By Chris Emma—
CHICAGO (CBS) – If they were honest about it, the Blackhawks would admit they haven’t put last spring behind them.
For all the times they’ve said the ugly first-round sweep is buried away, they’ve been lying. What the Predators did to the proud Blackhawks left a mark. It was a brief, humbling experience for the organization, one that shaped an offseason of change.
On Thursday, the Blackhawks sure looked like they’re still ticked off as they pounded away at the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, trying to burn out the United Center lamp. Chicago earned a 10-1 victory and set the tone for a new season. It was the most goals scored in building history and left coach Joel Quenneville unsure when he was last a part of such a blowout win.
As the puck dropped on this 2017-’18 campaign, there’s a different feel around this Blackhawks team. Those banners atop the United Center mean nothing to an organization humbled by its recent failures and hungry to hoist the Stanley Cup once again.
“We got to move ahead,” Quenneville said Wednesday. “Fresh beginning here, fresh objective. Basically, we got to prove everything we have to prove going forward. We can’t look in the rearview mirror on what we’ve accomplished in the past.”
The Blackhawks got off to quite the start proving their place this season, embarrassing the Penguins right from the start. Patrick Kane got it started with a no-look feed to Ryan Hartman from behind the net, which left 2010 Blackhawks hero Antti Niemi wondering what happened. They piled on with three more goals in the next two minutes and 55 seconds and sent Niemi to the bench.
The Penguins played Wednesday night, losing 5-4 in overtime to the Blues before traveling from Pittsburgh to Chicago. But that’s no excuse for the pummeling they were dealt by the Blackhawks.
Quenneville seemed genuinely hopeful to what could come from this Blackhawks team. If the opener was any indication, Chicago could have a much better fate than it faced last spring in an ugly first-round sweep served by Nashville. Back then, The Blackhawks were out-classed by their division rivals. As the top seed in the Western Conference, they looked older, slower and downright past their prime as a team. So they went out and upgraded the roster and scored double digits on the defending champs.
As the horn kept blaring over and over again, the Blackhawks made a statement in their opener. They can win the Stanley Cup this season.
Here are 10 reasons why – one for each goal.
1.) Experience – Walk through that dressing room as a 19-year-old like Alex DeBrincat and you’ll see the nameplates of Patrick Kane 88, Jonathan Toews 19, Brent Seabrook 7, Duncan Keith 2. For a kid arriving ahead of schedule to the NHL, these aren’t just the names of players you grew up watching but the players responsible of guiding their young teammates to where they’ve been before.
To a man, every Blackhawk will tell you that experience factor is their greatest edge. The veterans and newcomers alike will speak of how important it is. On an odd-man rush, Nick Schmaltz only has to follow Kane’s lead and the puck will be put right in place. He dropped to his right knee and scored the Blackhawks’ eighth goal of the game.
But in the bigger picture, the Blackhawks can look to the likes of Toews, Keith, Seabrook and more as they fight for something special. That experience factor goes a long way – especially for a team with so many new faces playing key roles.
2.) You’re killing me, Schmaltz — Though he struggles with trusting young players, Quenneville had no reservations plugging the 21-year-old Schmaltz on the Blackhawks’ second line. In Thursday’s opener, it was clear why. Schmaltz looked to be the dynamic playmaker his organization had hoped. After a strong showing in the preseason, he looked no different in a game.
Schmaltz has tremendous speed and a keen awareness to recognize space in the attacking zone. The skills are clear – he tallied two goals and an assist Thursday – and the on-ice presence from Schmaltz resembled a savvy veteran.
3.) Second-line efforts – Schmaltz certainly has potential, which is also a byproduct of his linemates. Quenneville placed him alongside Kane and Ryan Hartman with high hopes for what the trio could produce. The Blackhawks got great production from Kane, Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin the last two years and could get the same lift from the new-look second line.
Kane enters this season as a contender for the Hart Trophy, which he won two seasons ago. After losing Panarin, he now has the budding promise of Schmaltz alongside. The 23-year-old Hartman could be the player Andrew Shaw was once he grows into his role even further. The move up to the second line is a nice promotion for him.
4.) Saad effect – Prior to Thursday’s puck drop, the United Center gave Marian Hossa a hearty ovation as he stood along the bench in a full suit. He likely will never suit up in uniform again due to a skin condition caused by his equipment and the extreme side effects from medication. There’s no replacing a player like Hossa, but the Blackhawks hope that Brandon Saad can bring the two-way presence they lost.
Saad made his presence known in his return to Chicago, scoring two goals in the first period and one in the third for a hat trick. He was plugged into the top line, working alongside Toews as he did with the 2015 championship team. The Blackhawks hope for a big season from Saad after losing Hossa and trading Panarin.
5.) Cat – The Blackhawks may have their next young star in DeBrincat, the 19-year-old who has shined at every level. He tallied 65 goals and 62 assists last season with the Erie Otters in juniors and looked impressive enough in training camp to earn a place with the Blackhawks.
DeBrincat is 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, a smaller player with a big game. He will work alongside Anisimov and Patrick Sharp on the third line, where the Blackhawks hope to see production.
6.) Sharp is back – There was a gleeful joy in the tone of Quneneville on Wednesday as he listed everything Sharp brings to the table for this team. To sum it up, he’ll be counting on Sharp in just about every capacity of his lineup.
Sharp looked to have some speed left in his veteran skates in the opener, showing the ability to get up and down the ice and beat defenders to the net. That alone is an important factor for the Blackhawks, who could use production from a familiar face.
7.) Duncs and Seabs – Quenneville admitted that he, too, was curious about how his defensive pairings would work out this season – like many observers of his team. To open the season, he lined up Keith and Seabrook as the top pairing while working through ideas for the other pairings.
Keith played 23:11 on the ice, a number that would’ve been closer to 30 if not for a blowout victory. As Quenneville works to find what Connor Murphy, Michal Kempny, Gustav Forslin and Jan Rutta can bring, he’ll count on the two reliable defensemen for major minutes. That’s a great luxury to have.
8.) Stan – There comes that time in late February when the Blackhawks often solidify their place as a Stanley Cup favorite. That’s when general manager Stan Bowman goes to work. Back in 2015, he fortified a roster with hope and traded away talent to ensure a champion.
As the Blackhawks press onward with this season and identify what they have – and what they’re lacking – Bowman will go to work at the trade deadline and add the pieces needed for a championship run.
9.) Q – On Wednesday, with the new season ahead, Sharp sat in front of his locker stall and marveled at what Quenneville brings to this team. Sharp had been away for two years, but certainly knows how Quenneville makes his difference.
Quenneville will be blending away with line combinations and defensive pairings as the season goes along. The Blackhawks won’t be scoring 10 every night out. When the lines do stall and it looks different than Thursday, he’ll be ready for changes.
10.) Motivation – Ultimately, it comes back to that energy around this team – from the dressing room up to the front office. The Blackhawks say that the sweep of last spring is behind them, but they’re lying. It was the driving force behind an offseason of change. Bowman, Quenneville, Toews, Kane, Keith and more, they had a sour taste left in their mouths. Even Quenneville mentioned it after Thursday’s pummeling.
The Blackhawks are a team hungry to get back on top. Their opening victory was a statement – but just a blip to start a long season.
If this team comes together as hoped, the Blackhawks have a chance to hoist the Cup once again.