Though the Chicago Blackhawks got off to what head coach Joel Quenneville called "an ordinary start" to the season, their high-powered offense, which recently kicked into high gear, has them looking more like the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2013.
The Blackhawks went 7-6-1 before their current stretch where they've won 12 of their last 14 games and taken over first place in the Central Division with a record of 19-8-1. During that streak, they've scored 52 goals after producing 34 in their first 14. And now the Hawks have gained more firepower with the return of winger Patrick Sharp.
Sharp, who led Chicago in goals (34) and points (78) last season, missed 14 games with a right knee injury suffered on Nov. 4 before taking the ice on Tuesday night against the Devils in New Jersey. The benefit of his presence was immediate on a night when the Hawks weren't exactly sharp and found themselves in a battle against one of the league's weaker teams.
In his first game back, Sharp logged 17:22 of ice time, tied teammate Marian Hossa with a game-high five shots, assisted on the Blackhawks’ first goal—by Bryan Bickell, tying the game at 1-1 midway through the second period—and was stopped by Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid on a breakaway in the third period. When New Jersey's Stephen Gionta quickly converted to give the Devils a 2-1 lead, the Hawks needed a goal by defenseman Duncan Keith at 16:47 to send the game into extra time before finally winning in the shootout, 3-2, on tallies by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
It wasn't pretty, but Chicago's depth prevailed, a clear warning to their Western Conference rivals if not the rest of the league.
"[Sharp is] a world class player," said center Brad Richards. "Now we’re adding one of the best scorers in the league. It’s very huge for our team. I’m excited to see him back. He’s bringing a lot of energy."
Though Sharp has primarily played on Chicago’s first line during the past two seasons, Quenneville decided not to mess with the chemistry of his top two lines, which have been playing well of late, and slotted him into the third line with Bickell and center Andrew Shaw, although on the right side rather than Sharp's usual spot on left wing. Quenneville said Sharp’s versatility was a big help when it came to figuring out his lineup and the winger noted that the change from where he has been accustomed to playing wasn’t a big deal even if he needed some time to feel comfortable in game action.
"I think you look at our roster over the couple years, everybody seems to play with everyone throughout the course of the season, and I’m no different," he said. "I play with everybody on the team in this lineup. So I’m comfortable wherever he puts me, and just happy to be back in there."
Call it an embarrassment of versatility, but Quenneville also feels that because many of his players can be so easily moved to different spots, there may have been too much movement in the lineup early on and that stability during the last "10 games or so" has helped the Hawks.
Richards, though, doesn’t see much difference from the way the team played during its slow offensive start this season.
"Before [the win streak] we were firing a lot of shots, but for some reason, guys were snakebitten and pucks just weren’t going in the net," said Richards, who joined the Blackhawks during the off-season after three years with the Rangers and has been a pleasant surprise with six goals and 12 assists while playing on Chicago's second line with wingers Kane and Kris Versteeg. "We thought it was a matter of time, keep getting traffic, keep going to the dirty areas, and things would break, and it seems we’re getting those bounces instead of the other way."
Whatever the reason, Quenneville is pleased with what he's seeing of late, especially with the team getting healthier.
"We’re happy with the way things have gone," Quenneville said. "We’re coming off a real busy stretch with 10 of 12 on the road in some tough buildings as well. We’ve got a little momentum right now and we just want to sustain it. We’re happy."