The official midpoint of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 NHL season is Saturday, and for all the good vibes created by the unexpectedly competent Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators, the first half was all about the Chicago Blackhawks and their unprecedented start.
The Blackhawks earned a point in each of their first 24 games, which featured 18 wins in regulation, three in a shootout, plus three shootout losses. Dating to last year, they have recorded points in 30 consecutive games and counting, and are within five games of tying the 1979-80 Philadelphia Flyers for the longest streak without a regulation loss in NHL history.
That Flyers team was coached by Pat Quinn, and this week he recalled, in a telephone conversation, the similarities and differences between what Chicago is doing today and what his team did back in the day.
Quinn was in his first full season as the Flyers' coach, and while he had a veteran nucleus that included Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber, Rick MacLeish and a few others, it was also a team in transition.
He'd taken over from Fred Shero, fresh off the Broad Street Bullies era, and they had all kinds of new faces in the lineup, including a line of Ken Linseman, Brian Propp and Paul Holmgren that would become pretty good, but were just at the start of their respective careers.
"You talk about expectations," Quinn said. "We didn't have a lot of expectations on us because right from goaltender out, we were a young team that had Pete Peeters, a first-year guy in goal. We had [Frank] Bathe, [Norm] Barnes and [Mike] Busniak, the three Bs. No one remembers these guys.
"That was the kind of team we had – John Paddock and Tom Gorence and Al Hill, guys that are still around the game but didn't have that standout career in terms of the NHL.
"What we had was a lot of enthusiasm. We were trying to learn every day. We had guys trying to prove they belonged in the National Hockey League.
"It was less hard than what's going on in Chicago right now, where there's a ton of expectation on them. Internally, they see themselves as a Stanley Cup contender. In Philadelphia, they were basically revamping the whole team and not thinking that big-picture thought of winning the Cup. Everybody says they start out doing that, but we all know you've got to walk before you can run and we had lots to prove – about who we were and what kind of team we could be."
Like the Flyers in 1979-80, the Blackhawks had to deal with their share of adversity along the way this season. They lost their starter in goal, Corey Crawford, for a time, but backup Ray Emery came in and played brilliantly (they are No.2 and No.5 in overall goals-against average). They lost Marian Hossa the other night, and then Patrick Sharp went down with an injury, and one way or another kept finding ways to win.
The most recent: On Wednesday night, with time running out in regulation, Daniel Carcillo scored his first goal of the season in the final minute to defeat the Colorado Avalanche.
"You watch a couple of games, I see young [Patrick] Kane score a couple of goals late, or Hossa," Quinn said. "We had the same thing happen to tie. MacLeish would put one in somehow. The night before we were going to tie the Montreal record, we were losing 1-0 with less than a minute to go and Behn Wilson somehow walks from one end of the rink to the other and puts it in the net to tie the game."
Once the Flyers got 15 or 16 games into the streak, Quinn said he could "see the change in the players. There was a self-belief that was coming on. Then you get to a stage where they think, they don't need me any more. You could see the work level start to drop off a little in practice. The attention to detail in the hockey game that you need to have to win was missing. You could almost see where it was going to end.
"After a while, it just goes on you. When we lost that last game to end the streak, we lost it big [7-1 to the Minnesota North Stars] – and we didn't recover for several more games.
"But good teams, they become good because they demand more of themselves. You see that in Chicago now, with their leadership, [Jonathan] Toews and guys like that. You see it dramatically in terms of their games and the fellowship is terrific in terms of the other players. They're not going to let anybody down."