JOINING THE NHL’S ELITE: THE ‘NUCKS OR ‘HAWKS?

by Ron Spence
Vancouver fans are excited.
With the addition of Swedish holdout, Mats Sundin, many B.C. puck watchers believe that the Canucks have gained admission into the NHL’s top strata.
But, wait a minute. There are other teams queuing up to join hockey’s elite.
One such team is the Chicago Blackhawks, who the Canucks will be playing on saturday night.
Chris Kuc, Chicago Tribune reporter makes a case for the Blackhawks’ membership:
CALGARY, Alberta – Look beyond the reports of surging attendance and the frenzy surrounding the upcoming Winter Classic and you will find something heartening about the Blackhawks.
They are a very good team—as in one of the NHL’s best. The Hawks’ five-game winning streak and 6-0-1 record during December offer evidence they have developed into one of the upper-echelon teams in the league. They have marched up the Western Conference standings and before Wednesday night’s games have the third-most points in the conference and are seventh in the NHL overall with 39.
“We’re an unbelievable team,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “We’re young and we have a lot of heart, and we know we’re good. That’s what really makes us even better. We just go out there and know we can win every night.”

Lately, the Hawks have been winning every night—including a 9-2 thrashing of the Oilers on Tuesday in Edmonton—and are clicking in almost every facet of the game. Scoring? The Hawks lead the NHL with 3.66 goals per game.

Defense? They are seventh, yielding 2.55 goals per game.

Special teams? The power play ranks fifth with a 24 percent success rate and the penalty killing is seventh at 83.9. Goaltending?

The tandem of Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet is eighth with a combined 2.50 goals-against average.

“It’s a good group,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “They care for one another and that’s important. It’s a good foundation and it reinforces our team game knowing that it’s a priority.”

The San Jose and Detroit Red Wings long have been the class of the Western Conference, but the Hawks are narrowing the gap and are doing it as the youngest team in the NHL.

“We’re all young,” defenseman Brent Seabrook, 23, said. “We’re all having fun and that’s the biggest part of this game. Everyone’s having a good time together and we’re still learning the game. That’s what makes it enjoyable.”

In the Central Division, the Hawks trail the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings by five points with one fewer game played. With five games remaining on the Hawks’ schedule until the teams meet outdoors Jan. 1 at Wrigley Field – including a matchup Dec. 30 in Detroit—there’s a possibility the game could be a battle for first in the division.

Despite the crushing of the Oilers and the heady offensive stats, it has been the Hawks’ diligence in their own zone that has been the difference this season.

“We’ve been responsible,” Quenneville said. “Our gaps in the neutral zone and our puck possession and passing have been good. We’ve been controlling the puck a lot of the time in the offensive zone. Our team game has been solid and we’re getting consistency from our lines.”

About the only area in which the Hawks have struggled has been in overtime and shootouts. In 10 games undecided in regulation, the Hawks have won three, meaning they have let seven points get away.

In previous seasons, those points would be a concern as far as making the postseason. This season, it appears those points could be in the mix for whether the Hawks challenge for a Central Division title.

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