Why the Blackhawks won their 2023-24 season opener

PITTSBURGH — You’re going to read a ton about Connor Bedard after the Chicago Blackhawks’ season-opening win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

As you should. The hype is real. His five shots on goal (and 11 attempts) weren’t a fluke, but him not scoring on any of them felt like it.

How the Blackhawks defeated the Penguins 4-2 goes well beyond Bedard, though. Here are six reasons why the Blackhawks won the season opener.

Mrazek in net and the Blackhawks giving up 40 or more shots on goal was not a good combination last season … unless it was against the Penguins. He stopped 38 of 40 shots against the Penguins in a win April 11. That was his last start of the season. And now in his first start of this season, he posted the same exact numbers, again denying all but two of the Penguins’ 40 shots.

When asked about his brilliance against the Penguins after the win, Mrazek replied, “Don’t say it twice, you know.”

Mrazek’s biggest save arguably came just after allowing the game’s first goal. Just seconds after Bryan Rust beat him, Mrazek had Sidney Crosby coming down on him on a breakaway.

“He was coming with full speed,” Mrazek said. “I was trying to be patient in what he was going to do. He went on his backhand, and I thought he was going to go five-hole because that’s sometimes what he does. I just stayed patient and stayed big in there and was challenging at him.”

2. Depth scoring

One of the Blackhawks’ biggest issues last season was depth scoring. They got decent production from their top players, but the numbers fell off quickly.

One game doesn’t mean things are going to be different this season, but it is worth noting Cole Guttman, the fourth-line center, and Jason Dickinson, the third-line center, provided the game-tying and game-winning goals. The Blackhawks feel like a deeper team this season. We’ll see if that plays out as the season goes on.

Luke Richardson leaned on his first and second lines more than the others in the opener, but he was rolling all four lines pretty consistently. Dickinson thought that made a huge difference.

“It helps when you can play everybody even-ish minutes,” Dickinson said. “Obviously, some guys are gonna get more depending on special teams that happened. But if you can get guys rolling on a consistent basis, you’re gonna get a good flow of the game, you’re gonna get everybody engaged, you’re gonna get these times where you get a little bit extra rest where Connor can go out there and he can fly. Athanasiou can go out there and he’s got a full head of steam. He’s not resting while he’s on the ice. So it definitely helps to have a deep bench.”

Richardson has a lot of faith in the Nick Foligno-Dickinson-Corey Perry line, too. It’s the only line that has three veterans, and it’s the one he’ll likely turn to when the Blackhawks need to secure a win. Richardson mentioned Dickinson blocking a number of shots late in the third period. That line also was superb analytically (see below).

3. Defensemen got involved in the offense

The Blackhawks’ first two goals were largely created by defensemen.

On the first one, Alex Vlasic read off Bedard perfectly. With Bedard coming high with the puck, Vlasic skates below him, putting two Penguins out of position. Vlasic received a pass from Bedard and found himself with an open path to the net. Vlasic’s shot created a rebound for Ryan Donato to finish.

On the second goal, Seth Jones carried the puck low below the Penguins’ goal line. His defender and then another began to collapse on him. Guttman positioned himself in a pocket of space in the right circle, waited for Jones to find him and buried the shot.

4. The Blackhawks didn’t cave

The Blackhawks could have easily collapsed when they went down 2-0 to the Penguins in the second period. You just never know how a young team is going to respond to that situation. But to the Blackhawks’ credit, they fought back. The Donato goal seemed to give them some life.

5. The Blackhawks hung with the Penguins all night

The opener was certainly a high-event affair. There were 144 shot attempts and 76 shots on goal. You expect that from the Penguins, but you got a glimpse of the new-look Blackhawks as they were puck-for-puck with the Penguins.

In five-on-five play, the Blackhawks were arguably the better team, too. The Blackhawks finished with a 53.55 expected goals percentage, according to Natural Stat Trick. The Blackhawks only had a higher percentage in 15 games all of last season. They finished with 27 scoring chances to the Penguins’ 21 on the night.

6. The top line was the top line

If the Blackhawks are going to succeed this season, Taylor Hall, Connor Bedard and Ryan Donato have to probably lead the way. In the opener, they did.

That line had a 61.62 expected goals percentage. With that trio on the ice, the Blackhawks had a 14-12 advantage in shot attempts, 9-5 in shots on goal and 9-5 in scoring chances.

7. They’re sticking to the development plan

This season has to be about the Blackhawks’ younger players getting NHL experience and getting better. Richardson seems to fully understand that.

How he’s playing his three rookie defensemen is a fine example of that. He played Vlasic 20:32, Korchinski 19:19 and Wyatt Kaiser 15:06.

“I thought Vlasic played excellent tonight and even at the end, he’s just so big and strong in the corner, he just gobbled up guys and the puck in their feet,” Richardson said. “Then Seth called for a little kick back and we kicked it out to the weak side and it led to the goal at the other end, the Guttman, goal. Seth made a great pass at the end but it all started in the one end.

“And I think Kaiser was skating, moving the puck well. Korchinski again, looks like he can fly all over the ice the whole game. I’m very comfortable with them. Sure, there are going to be nights when things go wrong, but they go wrong for guys who are in the league for 15 and 18 years. I’m sure Pittsburgh’s not happy right now. we have to be happy with the guys, you have to love your players and just work with them and help them grow.”

8. The Blackhawks can be better and they know it

There are definitely areas the Blackhawks will want to clean up going forward. They won just 19-of-59 faceoffs. They couldn’t convert on any of their four power plays, though they had some quality looks. As much as they created, they also allowed the Penguins a lot of chances.

“In this league, it’s hard to win and hard to score and you have to bear down when you get those chances,” Richardson said. “But it’s early in the season and guys are still kicking off some of the rust and hopefully we can score a few more goals.”

Despite that, the Blackhawks won their opener. They have to feel good about that … and Bedard, of course.

(Photo of Petr Mrazek and Connor Bedard: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

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