By Adam Hess
As the NHL regular season winds down, the Chicago Blackhawks find themselves in another rough patch. In many ways, it feels like a repeat of last month, with the Blackhawks losing games that fans feel they should win and many fans subsequently reaching for a panic button.
This time, there is perhaps a bit more reason for concern. The Hawks have lost three straight games to three teams that they could very well end up facing in each of the first three rounds of playoffs: St. Louis, Dallas, and Los Angeles. Ironically, as the standings sit, that would be the order in which the Hawks would oppose those teams, assuming they were to each win their series.
More than just the recent losses, though, there are several statistics that could raise concern about just how realistic the Blackhawks chances are when it comes to contending in the postseason.
The most glaring area of concern is that of the penalty kill. In the last six seasons, the Blackhawks have ranked in the top ten in penalty kill three times, and outside of the top ten three times. Guess which three years they won the Stanley Cup? A box of Mars bars for you if you guessed the former.
The three seasons in which the Blackhawks fell short of Cup glory – 2011, 2012, and 2014 – Chicago’s penalty kill ranked 25th, 29th and 14th in the NHL, respectively. Their rank this season: 25th, with a 78.5 percent kill rate. If the trend is your friend, this one is that friend you don’t like to have around too much.
There could be a number of reasons that the PK has struggled this season. One such explanation could be the fact that Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa, two of the team’s best penalty killers, have missed significant time recently. Kruger has been out since before the new year, but Hossa’s injury was much more recent.
The Hawks PK was tied for ninth in the NHL on Feb. 9. Hossa went down to injury on Feb. 13. While the loss of that one player seemingly should not impact them to the tune of dropping 16 spots, that is certainly a possibility.
Another possibility is that Corey Crawford had been carrying the team’s PK with his stellar play when down a man, and now that he’s leveling off a bit the PK is being exposed.
The Hawks do allow the most shots on goal per 60 minutes of PK time, but that is mostly by design – Crawford likes the sightlines, so the Hawks don’t try to block as many shots – so one can’t consider that to be of too much concern.
However, while the penalty kill is a legitimate concern for this team, there is still reason to believe that they can right the ship. It took them just 13 games to go from the ninth to the 25th best PK in the NHL. They still have 11 games left, so perhaps the PK will get hot and they’ll climb back up the rankings. Hossa’s already returned and Kruger will soon; their presence will certainly help things.
“You want to turn this around as soon as possible, but I don’t think it’s panic or anything like that,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk told the Sun-Times. “We know what we’re capable of, and we need to get back to playing that way.”
So no, even with the PK issues the players feel there’s still no reason to panic. As has been said over and over again, this team is built for the playoffs. Their spot in the postseason is all but locked up at this point, so perhaps they’ve shifted into a bit more of a cruise mode as the season winds down.
This team has the playoffs in mind, and they know how to win once they get there. They still match up well, if not favorably, against all of the other Western Conference contenders. So if you have a small knot in your stomach right now, you won’t find condemnation nor confirmation here.
But these Blackhawks have more than earned the benefit of the doubt, and until they’re on the wrong side of a handshake line this spring, they’re still a threat to bring Lord Stanley’s Cup back home.