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Blackhawks annihilate defending champion Penguins in opener 10-1

Jonathan Toews arched an eyebrow and tried to stifle a smirk Thursday morning when a reporter informed him that a signification portion of the hockey punditry had the Blackhawks pegged as a wild-card team at best, and that a handful even had them missing the playoffs entirely.

“Interesting,” Toews said.

Confidence has never been in short supply in the Hawks dressing room over the past decade. They’ve built their modern empire and performed postseason miracles on the strength of their unwavering self-belief, which always has come with just a touch of well-earned arrogance. So even after two straight first-round exits, and after an offseason of roster upheaval, the Hawks have far greater expectations for themselves than the rest of the hockey world seems to have for them.

“People say what they want to say,” Toews said. “They want to say that we’re the favorites to win the Stanley Cup, that’s one thing. They think we’re not going to make the playoffs, that’s another thing. At the end of the day, the belief in this room is what really matters. That’s what we all tell ourselves it comes down to anyway.”

Nick Schmaltz (left) celebrates with Patrick Kane after scoring a goal during the first period of Thursday's opener. (AP Photo)

Well, it was just one game, but the Hawks fired quite an opening salvo to the rest of the hockey world on Thursday night, obliterating the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins 10-1 with a Brandon Saad hat trick, a five-point night from Ryan Hartman, and a spectacular first period that bordered on the ridiculous. The Hawks led 5-0 after one, chasing old friend Antti Niemi with a four-goal outburst in a 2:55 span.

That’s more goals in three minutes than the Hawks scored in the entire postseason.

“It was almost like it wasn’t a real game or something,” Patrick Kane said. “It was just amazing.”

Kane was particularly amazing. He had a goal and three assists, making three dazzling plays on the backhand — a reversal from behind the net to set up a Hartman goal, a spin-o-rama feed for a Nick Schmaltz goal, and a roof-job goal off the rush from a nearly impossible angle.

All those concerns about how Kane would fare without Artemi Panarin on his line? Well, the all-American line of Hartman, Schmaltz and Kane — playing together for the first time, including the preseason — combined for 12 points, with Schmaltz chipping in two goals and an assist before leaving the game in the third (Joel Quenneville said he’s fine and should play Saturday).

“They were going it all tonight,” Quenneville said. “One of those nights where they were outstanding, all complimented one another, all hit open spaces, and they all hit those little holes. They were extremely dangerous. It was a great start for them.”

Kane said the Hawks were raring to go after an excruciatingly long offseason. A pregame “One Last Shift” ceremony for Bryan Bickell only added to the atmosphere.

“It was the first meaningful game we’ve played in a long time,” Kane said. “Everyone was just ready to go.”

It was the most goals the Hawks ever scored in an opener. They last scored 10 goals in a 10-1 win over Winnipeg on Oct. 12, 1988. Fourteen players had at least a point, with Brent Seabrook posting a goal and two assists. Rookie Alex DeBrincat wasn’t among them, but the 5-7 19-year-old did send 6-1 Ian Cole flying with a second-period hit. Just that kind of a night.

There are still 81 games to go, and the Penguins were coming off an emotional banner-raising night at home a night earlier. But the utterly dominant performance validated much of that typical Hawks swagger. At least, for one night.

“I don’t think there’s any question in here that we’re a good team,” Hartman said. “We won 50 games last year. We’re a good hockey team and we have a lot of good pieces to this team. It showed tonight.”

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Email; mlazerus@suntimes.com