By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Hats rained down to the United Center ice as Coyotes skated through the carnage, left hanging their heads.
The Blackhawks beat down their young, struggling foe and showed what a complete team looks like. Minus a few defensive lapses, this was a clinic. Chicago beat down Arizona, 6-3 on Thursday night.
Just another night of work for the surging Blackhawks.
“You got to be feeling good about what we have in this locker room right now,” said Patrick Kane, whose three goals brought hundreds of hats to the ice.
Inside that dressing room, the laser focus was clear. The Blackhawks aren’t taking their foot off the pedal right now.
By this time of year, the Blackhawks are often enduring a midseason slump. February brings the hockey equivalent of the dog days, when the legs are dragging and rest comes infrequently. Players are worn down and can get their eyes looking toward the Stanley Cup chase ahead.
The Blackhawks have now won three straight and eight of their last nine games. With each time on the ice comes another impressive display of hockey from all throughout the roster.
“If we get four lines going and every line’s a threat to score, that’s really tough for teams to match up against,” rookie winger Nick Schmaltz said.
Indeed, this team is playing four-line hockey, and few teams in the NHL can beat the Blackhawks when they’re playing like this.
Remember that Mike Smith from the playoffs in 2012? He looked overwhelmed by the puck movement in front of his crease, with little defensive help to make life any easier. Thursday marked the fourth time since that series the Blackhawks have scored a six-pack in his net.
Jonathan Toews led a two-on-one rush moments into the game and dished to Schmaltz, who buried it home. Suddenly, the top line with Toews, Schmaltz and Richard Panik is surging, with 15 points in the last two games.
After the Blackhawks buried a pair early on, Kane sniped a shot from the short side and snuck it into the corner. Smith had enough of a challenge with the rest of the Blackhawks, then Kane took over.
This very well could’ve been a down year for the Blackhawks, with veteran bench boss Joel Quenneville forced to play young players like Schmaltz, Ryan Hartman and more. There were early struggles for Quenneville and his staff to counter. Now, this group is clicking from first line to fourth.
In Schmaltz, the Blackhawks have a top-line complement to Toews on the wing — which once appeared to be their biggest need come the trade deadline. Hartman topped Andrew Shaw’s mark in goals last season, netting his 15th on Thursday. Meanwhile, he’s the sandpaper that Quenneville wants to wreak havoc. He became the seventh Blackhawk this season to record at least 15 goals.
Then there’s a player like Rozsival, the 38-year-old elder statesman of the team who stepped in for the injured Niklas Hjalmarsson and tallied his first goal of the season. Rozsival joked his first thought after scoring was the stat sheet changing from “0” to “1” next to his name.
Rozsival played on a 2014-15′ Blackhawks team that endured its share of troubles two years ago February before responding to win the Stanley Cup. Key deadline additions by general manager Stan Bowman helped secure the roster. This team is oozing confidence all around. It’ll be fine without a blockbuster deal.
“It’s definitely something we work hard for,” Rozsival said. “There’s a lot of young players coming in this year. Obviously, early on, it wasn’t like this. It’s great to see everything coming together and really have the young players produce and play really well, whether it’s with the puck or without the puck.”
Maybe Bowman can benefit his Blackhawks by adding another defenseman to the fold — there’s never enough depth on the blue line — but there are no glaring needs, barring good health.
Credit Quenneville, who has embraced the youth by placing it into key roles. The Blackhawks wouldn’t be anywhere near this level of play without the head coach trusting a player like Schmaltz to the top line with Toews.
“We got a lot of chemistry going now, and we know each other on the ice,” Schmaltz said.
The Blackhawks face a great test in the month of March, forced to manage 16 games in 31 days. It’s no wonder why players wish for that week-long bye to be spread out. Quenneville’s next test will be managing fatigue while attempting to catch the Wild, who lead the Blackhawks by three points after Thursday night.
What’s clear now is that these Blackhawks have a level of play that will be tough to beat come time to chase the Cup.
Sure, puck luck can play the greatest factor in any playoff series, but the Blackhawks boast experience that can bring them back to the Stanley Cup Final. With how the youth is fitting, too, this is a dangerous team.
“Anything can happen here down the stretch,” Kane said. “But I think we like the way we’re playing.”