Indications from the last 3 games (the two Detroit games and tonight’s 5-2 victory against the Calgary Flames) appear that teams are now trying to take the Chicago Blackhawks out of their game by muscling them around on the ice. Coming off their recent 9 game winning streak, the Detroit Red Wings were unbelievably physical in blanking the Hawks 4-0 on Tuesday. The Wings came hard at young Hawks RW Patrick Kane and C Jonathan Toews, injuring Kane and clearly disturbing Toews on many occasions. The Hawks enforcers were silent in protecting their stars, something that will need to change for the Hawks to keep moving forward.
The Red Wings continually sent ex-Hawk and RW Daniel Cleary after Kane, eventually forcing Kane out of the game. This will become the new strategy of teams taking on the Blackhawks, as teams used to be able to beat the Hawks on talent alone, but now the times have changed.
With the emergence of RW Patrick Sharp and D Duncan Keith, along with the rapid development of youngsters Toews and Kane, the steady play of a surprising healthy RW Martin Havlat and the addition of now three time All-Star D Brian Campbell, the level of talent on the Hawks has shot through the roof of the United Center. The addition of Calder Trophy contender LW Pat Versteeg has made the Hawks the youngest, most dynamic new team and propelling them into the top non-division leader in the Western Conference with 49 points, but 8 points behind the Central Division leading Red Wings but 9 points ahead of the team directly below them, the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The good news for the Blackhawks are that teams can no longer just show up and beat them any longer. The gap of talent that has existed over the last few seasons has been closed, virtually eliminated through very shrewd work by Hawks GM Dale Tallon, assisted by assistant GM Stan Bowman and new special advisor Scotty Bowman, as well as the addition of veteran coach Joel Quenneville. When the gap of talent is non-existent, teams like the Red Wings often resort to physical intimidation, imposing their will on their opponents. For a young team such as the Blackhawks, this tactic is quite effective, displayed by home and home victories and the 0-4 record against the Red Wings for which the Blackhawks are proud owners.
The next step for the Blackhawks is to begin learining how to match physical play with physical play without taking themselves out of their game plan. Tonight’s victory over the Calgary Flames was a start. Hawks D Colin Fraser, RW Ben Eager, D Matt Walker, and RW Dustin Byfuglien set the tone tonight with 5:00 fighting penalties (Byfuglien with a 10:00 game misconduct penalty at the end of the game). With the success of the 2009 NHL Winter Classic on New Year’s day, the 3 Hawks starters on the All-Star team, and the overall rise of an Original Six team deep in the ashes of despair, the young Hawks are now a target for teams to take their shots. How the Hawks respond to that challenge is what will determine if their success will continue.