Stop me if you’ve heard this before but the Blackhawks and the San Jose Sharks are battling for supremacy in the NHL’s Western Conference.  Yes it’s early but these two perennial powers, who both consciously or not, returned practically the same squads that they fielded last season, are at the top of the heap at this point in the season.  While it may just be a blip on the radar in the grand scheme of things, tonight the Hawks bring their act to the Shark Tank and the entire hockey world will be watching… well, the entire NHL world that didn’t take “The Pledge” to abstain from the season due to the dis-taste the lockout left in their mouth.  (For the record the fan’s lockout should end after the twelfth game of the season which is this Sunday in Nashville – welcome back to all the principled puckheads out there) 

I am going to have a front row seat at my favorite sports book here in Las Vegas for the festivities.  Unfortunately I have no idea how the game is going to play out as it truly will be a clash of the titans.  Here is what I do know after watching the first nine games of this abbreviated season.

  • Patrick Kane is playing out of his mind right now.  He’s never going to be the guy who is the absolute rock for your team playing all three phases (a penalty killer he is not), but I think his time overseas was time well spent this fall.  As any athlete will tell you, every now and again it’s not a bad thing to play against a lower level of competition just so that you can get the ego boost of being the big man on campus once more.  Kane is circling back with the puck, taking his time like a dad skating through his kids friends, and creating opportunities for everyone around him.  It’s been fun to watch and one can only hope that he keeps up his career best 1.44 points per game pace.
  • With Kane creating all these opportunities, one would think that his linemates would be reaping the rewards left and right.  Unfortunately that is not the case in the past five games.  Patrick Sharp has been the biggest culprit having hit a post in three straight games and otherwise being fairly invisible out there.  I’m a Sharp fan so I’m hoping it’s just early season chemistry issues but thus far it appears Sharp is three feet either in front of or behind the sweet spot of a pass and his scoring has suffered for it.  Perhaps I’m just picking nits as Sharp is third on the team with eight points but if he were clicking like we’ve come to expect there’s no reason that he couldn’t be near double that by now.
  • Nick Leddy is making “the jump” before our eyes.  He needs a legitimate partner to skate along side him and I think that guy is about to appear as Michal Rozsival returns from injury.  Sheldon Brookbank appears to be a nice guy but a key cog to a championship level team he is not.
  • I have been very happy with the play of Corey Crawford to date.  As great as Ray Emery played in Calgary (literally stealing a win on Saturday night with 45 saves) I fear that it may have been  a bit of a curse as it may have re-kindled a fire amongst the fan base about a goalie controversy.  It’s in all of our best interest for the Hawks to have a true #1 goalie for a season and Crawford is that guy.  I beg of you, don’t turn this into a replica of the Bears quarterback situation over the past twenty years where the backup is the most popular guy in town.  Crawford is our horse and don’t forget it.
  • I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from Brandon Saad here of late.  While only having two points on the season you can see him start to believe on a night by night basis that he belongs in this league.  The goals are going to come and once that first one spills over the dam there are more that will surely follow.
  • I would like to see Marcus Kruger get the second line center minutes while Dave Bolland is out with his injury rather than Andrew Shaw.  Kruger has potential to exceed his current status on the team while I think Shaw is what he is, a very good third or fourth line grinder that will supply the grit for the organization for years to come.  Even when Bolland returns I’m still not a fan of the “make him a scoring threat” plan and would think 2nd line center is the top priority at the trade deadline letting Bolland go back to his third line shutdown roll and Kruger would then anchor perhaps the best fourth line in the league.  Bolland it a licensed killer of other team’s top lines (i.e. the Sedins) but Kane and Sharp are not the wings to help him maximize his potential in that role. 
  • I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the return to form of Duncan Keith and the complete career revival of Michael Frolik as a penalty killing extraordinaire.
  • I think the Hawks need to give some serious thought to letting Jamal Mayers watch more games from the press box (now that he’s hit his 900 NHL games played milestone) and see if some of the younger, faster bangers in the shape of Kyle Beach or Jimmy Hayes can make an impact on the game.  Mayers has been invisible to date and is taking a valuable roster spot.  His leadership can come in other ways than in the 5:52 minutes per game that he’s currently getting. 
  • Bryan Bickell, don’t think you get a free pass either.  You are 6’4” and 233 lbs.  Start throwing that body around or we’ll find someone else who will.   As usual the Hawks have had the most difficulty with teams that have gotten physical with them thus far (the Columbus, St. Louis, and Calgary games stand out).  This will fly in the early parts of a fast paced season, but come playoff time the team will need some bodies who will let opponents know that taking a run at Kane/Toews/Hossa has repercussions.  Byfuglien owned that role in 2010 and changed several playoff series when he lowered the boom.  No one has successfully filled that role since. 

That’s all I’ve got.  Enjoy the hockey Tuesday night everyone who likes to stay up late.  Our Blackhawks are going Shark hunting and it’s going to be a good litmus test to see exactly how good this team really can be.