First impressions: Powerhouse Blackhawks and rising Stars
Better than you think
He may not carry the "elite goalie" tag, but at this point in his career Corey Crawford is clearly one of the best in the league. The Blackhawks keeper was at the top of his game on Thursday night, repelling a furious early assault while anchoring Chicago's 3–2 season-opening win over the Stars.
“[Coach Joel Quenneville] called it a goaltender win, and I think it was more evident today than ever before,” Patrick Kane told reporters. “[Corey] was awesome.”
The two that got past Crawford whizzed by him high on his glove side—the area that detractors point to as his weakness. It's tough to criticize him on either goal, though. Trevor Daley's shot was batted out of mid-air on the power play. Cody Eakin scored after he was left all alone 10 feet from the Blackhawks' net. Any goalie in the league would have been hard pressed to make stops in situations like those.
And the goals that Crawford allowed don't matter nearly as much as the stops he made. For two periods, it was all up to him as his teammates were thoroughly outplayed. In the second period, he denied breakaway bids by Brenden Dillon and Shawn Horcoff, keeping the score close and setting Chicago up to rally from a 2–1 deficit with a dominant third period.
Crawford gave the Hawks the stops they needed when they needed them most. That's exactly what you'd expect from a great goalie.
At the other end: A question mark
Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen was brilliant in stretches, especially in the third period and in overtime when the Blackhawks dominated play—even though the only outshot the Stars 15–10 over that time. But all anyone was talking about after the game was Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith's first-period goal, which snuck through Lehtonen's five hole. It was a soft goal, made worse by the fact that the Stars were outshooting Chicago 8–1 at the time and had complete control of the game.
Lehtonen's a master of the jaw-dropping stop—just check out a top-10 saves compilation from any of the past few years for proof of that. But his tendency to cough one up like he did to Keith leaves you wondering whether he's Mr. Right for team that's trying to mature into a Cup contender, or just Mr. Right Now.
An hour before he played his first game for Dallas there already were maybe two dozen fans spotted around the American Airlines Center concourse wearing Jason Spezza's number 90 sweater. Expect more fans to follow suit. Spezza was brilliant in his Stars debut, dishing no-look passes, exploiting microscopic lane openings and leading Dallas aggressively into the attack zone. He's not particularly fast, but his ability to move the puck quickly and effectively ramped up the pace of the Dallas assault and kept the Blackhawks on their heels whenever his line was on the ice.
Oh, and that toe drag he put on Johnny Oduya? The only thing that prevented us from hearing the defenseman's ankles breaking was the stunned roar of the crowd.
A work in progress
The Stars' four-forward power play featuring Spezza, Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Ales Hemsky and defenseman Alex Goligoski (later replaced by Daley) delivered plenty of thrilling puck movement in its regular-season debut, but could easily have been blanked if not for a spectacular goal that Daley batted past Crawford while the puck was in mid air. Chicago quickly exposed the unit's fatal flaw by allowing Dallas to set up around the perimeter while the Blackhawks' defensemen dominated the middle of the ice. That led to the Stars getting a little too pass happy, which led to too many turnovers.
That's partly on Benn, who spent more time planted in the crease during the preseason, but settled for easier ice against Chicago's tough, experienced defense. Benn's hesitance to pay the price on the power play stood in stark contrast to his dominating physical presence at even strength. In the first period, he laid two highlight reel hits on a single offensive zone shift, flattening Oduya behind the Blackhawks' goal, and followed that up with a bone-jarring collision with Brandon Saad that left Chicago's "Man Child" shaking his head.
“[We've] got work to do still,” Dallas coach Lindy Ruff said while addressing his team's play with the man advantage. “It’s a power play that doesn’t have net-front [presence]. ... We didn’t have much presence in the middle of the ice on our power play. It was okay. It got on the board, that’s a good thing, but there’s room for improvement.”
Work in progress part 2
Breakthrough candidate Valeri Nichushkin was clearly still feeling the effects of the hip problem that limited him in camp. The 19-year-old winger was used sparingly, and he was largely ineffective when he did see the ice, especially in the defensive zone. Sitting him on Saturday in Nashville might be the smart play after this performance, but if he does skate it wouldn't be a surprise to see him switch places with Colton Sceviour. The fourth-liner showed a lot of jump against the Blackhawks, and is coming off a season in which he scored 32 goals in 54 games for the AHL champion Texas Stars.
Car Bomb fizzles
Chicago's opener was the I-told-you-so moment for everyone who criticized the team for signing Dan Carcillo. The rambunctious winger played just 4:43, including one lone shift in the second period and three in the third after spending the first frame playing kamikaze-style hockey. He got his hits in, but they were the kind he created by being two steps behind the play—they were punishing, but they did nothing to affect control of the puck. GM Stan Bowman signed Carcillo about five minutes after he was cut loose from his PTO by the Penguins, so he obviously sees "Car Bomb" bringing something to the mix. But the way that Carcillo was used by Quenneville suggests that the coach is not so sure.
Happy to be there
We're only a couple of days in and already I have a moment that's going to rank as one of my favorites of the season: The look on the face of Blackhawks defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk as he was about to make his NHL debut. A lot of rookies come out like they're heading to the dentist. TVR, who we chose for our first ever Preseason All-Rookie Team, looked like a kid who'd just shared his first kiss. Good for him.
Chicago star Patrick Kane sleepwalked through the first two periods but was absolutely brilliant as the game came down to crunch time. This was vintage stuff, all craft and guile. He created a terrific scoring chance off a spin-o-rama, backed the defense off with his speed and never left the ice during OT. And his shootout goal that clinched the win? A gem.