hockey, doing something i love to do. I’ve just been enjoying it more than ever.”
That’s an indelicate way of discussing something as serious as a sexual-assault allegation, but if you strip away the outside world and just focus on hockey — something many are still understandably having a difficult time doing — and Kane is having an MVP-type season in the most unlikely of years. And without him, the Hawks might be already looking at a lost season.
“We’re going to have to play better,” Quenneville said. “[We need] a little more balance to our team. We’ve had one line that’s been freaking out and fun to watch, but more consistency is what we’re looking to get. But that line being at that pace for a [full] regular season puts you in a good spot.”
There’s reason for optimism. The return of Keith and Michal Rozsival has stabilized the defense, and Viktor Svedberg and Erik Gustafsson have proven the Hawks have depth on the back end. There are signs that slumping scorers such as Marian Hossa, Andrew Shaw and Ryan Garbutt are finding their grooves. Hossa repeatedly said it would take 15-20 games for the new guys to hit their stride in a new system. And despite the Central being the best division in hockey, only Dallas is really running away at this point. Despite all their struggles, despite all their new faces and uncertainty, the Hawks are merely four points behind the second-place Blues.
They need to be better. But it could be a whole lot worse.
“It’s just a really tight league,” Bowman said. “You’re a three-game winning streak from being in the top five in the league, and you’re a three-game losing streak from being in the bottom third.”