By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) It was fitting that on the coldest night in Chicago in nearly two years, red-hot Blackhawks hockey made it’s long-awaited return to the West Side.
Any threats of boycotting the NHL after the latest lockout were useless at the United Center Tuesday night, where a typical crowd of 21,455 showed up, at least half of them donning way too expensive red sweaters.
And why wouldn’t they? In a league that can’t figure out how to give its fans what they truly want (games, for one), the Blackhawks have been an exception over the last three years, providing a product its niche fan base can’t turn down on a nightly basis.
The abbreviated 2013 season proves to be no different. The Blackhawks have shot out of the gate with three impressive wins: the first in the house of the defending Stanley Cup champions, the second on the road against the team that bounced them out of the playoffs last year and the third against the team that won their division a season ago.
Healthy and refreshed, the Blackhawks — who have as much star-power on their roster as any team in the league — have toyed with their first three opponents and won in impressive fashion, even if the Blues did climb back into the game Tuesday night.
The start against St. Louis was emblematic of the season so far for the Blackhawks, as they have gotten off to great starts in all three games.
“I think after three shifts, it could have been 3-0,” winger Patrick Kane said.
The Blackhawks blitzed Blues goaltender Brian Elliott with a number of odd-man rushes early in the first period and finally broke through when Kane beat Elliott with a nifty move on a three-on-zero push.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen a three-on-O in our league,” head coach Joel Quenneville said.
The only thing that slowed down the Blackhawks in the first period was buzz-killing fight right before a TV timeout, but they were able to build on their lead in the second period when Duncan Keith’s shot from the point deflected off of Brent Seabrook’s skate and past Elliott to give the Blackhawks their third power play goal in as many games. Viktor Stalberg then provided the game-winner with a beautiful wrister 2:09 into the third.
“As a five-man unit I think we’re really helping each other out really well out there,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “When you compliment each other like that and you’ve four lines clicking like they are, you’re going to find a way to beat some good teams and we have so far.”
Early doubters will point to the easy crutch: goaltending. But despite Corey Crawford being out of position a few times and sloppily handling the puck throughout the night, the goaltender is off to a strong start and came up with huge saves to preserve the 3-2 win Tuesday.
“When the game was on the line he was big,” Quenneville said.
The head coach said it’s common for successful rookie goaltenders to slump in their second season and that it gives them motivation for their third campaign, which Crawford has begun.
“I feel really good. I said last game that I was really focused and I was able to carry that into today’s game,” Crawford said. “My preparation has been a little bit better this year. Just the little things I think it helps out on.”
Crawford has stopped playing soccer in the hallways before game, a common practice for hockey players. Instead, he’s gone into what he calls his “little corner”.
“I’m doing a lot more stretching before games,” he said. “After our meetings I’ve gone into, whether it be in the gym or something, just relax and stretch out and get ready that way mentally just by myself.”
While the results haven’t been perfect, they’ve been better through two games. And combined with the stellar play of four deep lines, the goaltending — Ray Emery included — has been good enough for a 3-0 start.
Of course, the challenge for the Blackhawks will be to stay healthy. Playoff seeding has proven to be worthless time and time again in the NHL and while it’s only been three games, the Blackhawks have proven they have the talent to make a run at the Stanley Cup if they have all the pieces in place come spring.
That said, the temperatures outside the United Center Tuesday night were a good reminder that even with the shortened schedule, spring is far away. In the meantime, at the very least, the Blackhawks have exhibited to their loyal fans the fast-paced exciting brand of hockey the franchise has become known for in recent years.
Yup, nothing to boycott here.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.