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Halfway home, Blackhawks still on fire

Chicago Blackhawks' goalie Ray Emery (3rd R) is surrounded by teammates after his team's win over the Vancouver Canucks in their NHL hockey
Chicago Blackhawks' goalie Ray Emery (3rd R) is surrounded by teammates after his team's win over the Vancouver Canucks in their NHL hockey

By Steve Keating

(Reuters) - The Chicago Blackhawks will reach the midway point of the National Hockey League (NHL) season on Wednesday having already left their mark on the lockout shortened campaign.

Through 22 games, the Blackhawks (19-0-3) have yet to suffer a regulation loss and with wins over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday and the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday would enter the turn on the 48 game season virtually unscathed.

Never before has an NHL team burst out of the starting blocks with such force.

But the Blackhawks and their fans are keenly aware that it is not how you start the season, it is how you finish and the pressure will be on Chicago to parlay that early success into a second Stanley Cup in four years.

Chicago entered the record books on February 22 beating the San Jose Sharks 2-1, giving them at least a point from each of their opening 17 games, to better the old mark set by 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks.

More good omens for the Blackhawks, the Ducks used that scorching start as the springboard to the franchise's first and only Stanley Cup.

The remarkable run has carried over into March, the Blackhawks latest winning streak now at nine Games, seven of those coming by one goal.

"Any team that has had the success Chicago has had, they're doing a lot of things right," said Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, who was coach of the Ducks when they won the Stanley Cup.

"A lot of things are going well but I would say that if you look at their team that they are a hard working hockey club that has all the pieces together and has some great leadership.

"They've got a lot of pieces of the puzzle put together and goaltending has been strong."

With incumbent Corey Crawford and volatile castoff Ray Emery manning the crease, goaltending was expected to be Chicago's Achilles' heel but instead has been the team's greatest strength.

Crawford has emerged as a legitimate Vezina trophy candidate with his league leading 1.41 goals against average sparking talk of selection to Canada's 2014 Olympic team.

Emery, who helped carry the Ottawa Senators to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals but wore out his welcome in the Canadian capital after a series of off-ice incidents, was plucked off the goaltending scrap heap in 2011 when the Blackhawks signed him to a tryout contract.

This season Emery has been rock solid collecting nine wins from 10 appearances.

"I don't look back, except to learn from experience and correct it," said Emery, who spent time playing and Russia's KHL and battling injuries before finding a home in Chicago.

"Each game's a new game. If you're overconfident, it'll bite you and if you're questioning yourself, it'll bite you too."

Just three seasons removed from hoisting the Stanley Cup, the Blackhawks have undergone several salary cap forced overhauls but managed to keep the highly skilled core of that championship team intact.

Forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa have scored 11, nine and nine goals respectively while former-Norris trophy winner Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook anchor the league's top defense.

"It's just pretty amazing. We've talked about the resiliency of this team for the past couple of months," Kane told reporters. "It seems like we just keep finding ways to keep ourselves in the game or find a way to win it at the end.

"It's just amazing what's going on. The biggest thing is we're just trying to get better. It's been a fun ride and it's not over yet."

(Editing by Julian Linden)

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