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After Modest Start, Blackhawks Flying High Again

Pat Pickens

Pat Pickens covers the NHL for the New York Times, NHL.com and XN Sports.

The NHL’s hottest team is shipping up to Boston on Thursday night.

The Bruins will host the Chicago Blackhawks. Yet, the fates of the two teams appear headed in opposite directions as the 2013 Stanley Cup finalists prepare to meet for just the third time since their memorable six-game series 18 months ago.

Where the Bruins are just 2-4-1 in their last seven, the Blackhawks come in on a roll, having won 10 of their last 11.

Though I’m sure they could identify with Boston’s recent rough patch.

Chicago, which has reached the Western Conference final two straight years, looked as if the long springs of hockey had caught up to it through the season’s first month.  Chicago’s offense struggled to get uncorked, which led to a modest 9-7-1 start — one that those in Edmonton would kill for but one Hawks head coach Joel Quenneville dubbed “ordinary.”

But Quenneville, the master tactician, has found the right moves of late. Chicago’s won seven straight, and oddly enough, a long road trip caused by the circus and an injury to Patrick Sharp — the Hawks’ leading goal scorer from last season — have served as the catalysts to their recent surge.

Sharp’s injury enabled Quenneville to create the now-famous “P, B, and K line” of Patrick Kane, Brad Richards and Kris Versteeg. Richards, the castoff from New York, is centering the unit and has nine points in 11 games, meanwhile Kane has six multi-point games in Chicago’s last 10.

Many are familiar with Kane’s and Richards’ exploits, but Versteeg has five multi-point games in that stretch and has impressed his center so far.

“He’s confident right now. He’s very underrated,” Richards said Tuesday. “I think he’s very underrated how he controls the puck and some of the plays he’s made. I think his confidence has just grown, and he’s played really well.”

The Blackhawks’ second line has taken heat off of its top troika, and the Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsMarian Hossa line has come around. Saad, the 22-year-old Pittsburgher, took over Saturday in Nashville, potting a goal and recording a highlight-reel assist on the first of Hossa’s two goals.

“He does have a game where he plays like a power forward, has the puck a lot, can take it to the net and can beat defensemen wide with speed,” Quenneville said of Saad. “That game in, game out, coming up with loose pucks and being more tenacious. When he does that, he goes to the highest level.”

Even with its high-flying scoring lines bottled up for much of Tuesday night’s game in New Jersey, the Hawks managed to keep their winning streak in tact.  But even though they claimed a 3-2 shootout win — one in which the Blackhawks outshot the Devils, 39-24 and fired 53 shots at New Jersey’s cage — Quenneville and Co. were less than satisfied with the game.

And the mark of a good team also involves goaltending, and though the names don’t scare anyone, the stats should. Corey Crawford, when he’s not bro-ing out at concerts, sports a 1.87 goals-against average and .929 save percentage — both of which are in the League’s top-five.

With Crawford out, the feel-good story of the year has emerged in Scott Darling. The 6-foot-6 former former sixth-round pick is 4-1 with a .939 save percentage. The Blackhawks have allowed the second-fewest goals in the NHL — they trail only Nashville by just a single goal — and can thank their goalies and world-class defense — which features defending Norris Trophy winner, Duncan Keith — too.

“The consistency of our goaltending has been excellent this year,” Quenneville said. “Our defense has been predictable, as well.”

The Hawks had better enjoy the ups while they last. They are up against the salary cap, and Toews and Kane are due massive raises — $4.2 million each, according to CapGeek.com. Their are prospects in Chicago’s system, though some — like Jeremy Morin — have felt alienated by their lack of opportunity.

But those clouds are in the distance, and for the moment, Chicagoland fans can — and should — enjoy the sun shining on their NHL team.