By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — With a Duncan Keith blast by Petr Mrazek and to the back of the net, the United Center horn sounded, the fans roared and the Blackhawks let out a sigh of relief.
Despite mixed play for three periods and moments of overtime, the Blackhawks bested the rival Red Wings, 4-3, on Tuesday night. Their Western Conference lead extended to 59 points, their record reached 27-12-5 on the season and they sent the home crowd happy with one of those sweet victories over their old Original Six foes.
As for their level of play? Any Stanley Cup champion in that dressing room knows where it stands.
“Individually and as a team, you always feel like you got better (play),” veteran defenseman Brian Campbell said.
The 37-year-old Campbell returned to the Blackhawks after five seasons in Florida because he wanted back in the comforts of his “hometown” of Chicago, but the chance to chase the Cup once again was certainly a leading motive.
Campbell was thrilled to reconnect with Keith, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and the team’s elite core — friends etched in Lord Stanley’s prize. Their championship run in 2010 was the start of something special in Chicago.
Joining this Blackhawks team was different, though. The United Center is still raucous, “Chelsea Dagger” sounds frequently and the fans love their team. But the Blackhawks’ success has come with placing complementary pieces around the superstars. There’s a revolving door of new players each season. It’s how they work around the NHL’s tight salary cap.
When asked about teammate Tanner Kero — the 24-year-old forward who has played just 26 career games — Campbell paused and asked to confirm the pronunciation of his name. KAIR-oh, a reporter replied.
This Blackhawks bunch could be somewhere in the middle of the parity-driven standings. Coach Joel Quenneville has been forced to work youth into his lines, something the veteran of 1,501 games behind the bench hasn’t often managed. Often times, he’s left trusting that it will just work out.
Throughout the first half of this season, Toews hasn’t scored at his usual rate, Campbell has been slated as a healthy scratch, Corey Crawford missed three weeks after undergoing an appendectomy and yet here the Blackhawks are atop the Western Conference. They’re looking like the team to beat in the West.
Then there’s the reality those veterans of championships realize.
“There’s still room for improvement if we want to be a team that goes all the way,” Keith said.
Tuesday’s game was an example of the Blackhawks’ inconsistencies. They played arguably their best period to open the game, then let the Red Wings back in the game in a second stanza. Even Campbell admitted they let up. Quenneville was plenty disappointed.
It was Kero whose first goal of the season put the Blackhawks back on top, then Crawford offered a rare mistake by letting Luke Glendening jam a puck past him on a rebound that should’ve been covered.
The Blackhawks got sloppy with the puck and failed to create quality scoring chances. For at least a period, they looked like the team that had lost five out of six prior to winning these four games at home. At the least, Quenneville is now rolling four lines. That could spark improvements in the offensive zone. The defense is still settling into its game in front of Crawford, a worthy All-Star selection.
Keith saved the day by scoring on the overtime four-on-three opportunity, the seventh power play offered by the Red Wings. The crowd rejoiced, capping its night of taunting their rivals by singing “Chelsea Dagger” once more.
But these aren’t the Red Wings of countless battles before. They’re a team buried in the Eastern Conference standings, one that seems destined to miss the playoffs for the first time in 26 years. It’s a team the Blackhawks should’ve pounded up 2-0 at the end of a well-played first period. Then their inconsistencies showed.
“A win’s a win, yeah,” Campbell said. “But we’ll let everybody else be the judge of it. Tonight, we kind of let up in the second. That was disappointing. But we got it done.”
Indeed, the Blackhawks keep getting it done. Tuesday’s victory was their 17th by a one-goal margin. The Red Wings have just 17 wins by any score this season. Chicago’s goal differential is plus-17, which pales to the East-leading Blue Jackets at plus-45. Columbus owns just one more point.
Dominance hasn’t been frequent for these Blackhawks, but the wins continue to follow. Some nights, it’s Kane and Toews delivering in the clutch. Others, it’s an unsung hero like Kero — that’s KAIR-oh.
But sure as the horn is loud, there’s better play in these Blackhawks. They can become something dangerous.