Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks have suffered two not-so-memorable, first-round exits from the postseason.
One bit of business from last season, during their play-off loss to the Phoenix Coyoes, was not going to be forgotten by the club. Namely, Raffi Torres's brutal, head-hit on Chicago's Marian Hossa.
Torres was suspended for the remainder of the play-offs and the first eight games of this season. Hossa spent much of the prolonged off-season recuperating from a severe concussion.
When the two teams met last week, it took less than three minutes of game time before Torres was challenged to a fight by the Chicago enforcer Jamal Mayers. The two exchanged several punches before the battle was broken up, the feud apparently settled.
Then Chicago resumed their current pummeling of opponents on the scoreboard, the fight sparking a 6-2 victory.
"It definitely fired us up and got us going," said Patrick Sharp, the Chicago forward, whose team finished their first 11 games as the only club without a loss in regulation time.
Scarier for the rest of the league is that Chicago's 9-0-2 record was built the hard way - with only two games on home ice.
Patrick Kane, the team's 24-year-old centre, got it right when he told the Chicago Tribune on the opening weekend: "It's almost like a disadvantage to start out the season that way, but if we can get through the first 12 games with a halfway decent record, it's actually beneficial to us."
The early road trips may have made for quick bonding in the team, an accidental advantage in a season that dispensed with its training camps and preseason games.
"The chemistry and the camaraderie in this dressing room is as good as it can get," the coach, Joel Quenneville, said after the Phoenix game.
Kane has led the resurgence of the Blackhawks, who retain a core of nine strong players from their Stanley Cup run three years ago.
He has eight goals and 18 points, with plenty of help. A healthy Hossa has bounced back to score six goals. Jonathan Toews has added five.
The back line is still anchored by top pair Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Keith is playing to his 2009/10 form when he won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defender.
The Blackhawks were among the teams reportedly interested in acquiring Roberto Luongo, the Vancouver Canucks goaltender, when the season began. But Corey Crawford (1.82 goals against average) and Ray Emery (2.59) have been good enough in net to quell some of that talk.
Criticism that the team had relaxed after its Stanley Cup victory also has quieted. This group appears ready to fight.
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