Specialty Needed: Home Cooking
|With only 10 of their first 30 games on United Center ice, there's no doubt the Blackhawks will need to demonstrate the importance of winning at home when the schedule finally swings more to the Windy City on December 16 against St. Louis. From that game until the end of January, Chicago will be at the UC 16 times with only 6 games on the road.
I stated at the start of the season that one of the keys to being a strong playoff contender is winning two-thirds of your home games and playing .500 on the road. With a roster of 14 new faces, including numerous rookies, plus several key injuries, coach Trent Yawney has tried different combinations to find the right chemistry. Plus, All-Star goalie Nikolai Khabibulin has taken a little more time than expected to find his groove with the changes in goalie equipment and new rules emphasizing more offense.
Certainly the play of the Hawk rookies has been encouraging. Pavel Vorobiev, Brent Seabrook, Rene Bourque, Duncan Keith and Michael Holmqvist have been steadily improving. With Eric Daze and Tuomo Ruutu sidelined with injuries, the offense has suffered while All-Star defenseman Adrian Aucoin has missed action with a groin injury.
Yawney said at the start of the season that his players would have to adjust to the new rules, especially with the tighter officiating. The Hawks already exceeded the entire previous season in being two men short after only 17 games.
Special teams have drawn a greater focus and have played a major role in the standings thus far. When the Hawks made the playoffs in 2002, they had the 6th best power play in the NHL and tied for the top home ice mark with 28 wins and only 7 losses. Their last winning mark on the road was '96-'97 when they had 18 wins and also went to the playoffs.
There are very few exceptions among the division leaders thus far in regard to the important aspects of special teams, home ice records, goaltending and one goal victories.
Calgary is in the bottom third of the NHL in special teams, but is in the top third in home ice wins, goals against and one goal decisions. Minnesota is high on special teams and goals against, but lower on one goal games and home ice decisions.
While the play of his rookies has been pleasing thus far, Yawney has said he needs his veterans to step up and play better. "You have a better chance of winning every night when your best players compete at their top level every shift," Yawney has said.
With the Hawk schedule shifting more to Chicago ice in December and January, improvement by the special teams and success at home will go a long way in determining the playoff fate of this young team.
Harvey Wittenberg's book "Tales from the Chicago Blackhawks" is on sale at Fandemonium in the United Center and at HawkQuarters, 333 North Michigan Avenue.