In a world where Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are healthy, the Blackhawks are the best puck-possession team in the NHL.
They are offensive monsters. They play keepaway up and down the ice. Opponents can get the puck back when they fish it out of their net.
It’s beautiful hockey. It’s breathtaking hockey. It’s winning hockey. See two Stanley Cup in four seasons for details.
But it takes talent, and the Hawks are down two of their top offensive talents until the end of the season. No Toews or Kane, and no Johnny Oduya, for that matter, because of injuries.
Also, no Brandon Saad or Teuvo Teravainen because the coach didn’t want to play them. Or maybe the general manager didn’t want to start Teravainen’s contract clock to start. I think that’s called an upper-management injury.
Whatever, the Hawks took the ice against the evil Blues on Sunday with what looked like a split-squad game at HoHoKam Park.
Except this was against the team with the most points in the conference. And the Hawks beat the Blues. Beat them for the second straight time, once against each goalie. What else you got?
Overall, the Hawks have won three in a row heading into Wednesday night’s game against the Canadiens, a modest streak that speaks to the entire organ-I-zation.
They’ve learned to win without the best two-way forward in the world and one of the best passers on the planet. How?
Talent complemented by smarts, is how.They’ve deftly shown the ability to change their approach to their game.
Start with the depth. Depth always has been one of the biggest reasons the Hawks have ended parades in Grant Park recently.
The Hawks can’t be expected to replace Toews and Kane. But Ben Smith has been timely over a lot of his Hawks career. Jeremy Morin has been denied chances for whatever reasons, but like Smith, he’s making a case to dress for the playoffs.
What’s more, Bryan Bickell has started looking like Bryan Bickell just in time for the postseason curtain.
Look, someone has to be Bryan Bickell this year. Someone is always Bryan Bickell for winning teams. It takes several Bryan Bickells, actually.
In Game 6 in Detroit in the second round last season, it was Bickell, Michal Handzus and Michael Frolik each scoring goals in the biggest third period of the postseason to that point.
In the Cup final, there was Andrew Shaw scoring in triple overtime, and goodness, there were Bickell again and Dave Bolland bookending 17 magical seconds.
But what the Hawks are doing without Toews and Kane is not so much about offense. It’s not so much about puck possession the way it usually is. Nope, it’s about checking. And checking some more.
Since losing Toews and Kane, the Hawks have made a concerted effort to be on the defensive side of the puck. There’s an urgency to show up between the puck and their goalie. They played that game better against St. Louis than Columbus, but the intent and effort were noticeable.
The Hawks have played more desperate without the puck. That defensive aggressiveness often starts a transition game that has created bigger gaps between opposing forwards and defensemen. That makes it easier to get to the net, and man, have the Hawks ever gone to the net of late.
They’ve done this before, especially in the last five playoff seasons, and arguably, they’ve been taking the ice in playoff games since the Olympics. They know the deal. Maybe I should’ve expected this from a reigning champion. Maybe I’ve been selling them short.
But it’s still impressive the way they can figure out how to win games when their roster is stripped of the usual answers.