Blackhawks heating up in the new year

By Adam Hess

With the Florida Panthers’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night, the Chicago Blackhawks remain the only NHL team without a loss in the new year. The Blackhawks have won seven straight games, four of which since the calendar rolled over to 2016.

This recent stretch of strong play from the reigning Stanley Cup Champions now has them poised just four points behind the Dallas Stars in the Central Division. Being in this position at this point in the season is something that seemed unlikely not too long ago.

In mid-November, when the season was just reaching its one-month point, the Blackhawks found themselves in fifth place in the Central. The teams in front of them were playing very well, and they were struggling in ways that were cause for legitimate concern among fans.

I personally found myself seriously doubting the Blackhawks in some ways I didn’t expect I ever would this season. Not just doubting their ability to repeat at Stanley Cup Champions, but also in some ways doubting if they would even make the playoffs at all.

The position they were in, the way they were playing, and the strength of the teams above them in the Central Division were all reason to doubt. Duncan Keith was hurt, Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews weren’t producing, and the Blackhawks were essentially a one-line team.

Some of these issues have been somewhat persistent. As I wrote last week, Hossa and Toews have been struggling to perform due to low shooting percentages, but there is reason to believe that a regression is coming for them. The Blackhawks still rely heavily on Artemi Panarin, Patrick Kane, and Artem Anisimov to do their scoring, but their depth has been playing much better as well.

The biggest reason for the Blackhawks success has been the stellar play of Corey Crawford, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Crawford is rising to stardom at the perfect time for the Blackhawks. He is third among NHL goalies in wins, ninth in save percentage, and first in shutouts. Without his incredible success, the Blackhawks would undoubtedly be in a much more precarious position.

While there are still flaws in the Blackhawks’ game, they have been able to find ways to play well in spite of them. As they continue to progress and figure out how to cover up their issues, they will continue to close the gap on Dallas.

And in reality, they don’t even have to overcome the Stars in the Division in order to put themselves in a position to win the Stanley Cup. If they simply make the playoffs, they have a shot.

To top off all the good feelings, head coach Joel Quenneville was given a three-year extention through the 2019-20 season on Tuesday.

“Well, your wildest dreams you wouldn’t have expected what happened happened,’’ Quenneville said. “But even an optimistic point of view was that there was an exciting young team that had a bright future. Things developed in a great way right off the bat.’’

“We’ve got a great situation going here,’’ general manager Stan Bowman said. “Fortunate to have Joel on board, and he’s been a huge part of what we’ve accomplished as a group. There’s no one more you want behind the bench than Joel.’’

As good as some of the other teams in the NHL have been this year, it’d be foolish to count the Blackhawks out yet.

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