Blackhawks not exactly tanking it

At 5-4-2 they aren’t leading the Connor Bedard sweepstakes

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The second-place Winnipeg Jets and third-place Chicago Blackhawks will battle on Saturday afternoon at Canada Life Centre, with both teams trying to get closer to the first-place Dallas Stars.

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The second-place Winnipeg Jets and third-place Chicago Blackhawks will battle on Saturday afternoon at Canada Life Centre, with both teams trying to get closer to the first-place Dallas Stars.

Wait, what?

Indeed, such is the current state of the Central Division, where up is down and what was expected to be when the season began has yet to come to fruition. The defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche should have been lapping the field by now, perhaps with the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues the closest teams in the rear-view mirror. Dallas and Winnipeg, at best, were viewed as bubble teams. And Chicago is supposed to be embracing a full-on tank job.

And yet, here we are, nearly a month into the NHL regular-season with a most unlikely top three leading the way.

MATT MARTON / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

With a record of 5-4-2 the Chicago Blackhawks are in third place in the Central Division.

“I know every division will tell you this, but it’s one of the toughest divisions without a doubt,” Jets coach Rick Bowness said Friday after practice.

“The narrative on Chicago all summer was ‘they’re gonna tank it, they’re gonna tank it. They’re going for Connor Bedard.’ Well, guess what: They’re not tanking it. Give their staff and that organization a lot of credit. Those guys are working incredibly hard. The coaches and the players. Listen, you’ve got a leader like Jonathan Toews, he’ll never tank in anything. He’s one of the best captains we’ve seen in decades. And you’ve got an elite player like Patrick Kane. You think those guys want to go away? Not a chance. They’ve won Cups for a reason.”

Winnipeg, at 4-0-1 in the last five and 6-3-1 overall, will try to keep the good times rolling as they host 5-4-2 Chicago. (2 p.m., TSN3). It’s the second of a three-game homestand, which began with Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win over Montreal and ends next Tuesday with a visit from Dallas.

“They’ve got great leadership, and give the whole team and the coaches a lot of credit. Because, man, they are one hard team to play against,” Bowness said of the Blackhawks, who are somehow finding a way despite their top two goaltenders (Petr Mrazek and Alex Stalock) and highest-paid defenceman (Seth Jones) all being injured.

“They work very, very hard. We talked to our team about it this morning. So don’t believe the narrative that you read all summer. You better start believing what you’re seeing in the standings. That this is a good hockey team.”

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets’ head coach Rick Bowness considers the Central Division to be among the toughest in the NHL this season.

Bowness said there may be a lineup change or two for the game, but wouldn’t tip his hand. Both Pierre-Luc Dubois and Mason Appleton missed practice on Friday after playing the night before. Forward Jansen Harkins and defenceman Kyle Capobianco were the two healthy scratches against the Habs and have yet to appear in a game with the Jets this season. Nikolaj Ehlers, Morgan Barron and Logan Stanley are all on injured reserve.

“They’re off to a great start,” Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey said of Chicago.

“I think from watching a few of their games, and the conversations amongst the team today, they’re a really hard working group. We’re going to see that (Saturday). They’re going to put a full 60 minutes of effort and not give us much. You can’t take any team lightly in this league. It just goes to show that people were counting them out in the off-season and they’re off to a heck of a start. We have to be ready to go.”

Toews, the 34-year-old Blackhawks captain from Winnipeg who is in the final year of his contract, is off to sensational start with a team-high seven goals (plus two assists) in 11 games. He had just 12 goals in 71 games last year. Kane leads the team in scoring with 10 points (two goals, eight assists).

“I don’t really know either of those guys, but obviously they’ve been all-stars for a long time. They know how to win Stanley Cups,” said Morrissey. “I’m sure all the talk about their team was probably a motivating factor for them. They’re fantastic players. They know how to win. It’s a team that up and down their line-up, through their back end, they’ve had solid goaltending. Their a hard-working group with some skill and some really talented players. We have to be ready to go.”

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets Josh Morrissey talks about the announcement by head coach Paul Maurice that he was resigning Friday morning. 211217 - Friday, December 17, 2021.

You can also file this one under the category of unexpected events: Morrissey currently leads the Jets in scoring, with nine points (all assists) in 10 games. That included helping set up Kyle Connor’s overtime winner against Montreal.

“I don’t want to jinx it, I guess. You play with good players, you’ll pick up some points,” Morrissey said of his strong offensive start.

Bowness said life moves fast in the NHL. Just look at the Blues, who rolled into Winnipeg less than two weeks ago with a perfect 3-0-0 record, and have now dropped six straight games in regulation. Suddenly, the sky is falling in St. Louis.

“There’s no easy games. You take your foot off the pedal and you’re going to be in trouble. And you’re creating a lot of your own problems. And then it’s awfully hard to get out of it,” said Bowness.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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