While the weather outside may be brutally cold, two Chicago hockey teams are red-hot. As of the morning of January 18th, 2016, the Chicago Blackhawks and their AHL affiliate the Rockford IceHogs BOTH occupy first place in their respective divisions. Interestingly enough, this rare feat is also shared between the L.A. Kings and their farm team the Ontario Reign. But let’s focus on the Blackhawks and IceHogs.
Blackhawks Fly to First Place
The Blackhawks are in the midst of an 11 game winning streak, which ties their franchise record. After dismantling the Montreal Canadians for the second time in 4 days, the Blackhawks now have a record of 31-13-4 and sit in first place in the Central Division. Even Montreal head coach Michel Therrien has been impressed by the Blackhawks. In his post game interview, Therrien said “We just played the Stanley Cup Champion (twice), and I believe they look better than last year.”
#Blackhawks dispatch the #Habs and tie a franchise record with 11-straight wins. Lear's Look: https://t.co/EBDlnBAmkr— Eric Lear (@BHTVeric) 18 Janvier 2016
Their 66 points are three better than the Dallas Stars, also enough to lead the Western Conference. Even more amazing, just twenty days ago, the Blackhawks actually trailed Dallas in the standings by 13 points.
Twenty days ago, the #Blackhawks were 13 points behind Dallas. Twenty days. pic.twitter.com/JyBkA1f2NJ— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) 18 Janvier 2016
Of course lest you think the Blackhawks are getting a bit cocky, consider this from Captain Jonathan Toews after Sunday’s victory: “You look back to the last half-dozen games, there hasn’t been a whole lot of signs of satisfaction with our effort. So we’re having fun and riding it out right now. I don’t think we’re playing out of our minds and getting too overconfident. We’re just working hard and things are going our way.” Driving home the appearance of staying humble, Patrick Kane added over the weekend: “Yeah we are on a nice little run here…” Talk about understatement of the year.
Not coincidentally, their winning streak also corresponds nicely with getting balanced scoring from all lines and playing solid defensively. Led by net minder Corey Crawford, the Blackhawks just don’t give up many goals. Crawford, the Rodney Dangerfield of NHL goalies, was left off the All-Star roster despite leading the league with six shutouts, while posting a 2.17 goals against average and .929 save percentage. There is plenty of hockey left to be played, but this Blackhawks team seems to be giving notice to the league that they are more than ready and capable of defending the Stanley Cup.
IceHogs Following Big Brothers
The Blackhawks, despite the roster turnover this summer of Saad, Richards, Versteeg and others, just keep winning. While the signing of Panarin and trade of Saad for Anisimov has certainly proven to be a steal, another big reason for the Blackhawks’ continued success is their talented farm system. The Rockford IceHogs beat the Stockton heat 3-0 Saturday night to move to 23-10-2-3 on the season. Those 51 points are better by one than the second place Charlotte Checkers in the AHL’s Central Division.
#PinkintheRink shutout, Pt. 2 RECAP: https://t.co/GxoMoGlsuR pic.twitter.com/fdZttzMMVs— Rockford IceHogs (@goicehogs) 17 Janvier 2016
Rockford’s feat is even more impressive considering their top players have, or are playing this season with for their big-league brethren. Notable IceHogs recalled this year currently playing for the Blackhawks include Dennis Rasmussen, Phillip Danault, Brandon Mashinter and Erik Gustafsson. They aren’t just soaking it all in from the suites as healthy scratches either. Gustafsson is now being paired with Seabrook as a top four defenseman. Oh, and he can generate some offense too.
Meanwhile Danault has more than adequately filled in for the injured Marcus Kruger. Rasmussen has played in 21 games and has chipped in with 3 goals and 3 assists. Although limited in play to 19 games, even Mashinter has been effective of late, recording a pair of goals when given ice time. Anyone insisting the Coach Q favors seasoned veterans over youth just isn’t paying attention. The fact of the matter is if you play well, learn the system and play responsibly, you will be rewarded. To do that successfully for most, it all starts in Rockford.
Blackhawks & IceHogs Both Champions This Year?
The IceHogs, under the talented head coach of Ted Dent, would absolutely love to win the division, and play for the Calder Cup. However, he, and the rest of the coaches and players understand that the bigger prize is to play in the NHL. Developing the players and getting them comfortable with the Blackhawks system is the main goal. That is exactly what is happening with the talented Marko Dano (part of the Saad trade) and 2016 AHL All-Star Ryan Hartman. Just what the other teams want to see, more talented offense waiting in the wings for the Blackhawks.
Having said all of this, let’s dare to dream. I see no reason why both the Blackhawks and IceHogs cannot become champions this year. It will require hard work, commitment and even a bit of luck. In fact, what would be really cool, would be for the Blackhawks to beat the L.A. Kings in the playoffs, while the IceHogs dispatch the Reign. Rockford IceHogs “2016 Calder Cup Champions” and Chicago Blackhawks “Back-to-Back Stanley Cup Champions” has a nice “ring” to it, don’t you think?