In case you missed it, the Blackhawks lost again to the Avalanche on Wednesday night. The 3-2 defeat dropped the Hawks behind Colorado to third in the Central Division. It was their second regulation loss to the Avs in a span of nine days. The loss continues a disturbing trend of the Hawks’ difficulty with the marquee teams of the Central, namely the Avs and the St. Louis Blues. The Hawks combined record versus both teams this year: 1-4-3. With the NHL moving back to a divisional style playoff this Spring, the Blackhawks have great cause to worry about potential playoff matchups. The Central is now clearly the Blues to lose, and I don’t seem them letting it slip away at this point. A Blues’ division crown would position the Avalanche as the Hawks first round opponent, and if (and that’s a big if) they can get past the Avs, the Blues will almost certainly be lying in wait in the second round.
Regular Season Vs. Playoffs
So do regular season results foretell playoff results? In the Blackhawks’ case, the answer is a resounding yes. In the Joel Quenneville era, the Hawks have faced 13 different playoff opponents. In that time, they have only eliminated one team who they lost the regular season series to. That team was the 09-10 Flyers, who played one lone game against the Hawks that year (a 3-2 Flyers’ win in Philly). Of the three teams that have knocked the Hawks out of the playoffs over that span, both the 08-09 Red Wings and the 11-12 Coyotes got the better of the Hawks during the regular season (the 10-11 Canucks split the season series with the Hawks, 2-2).
Let’s say that you can throw out all of those numbers come playoff time. Let’s factor in the Hawks experience with two Cups in the last four years. Even then, with all of Chicago’s intangibles, with all of the leadership of Toews and Keith and Sharp, I still think it’s going to be a tall task to make it through the Central. If you’ve watched the games against the Avs and Blues this year, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The Blackhawks are a fast, skilled team, but the young Avs, despite their terrible penchant for lip-synching videos, have made the champs look flat-footed at times. Matt Duchene, fresh off the morale boost of his first Olympic gold, looks beyond dangerous, a threat to score every time he has the puck. Semyon Varlamov has clearly outplayed both Corey Crawford and Antti Raanta in all of the teams’ matchups (J.S. Giguere started for the Avs in the only Hawks win). The Hawks have looked slightly better versus the Blues this year with three one-goal losses (two of those in OT), but the Chicago/St. Louis matchup has always been a troubling one to me. The Blues just have too many big nasty guys who excel at shutting down skill players, and enough depth on offense that the Hawks really can’t key on any one player/line. Adding Ryan Miller to that mix obviously only makes them all the more formidable.
Heavy Lies the Crown
Outside of the pure matchup problems the Hawks face, there has also been a disquieting psychological shift taking place in the Central Division this year. The Cup champion always enters the following season with a target on their backs, and in the Hawks’ case that target looms largest for division rivals. If there were any teams that the Hawks needed to keep down this year, it was Blues and the Avs, but they have failed miserably in doing so. Success has bred confidence for the challengers to the throne: “We match up well against them. We’re all extremely motivated to play these guys,” Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog said before the teams played on Wednesday. Let’s face it, the Blues and Avs aren’t intimidated at all. They know they can win. The Hawks optimally should’ve spent this year playing big brother to these teams, holding their collective heads in the sand, reminding them who raised the cup last year, but it just hasn’t happened. Every time they’ve had the chance to show that kind of pride, they’ve disappointed. The last time they played the Blues, the Hawks gave up two-goal leads on three (!!!) separate occasions before bowing out in a shootout. On Wednesday night against the Avs, the Hawks looked like the more inexperienced team, taking unnecessary penalties in crunch time (Shaw) and letting in soft goals (Raanta). Next Wednesday’s game against the Blues will be another chance for the team to reassert itself, but at this point, my hopes aren’t high.
All of these struggles point to how hard it is to repeat as champions in any sport. It hasn’t been done in the NHL for 16 years since the 97-98 Red Wings of Yzerman, Fedorov, Shanahan and Lidstrom. Can the Hawks match the veteran intensity of those Wings teams? I’m not so sure. I think about great repeat champions from other sports; the almost pathological competitiveness of Jordan’s Bulls or the quiet, unshakable pride of the Jeter/Rivera Yankees, and I’m not sure the Hawks measure up there either. Staying on top takes an almost Daniel Plainview-esque commitment to making sure that your closest competitors do not succeed, and the Blackhawks, as evidenced by their failure to heed the challenge of the Blues and Avalanche this year, do not appear to possess that trait. I’m hoping that’s pre-playoff hysteria talking, but only the next few months will tell. There’s still plenty of time to show some championship pride. The Hawks can start by beating the Blues on Wednesday night.