By Ryan Stieg, AllPuck.com
If I were to predict at the start of the year which NHL team would be undefeated at this point, roughly one-third of the way through the season, I wouldn’t have picked the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks struggled mightily against Phoenix in the first round of the 2012 playoffs and their goaltending was just slightly above atrocious.
This year, however, things are clicking in the Madhouse on Madison and Chicago looks like the team to beat. The Blackhawks have been great offensively for quite a while with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa. All three are over double digits in points. Kane leads the way with 21, which ties him for third in the league with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.
Now Chicago seems to have found some stability between the pipes as well. Goaltender Corey Crawford, who has firmly claimed the starting role from an aging Ray Emery, seems to have figured things out. Crawford has a stellar GAA of 1.65 (fourth in the NHL) and a strong save percentage of .935 (also fourth). His seven wins are one off the league lead and he has one shutout under his belt.
How much longer with the streak last? That’s hard to say. Everything has clicked so far for the Blackhawks, but they have games against Vancouver and San Jose later this month and both are more than capable of knocking off Chicago. There’s also that little two-week, Big Ten tournament-induced road trip in March. My prediction is that the Canucks — who invade United Center on Tuesday — will be the team to give the Blackhawks their first loss. Down the road, Chicago will bounce back and glide into the playoffs easily.
While Chicago is dominating, the team I figured would most likely start the season undefeated is tied for fourth in its conference and isn’t suffocating opponents with defense and goaltending like it did so successfully last season. the St. Louis Blues, who came within a whisker of winning the President’s Trophy in 2012, are struggling on both ends of the ice. Their three best players, T.J. Oshie, David Backes and David Perron, have scored just 12 goals among them after combining for three over the weekend. For a time the team’s points leader was defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk — and he still only has one goal. St. Louis had difficulties scoring last season and relied heavily on their talented goaltenders to bail them out. For now, the opposite seems to be the case.
The normally reliable Jaroslav Halak has two shutouts and a 2.10 GAA, but only has a .889 save percentage. Brian Elliot (3.57, .849) is faring even worse and is showing the inconsistency that plagued him both as a pro and in college. (He ended his senior year at Wisconsin a Hobey Baker finalist, but also gave up soft goals on a fairly regular basis.) There’s still time for both goalies to turn it around, but with the shortened season, it’d better be sooner than later.
The Blues still have managed to win three in a row, go 9-5-1 overall and are outscoring opponents this season (albeit slightly, 52-48). They will probably make the playoffs but without the fear factor that accompanied a trip to Scottrade Center last year.
To switch gears a little, let’s look at a team that is surprising the college hockey world — a team that most analysts still don’t know how to pronounce. The Quinnipiac Bobcats are currently ranked number one in the country for the first time and are 15-1-2 in the ECAC after losing 2-1 to St. Lawrence on Friday. They’re still undefeated on the road and, before Friday, had not lost since November. QU is well on its way to win its first-ever ECAC title as well as a potentially easy path to the Frozen Four.
The Bobcats have never had the success that they’ve achieved this season. However, they’ve notched five 20-win seasons and never won fewer than 16 games since moving to the ECAC. Much of their success comes from a strong senior class, two of which have more than 15 points with Jeremy Langlois at the top with 26 and 11 goals, and great goaltending from Eric Hartzell. Hartzell entered the weekend with a GAA of 1.45, a save percentage of .936 and four shutouts.
The rest of the country will finally be able to see what they can do when they take on Yale Feb. 22 on the NBC Sports network.
Another team that is doing better than expected is Minnesota State. Notorious around the WCHA for being that team that could give you fits sometimes, but will probably never contend for a conference title, the Mavericks seem to be putting it together this year. They are predicted to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003 and only the second time in school history, and upset top-seeded Minnesota on the road. They’ve also swept a ranked Wisconsin squad as well as 2012 tournament participant, Minnesota-Duluth.
Some of this is due to new head coach Mike Hastings, but MSU also has a balanced scoring attack. Six players have more than 20 points, with sophomore Matt Leitner leading the way with 36. Senior Eriah Hayes leads the team with 18 goals. Freshman goaltender Stephon Williams is also having an impressive season with a GAA of 1.77 and a save percentage of .932 as well as four shutouts.
The Mavericks close out their regular season at home against North Dakota. If they can pick up some points that weekend, they should be in good shape come tournament selection time and should also make their first appearance at the Final Five in a decade.