The Verdict: Motivation, consistency the keys to Blackhawks' superb regular season

Sunday, 04.28.2013 / 12:10 PM
Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian

What is 36-7-5?

That has to be a combination for your lock at the health club, right? You buy the gadget at the hardware store, write down the information on a piece of paper, stick it to the refrigerator, then proceed to the treadmill with your valuables safe. What else could 36-7-5 be? Not an area code or a zip code -- too many dashes. Not a tax form -- way too simple. A password? Even my primitive computer demands some alphabet soup.

But it’s almost May now, and the Blackhawks have put up numbers that would have been dismissed as absurd in mid-January. Even in a short National Hockey League season, it didn’t seem possible that a team could cut through half its schedule without a regulation loss, then keep on keeping on and post a record of 36-7-5. You could count the Blackhawks’ regulation losses on your hands and have fingers to spare. The Bears lost six games, and they played only 16. The Blackhawks accumulated 77 points in 48 games. There have been seasons when the Blackhawks couldn’t gather 77 points in 82 games, and we aren’t talking ancient history.

“We came into this year ready and motivated,” said Patrick Sharp. He can say that again, and probably will. But not just yet, because the Blackhawks shall commence the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the United Center against the Minnesota Wild as unsatisfied Presidents’ Trophy champions. The objective is to be the only franchise smoking cigars come late June.

Motivated indeed. How many games were the Blackhawks out of? For sure, the 6-2 setback in Colorado that ended the record NHL streak at 24. Last Monday night’s 3-1 defeat in Vancouver was Head Coach Joel Quenneville’s least favorite. Is that all there is? Two of 48? In a league built on parity? “Consistency,” Sharp went on. “We’re proud of that too.”

By this summer, the Blackhawks could become sultans of silverware. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have to be in the front row of contenders for the Hart Trophy as most valuable player. Toews might be in a row of his own for Selke Trophy as best defensive forward. True, Brandon Saad regularly took shifts with world-class veterans in Toews and Marian Hossa, but that meant usually being matched up against a foe’s best line. Translated: “Man-Child” could be the Calder Trophy winner as outstanding rookie.

Hossa already is nominated for the Masterton Trophy. Adults in suits also merit attention for awards. Quenneville has done a superior job, in game and between games. He did not call practices to reinforce his position of authority; in a crazed schedule, he acknowledged the significance of keeping players fresh. Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman resisted cries for a roster overhaul after last April’s second consecutive first-round playoff knockout. Despite that, he liked what he saw. So far, he looks like a man of vision.

Oh, by the way. The up-tempo Blackhawks yielded the fewest goals of any NHL team, 102 in 99 days. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery—the league’s premier one-two duo in the net---pitched seven shutouts; the team had none last season. The Blackhawks were plus-53 in goals over 48 games. The Wild was minus-5. Crawford and Emery benefitted from dedication before them; also, they inspired confidence.

Citations are everywhere. Mike Gapski, the Blackhawks’ head athletic trainer, was honored the other night for 25 years of long hours. The Herald’s knowledgeable Tim Sassone, dean of local hockey writers, received a Blackhawks jersey with his name above a “25” for his quarter-century of quality work.

Pat Foley was summoned to the locker room after Friday night’s game to receive a wrist watch celebrating his 30th season as voice of the Blackhawks. Presenters were Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith and Sharp.

Fans apprehensive about the Presidents’ Trophy dwell on the shock of 1991, when the Blackhawks amassed a league-high 106 points, only to be spilled by the Minnesota North Stars (68) in a colossal opening round upset. But those Blackhawks did not play smart hockey: 274 penalty minutes in six games. These Blackhawks are wiser, deeper and less likely to go over the edge under Coach Q, who stresses accountability, a more proven modern method than creative tension.

Much has been made about how the Blackhawks lack physicality, a residue of the statistic that finds them often out-hit. But team toughness also involves discipline, and besides, the Blackhawks are about puck possession. The 1985 Bears were a fearsome bunch on defense, but after they controlled the ball for almost 40 of 60 minutes during their Super Bowl XX destruction of New England, I can’t recall any criticism about them being “out-tackled.”

All of this, of course, does nothing to alter reality. This week, 36-7-5 reverts coldly to 0-0.

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