The Chicago Blackhawks were two and a half minutes away from their first regulation loss on Sunday, which is, of course, crazy, considering that they were playing in their 22nd game of the season. Despite a strong game from Hawks goalie Corey Crawford, the Red Wings had taken a 1-0 lead earlier in the third period and were closing in on the victory when Detroit's Jonathan Ericsson flipped the puck over the glass from the defensive zone, earning himself a minor penalty for delay of game.
But the Blackhawks have so regularly found a way to win games (or at least earn points) over the first half of the abbreviated 2013 season that what happened next seemed almost inevitable: Less than 30 seconds into the power play, Kyle Quincey of Detroit blocked a shot between the circles, but took too long in his attempt to clear the puck out of the Red Wings zone. Viktor Stalberg, who'd parked himself at the top of the crease to serve as a screen, made a nifty play to steal the puck from Quincey and feed Patrick Kane, who buried a shot behind Jimmy Howard to tie the game at one -- a score that would hold up for the final 2:02 of regulation, earning Chicago at least a point, and keeping alive the Blackhawks' NHL-record streak of 22 consecutive games with a point to open a season. For good measure, the Hawks would earn a second point as well, winning the shootout that followed a scoreless five-minute overtime, with a Kane goal providing the difference. The details change from night to night, but the outcomes -- give or take the occasional shootout loss -- don't.
That the Chicago Blackhawks have now played 22 games to start the season without losing one in regulation is remarkable enough. But that they could do it under the strange circumstances of the 2013 season seems almost impossible. They've played the most consistently excellent hockey at the start of the season of any team in history, and they've done it while playing a condensed schedule that requires teams to take the ice roughly every other night. And while the Blackhawks didn't face much roster turnover from last season, they still had to integrate a couple of new players despite a training camp that officially lasted less than a week. The Blackhawks also faced other unique challenges: They played 10 of their first 12 games on the road, including a stretch where they played six in a row away from the United Center. They've also already played five of their NHL-high 12 back-to-backs.
And so this is the last season in which you'd expect a team -- any team -- to set a new standard for consistency. It's an achievement to go a week without a regulation loss in the NHL this season; to go six weeks -- and to do so with a target on your back as teams try to end the streak -- is downright historic. (We're also compelled to note that Chicago's streak isn't some sort of loser's point bonanza: They've won 19 of their 22 games outright, and their three losses all came in shootouts. In other words, they'd have a point in all 22 games even under the old rules in which ties still existed and overtime losses counted the same as regulation losses.)
This streak has been no fluke, though they've been lucky to avoid the kind of poorly timed freak bounces, accidental deflections, or missed calls that can cost an NHL team a game in regulation on occasion. A combination of top-end talent and depth has allowed them to march on during the particularly cruel grind of the 2013 campaign, and perhaps most importantly, they've gotten stellar goaltending from both Crawford and Ray Emery, allowing both to remain fresh during this sprint of a season. They've gotten a dollop of good fortune in the early going, most notably when Marian Hossa -- less than a year removed from the Raffi Torres incident in last year's playoffs -- avoided serious injury after a hit from Vancouver's Jannik Hansen that forced him to leave a game. (He was in the lineup for Chicago's next contest.) And, of course, it hasn't hurt that Patrick Kane is playing like an MVP.
Much has been made about how the Hawks appear to have returned to an elite level after shedding parts of their 2010 title team. It's a fair point, though what happened in Chicago was hardly Jeffrey Loria-esque: Because of salary cap issues, Chicago lost some of the depth that contributed to their Cup win, but did so while keeping its brightest stars: Kane, Hossa and Jonathan Toews. The Hawks haven't been a total disaster since that 2010 season -- they made the playoffs in each of the last two years, losing both times in the first round -- but they weren't exactly a sexy Stanley Cup pick entering the season. Meanwhile, their offseason moves weren't particularly splashy, with GM Stan Bowman focusing on the blue line with the low-profile signings of Sheldon Brookbank and Michal Rozsival.
But the team Bowman has assembled has been scary good this season. Of course, Stanley Cups are won in May and June, not February and March. And so even as the Blackhawks have demonstrated that they're the NHL's team to beat, all they've really done -- all any team can do in the first half of the season -- is set themselves up for a good seed, and give themselves a margin for error that most teams won't enjoy. A couple of bad weeks can sink a team this year, but now if the Blackhawks go through something like that, they've built up a bit of a cushion.
At the start of this NHL season, I worried that this season would be characterized by sloppy play and fatigued players, and certainly we've seen some of that around the league. And as someone who believes that the game itself -- the product on the ice -- is one of the league's most attractive selling points, it would be a nightmare for that to be the story of the 2013 season. But as we near the season's mid-point, it's the Blackhawks that have emerged as the season's biggest story, and for all the right reasons.
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Joe DeLessio is a senior producer at New York Magazine's website, nymag.com.