CHICAGO | The Blackhawks have to look hard for problems.
Sure, their penalty-kill is close to bringing up the rear in the NHL. OK, an aggravation.
Captain Jonathan Toews went into Monday night’s game against the New Jersey Devils not having dented the net since Dec. 11, six games previously.
And that’s about it. When Patrick Sharp steps on the gas to try to close the gap with Patrick Kane for goals leadership, the stress level is reduced.
The latest example was the Hawks’ 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils Monday night to send the Stanley Cup champs, far out in front in the league with 145 goals, off to an enjoyable three-day Christmas break.
Sharp reached the halfway mark to his 2007-08 career high of 36 goals with two scores via a first-period semi-knuckleball and third-period breakaway against Devils goalie Cory Schneider. He barely missed a hat trick, hitting the left post in the closing seconds as Schneider was drawn out of the goal.
Sharp is four goals behind Kane for team leadership. His tallies were sandwiched around Kane’s extension of his points streak to 12 games in a row – second such streak this season -- with his 22nd goal midway through the second period.
“I think you see them, but you don’t really think too much about them, to be honest with you,” Kane said of his gaudy numbers. “Sometimes you catch some breaks and different things like that.
“I think my main focus is whatever happens in the game before, whether it’s good or bad, just to wipe it clean and come in with a new mindset every game.”
Almost lost in the latest scoring spree was a stifling defensive effort that limited the Devils to a Hawks season-low 12 shots on goal allowed.
To Sharp, such stifling defense immediately translates into the Hawks’ scoring splurges, including his own.
“It starts with defense, though, making good plays in the ‘D’ zone,” he said. “We’ve had great forwards for awhile that want the puck and want to score goals. But the better we play defensively, that’s when those things are going to happen.”
At the center of the near-total shutdown of the Devils’ scorers was defenseman Duncan Keith.
“That was the way we wanted to play tonight. I think that showed in the (number of) shots.”
Another wannabe big scorer got in on the action after a long absence.
Third-liner Brian Bickell, recently returned from an apparent knee injury, tallied his sixth goal in the second period and first since prior to his disablement Nov. 10.
The scoring momentum has filtered down to the third line. Winger Brandon Saad has 12 goals and 28 points. Center Andrew Shaw has 10 goals and 20 points.
Going into the NHL’s three-day Christmas break after the Devils game, the Hawks enjoyed their lightest schedule of the season with just two games, both at home, in nine days.
“We want to leave it all out there,” Sharp said. “We got a number of days off before and after the game, so there should be no excuse for our team playing with high energy and intensity. With those days off, you want to make sure you have a good thought in your mind about how you played the last game.”
The near-vacation will end with a thud. The Hawks will come out of their holiday with five games in eight days through Jan. 3.