The season opener, and all the excitement and buzz of the banner-raising, was three long months ago. The postseason, and all the adrenaline and emotion that go along with it, is three longs months away.
The Blackhawks played 107 games in 2013-14. They played 111 from camp to Cup last season. They’re 45 games into the current campaign, with 37 ho-hum regular season games to go before what they hope is another grueling two months of playoff hockey.
“This is the [hardest] part, when you’re facing Game 40-something through 70-something,” said Marian Hossa, who is waist-deep in his 17th NHL season, having played in more than 1,400 total games. “It’s a window where you really just have to go step by step, and don’t think too far [ahead].”
Traditionally, this has been the toughest stretch of the season for the Hawks. January and February is when they go into hibernation, often coasting through stretches as they preserve themselves for the big playoff push. Last season, they went 5-7-1 in January, and 6-5-2 in February. A year earlier, they went 5-3-6 in January, and 2-2-1 in an Olympics-shortened February. And in 2012, the previous full season, the Hawks endured a miserable nine-game losing streak in January and February.
Yet here they sit, in the middle of January, riding a seven-game win streak, and playing their best, most passionate hockey of the season.
How to explain it?
Well, Artemi Panarin didn’t play 111 games last season. Neither did Phil Danault, or Dennis Rasmussen, or Erik Gustafsson, or Artem Anisimov, or Ryan Garbutt, or Brandon Mashinter, or, well, you get the point. The influx of new, mostly young players made for a bumpy, transitional start to the season. But it’s also made for a far more energetic, enthusiastic middle of the season, keeping the winter doldrums at bay.
“Definitely, that’s helping,” Hossa said. “We have so many new faces, [guys] who have opportunities either from overseas or the minor leagues. Those guys have energy. They probably didn’t play as much hockey as some core guys [have] played before, so that gives us so much more juice in our dressing room, and it’s definitely helping.”
It’s never been much of a secret that the Hawks occasionally take the regular season a little more lightly than most teams. Oh, sure, there was the early season talk about how the Central Division was deeper than ever, and how one great team was going to miss the playoffs. But the Winnipeg Jets haven’t been nearly as good as everybody anticipated, the better-than-expected Colorado Avalanche aren’t exactly terrifying anyone, and it a playoff spot was never really in doubt for the talented and tested Hawks.
And this season, it’s the Stars, Blues and Predators that are dealing with January lulls, all while the Hawks rattle off victory after victory. Two weeks ago, the Hawks were 13 points behind first-place Dallas and closer to the bottom of the division than the top. Seven wins later, they’re just four back, and comfortably in the playoff picture.
At some point, the question will be whether the Hawks are peaking too early, and whether Panarin and Gustafsson and the like, who have never played more than 55 games in a regular season in Europe, will hit a wall. But they haven’t yet, and they’re keeping their grizzled, worn-down teammates on their toes.
“There are guys in here that are trying to prove themselves, and some of these young guys have been very, very effective,” Patrick Kane said. “Sometimes [when] you have younger guys around here, it brings up the energy of everyone. They’ve been great for us.”