Loud Hawks already passing chemistry test

565608.jpg

Loud Hawks already passing chemistry test

DENVER -- Patrick Sharp has noticed the increased "noise" level with these Chicago Blackhawks.

"We were just flying over from Phoenix (and later) sitting on the bus there's a lot of hooting and hollering. A lot of guys are having fun with each other and it's just two weeks into the season," Sharp said. "That's a good sign. The chemistry's there."

And apparently, so is the fun again.

The Blackhawks are halfway through their first road trip, a two-game stint that wraps up Thursday night when they play the Colorado Avalanche. The road is a good time for longtime team members and new acquisitions to gel, to get to know each other. But with this year's group of Blackhawks, that camaraderie was evident on and off the ice before they even hit the road.

"It feels comfortable. There's no separation between new players and players that have been here for a while," Jonathan Toews said recently. "We haven't spent a lot of time on the road but everyone's getting to know each other pretty well whether hanging around or outside the rink. There's a togetherness and we're feeling that on the ice, too."

That feeling was missing for most of last season. The Blackhawks didn't have a bad locker room in 2010-11, they just had a quiet one. A too-quiet one. The massive turnover was one reason, the youth on the roster was another. Guys were young and unsure where they even fit into the lineup and probably not confident in piping up.

The latest "new guys" aren't new to the NHL. Their games and personalities were established well before they joined the Blackhawks. So now, as much as the Blackhawks have balance on the ice they have personality off it. And everyone is appreciating the more energetic and talkative room.

"You go back a couple years ago, guys enjoyed being around each other. This group is a lot more vocal," coach Joel Quenneville said. "There's a lot more noise on the buses and planes we didn't see last year and that's a good thing. It'll probably get more entertaining and amusing as we go along."

There's no doubt this is a different room this season. You see it and hear it when you walk in; these guys talk, they joke, they make themselves heard. And if they're doing that during the practice days, they're probably doing it more during game intermissions, too.

The newest Blackhawks have felt welcome from the start. Sean O'Donnell enjoyed a good-natured ribbing from his new teammates when he turned 40 last week. Daniel Carcillo has certainly added to the room's buzz. Jamal Mayers said it's easy for the veterans to mesh with these Blackhawks.

"The leadership group here was already established. We just want to be pieces of the puzzle," he said. "The honest truth is you just want to be authentic and yourself and do the things you have your whole career. You just come into the room and be yourself."

The Blackhawks have found their voices again. The "noise" is back, and it's a welcome sound.

Briefly

Corey Crawford will start against the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night.

Marian Hossa came out of Wednesday night's game fine after missing Saturday with an upper-body injury. He was practicing again on Thursday.

Connor McDavid believes Blackhawks prospect Alex DeBrincat will succeed in NHL: 'He's a special player'

Connor McDavid believes Blackhawks prospect Alex DeBrincat will succeed in NHL: 'He's a special player'

Blackhawks prospect Alex DeBrincat is putting up video-game numbers in the Ontario Hockey League.

He ranks first among all players with 49 goals and 104 points, and has done so in only 50 games. That's an average of more than two points per game.

DeBrincat, the Blackhawks' second-round draft pick (No. 39 overall) in 2015 thanks to the Andrew Shaw trade, became the Erie Otters' all-time leading goal scorer earlier this year and on Saturday, he tied Brad Boyes for second on the team's all-time points list with 309. The only player he's chasing now is teammate Dylan Strome, who has 329 and counting.

Connor McDavid, who ranks fourth in Otters history with 285 points, was there for DeBrincat's rookie season when he scored 51 goals and 50 assists. The 20-year-old Oilers captain very much still pays attention to the Otters, and isn't surprised by the heightened success of his former teammate.

"He’s having another amazing season," McDavid said. "No surprise there."

It was easy to suggest DeBrincat's numbers were inflated because he benefited from having a player like McDavid centering his line. But McDavid insists that wasn't the case.

"Honestly, we helped each other," McDavid said. "It was not a one-way street by any means. He finds a way to score goals. My year they were saying, 'Oh, he was just playing with me.' Then the other year, he’s playing with (Strome). He’s playing with Stromer again. To score 50 three seasons in a row is absolutely incredible no matter who you’re playing with or what you’re doing. Absolute credit to him."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

The numbers back it up, too.

DeBrincat's points per game average has increased in each of the last three seasons: 1.53, 1.68 and 2.08, a significant jump from his second to third season. It's especially impressive when you factor in that he's scored only eight of his 49 goals on the power play this year after combining for 34 goals on the man advantage in his first two. 

Initially, McDavid was a little skeptical when informed that newly-signed winger DeBrincat, who's now listed as 5-7, 170 pounds, would be his new linemate. It didn't take long for that to change.

"He kind of just came out of nowhere," McDavid said. "I remember us signing (him) and looking, and it said he was 5-2, 140 pounds, whatever. The GM at the time, Sherry Bassin, said 'I found you a new winger.' I’m like, ‘That guy is going to play with me?’ Sure enough, he comes in and we kind of have that chemistry right away.

"He knows where the net is. He finds a way to score basically every night. He’s got a great shot. He’s one of the feistiest guys I’ve ever played with. It’s really remarkable about what he’s been able to do."

Size is surely to be the biggest concern for DeBrincat at the NHL level, but players such as Cam Atkinson (5-7), Johnny Gaudreau (5-8) and Mats Zuccarello (5-7) are proving that you can be among the league's best despite being undersized. And the game is evolving into more of an up-tempo style where teams built on speed is becoming the new norm.

DeBrincat's willingness to stick his nose into dirty areas combined with his offensively-gifted ability is a big reason why McDavid believes his former linemate will succeed at the highest level.

"I think well," McDavid said when asked how DeBrincat's game will translate into the NHL. "He’s just got such a drive and such a nose for the net that I don’t think he’s going to be stopped. He takes on guys much bigger. I don’t really know how he does it.

"Especially when he was a rookie and I was playing with him, he’s going into scrums against guys that are 6-5, and you’re on the ice thinking, ‘How the hell am I going to help you?’ He definitely picks his fights. He’s a special person and special player."

Ryan Hartman defends teammate, but fight proves to be turning point in Blackhawks loss to Oilers

Ryan Hartman defends teammate, but fight proves to be turning point in Blackhawks loss to Oilers

The NHL implemented the bye week for the first time this season in an effort to give teams a five-day break before the stretch run of the regular season.

Entering Saturday's game, teams were 3-10-3 coming out of those games with many of those losses coming in convincing fashion.

Despite a 3-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night, the Blackhawks weren't one of those teams. They appeared to be reenergized more than rusty, and it showed in the opening 20 minutes of the game when they fired off 30 shot attempts (12 on goal) compared to the Oilers' 10 (four on goal).

But early in the second period, momentum shifted after Ryan Hartman came to the defense of teammate Tanner Kero, who was leveled by Oilers defenseman Eric Gryba in the neutral zone.

Hartman skated over to Gryba and dropped the gloves near the goal line, afterwards getting tagged with a two-minute penalty for instigating, five minutes for fighting and another 10 for a misconduct.

"It's kind of a no-brainer for me," Hartman said of sticking up for Kero. "I tried waiting long enough so it wasn't an instigator but it's kind of a judgment call I guess, some refs call it different ways. Unfortunately it ended up in a power play for them, but it's something you've got to do."

Hartman said he and the official had a discussion about the instigator penalty for clarity, which was handed to him due to the distance traveled after the hit.

Hartman said after the game that he respects the decision, but teammates and coaches didn't necessarily agree with the call.

"Thought they both had an agreement," Jonathan Toews said of the fight. "It looked like they were both going to go at it. Don’t think Hartsy jumped him by any means. But I guess just because there’s a previous hit immediately before that, then he got the instigator there."

Said Joel Quenneville: "I don't necessarily know that he was going to start the fight. I think he went over there to talk to the guy, so you lose Hartsy there."

And it proved to be the turning point.

Less than two minutes later, the Oilers capitalized on the power play after Matt Benning's shot ricocheted off Blackhawks defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk's skate and into the net, putting Edmonton out in front first.

They wouldn't look back, hanging on to beat the Blackhawks 3-1, and getting revenge on a team that beat them last week 5-1 in their first game out of the bye.

While it may not have been an opportune time to do it, the Blackhawks appreciate Hartman's game and know more times than not, his energy will result in a positive outcome.

"We haven’t seen a lot of fights this year so, no matter what, it always gets us going, especially in our own building," Toews said. "I think the fans love that sort of thing, too, and Hartsy’s been going after guys who are a lot bigger than him this year. We love that fearless play and definitely helps our guys feed off it."

"Hartsy's a competitive guy," Quenneville said. "We like him to have that a little bit of abrasiveness and unpredictably so there's nothing wrong with that. We like the way he competes and what he brings us."