By Jay Zawaski-
(CBS) After an abysmal 5-11 campaign, the Chicago Bears’ season is finally over. The coach and general manager have been fired, and the search is on for the next regime. While the Bears have been flailing and failing, the Blackhawks have been putting together another impressive regular season. The new year brings new eyes to the Blackhawks, so if you’re one of those fans who jump in to hockey once the Bears wrap up, let me update you.
After a slowish start to the season, the Chicago caught fire on the heels of a 6-1 circus trip. The Blackhawks now find themselves in first place (52 points) in the Central Division, which was solidified by a 5-4 shootout win over the Nashville Predators on Monday night. They’re also in second place overall in the Western Conference, behind only the Anaheim Ducks (54 points).
The Hawks have found success this season on the strength of their team defense and goaltending. Chicago can score goals as well as any team in the league, but its ability to keep the puck out of their own net has been incredible. Only the Predators (76) have allowed fewer goals than Chicago (78). Keep in mind that Corey Crawford has already missed 13 games with two extended injuries this season. While Crawford was out, Antti Raanta and Scott Darling performed admirably.
The numbers prove that the Hawks have three NHL-ready and potential starting goaltenders in their system.
Corey Crawford: 14-6-2, .921 save percentage, 2.08 GAA
Antti Raanta: 6-2, .944 save percentage, 1.73 GAA
Scott Darling: 5-2, .937 save percentage, 1.97 GAA
Of course, with the Hawks allowing 2.10 goals per game, someone needs to be scoring, right? Enter Patrick Kane. Through 37 games, Kane has 18 goals and 22 assists (40 points). He’s second overall in All-Star voting, behind only Buffalo’s Zemgus Girgensons, who has all of Latvia stuffing the ballot box. Actually, the Hawks represent seven of the top 11 All Star vote leaders, with Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa, Crawford and Patrick Sharp in the mix too.
There are some new faces who have contributed greatly to this Hawks season as well. This summer, the Blackhawks signed free agent center Brad Richards. After a slow start, Richards found his game when he was placed on a line with Kane and Kris Versteeg. That line has been the Hawks’ best. Versteeg has returned to his 2010 form after a terrible 2013-’14 season. He leads the team in plus-minus with a +15.
Right before the season began, the Hawks signed winger Daniel Carcillo. The move was a bit of a head scratcher at the time, but I must admit that Carcillo has been effective. He’s changed his game from a whirling dervish of stupidity to an effective checker who can add an occasional goal. Carcillo’s effectiveness, however, led to the trade of Jeremy Morin, who couldn’t get a sniff. In exchange, the Hawks acquired journeyman defenseman Tim Erixon. Since joining the Hawks, Erixon has been unspectacular but effective in his role as the sixth defenseman. He’s been rotating in and out with David Rundblad and Michal Rozsival.
I’ve always believed that the sign of a great team is their ability to win a game when they’re playing poorly. Monday night’s win over Nashville was a perfect illustration. The Hawks trailed 3-0 against the best defensive team in the NHL. They stormed back and won the game in the shootout.
The Blackhawks are one of the few teams in the league that don’t seem to have a weakness or a glaring need. They’re primed for another run at the Stanley Cup and are as strong a candidate to win it as anyone else.
Welcome to the season, Bears fans. I think you’ll like it here.
Jay Zawaski is the executive producer of the Spiegel and Mannelly Show on 670 The Score and the Blackhawks columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JayZawaski670.