With just three weeks left to play in the regular season, the Chicago Blackhawks have climbed back into the race in the Central Division and will have a realistic shot at home-ice-advantage in the first round.
This seemed impossible just a few weeks ago after the Blackhawks slept through January and skidded through February, but the unreal goaltending by Corey Crawford and a nosedive from Nashville have opened the door for Chicago.
Here’s five key story-lines to watch for as the Blackhawks sprint towards the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
To Catch the Predators
A month ago the Predators were still the toast of the NHL, sitting pretty atop the league in an unlikely position, forcing the rest of the NHL to just deal with it.
Oh, how things change. The Blackhawks are sitting just five points back of the Preds with three games in hand on Nashville and own the season series between the pair, taking three out of four from Nashville with no games remaining.
Nashville is 2-8-0 in its past 10 games and netminder Pekka Rinne, who looked like he was locked into a collision course for the Vezina Trophy, hasn’t had much help lately, giving up 27 goals and going 2-7-1 in his last 10.
The ongoing discussion surrounding Patrick Sharp has been one focused on off-ice matters lately, with rumors swirling that his nighttime activities are hurting the team.
Nothing Sharp could say to his detractors could be better than his play on Saturday in San Jose, in which the forward scored twice to help the Blackhawks to a 6-2 win.
Sharp was held goalless throughout February and has been having an extremely down season, with just 12 goals in 54 games after posting 30+ in each of his last full three seasons. The Blackhawks will certainly be hopeful that this catapults Sharp and the offense, which has struggled since the loss of Patrick Kane three weeks ago in Boston.
Singing the Blues
Winners of four of their last five, the Blues have taken control of the Central Division with help from Nashville’s freefall.
St. Louis will compete for the President’s Trophy but will need to fend off the Preds and the Blackhawks, who have two more games with their blue-clad rivals down the stretch.
The Blackhawks have won two of three from the Blues this year and will hope to continue the winning ways on April 5 and 9, when the teams meet in a potential first-round preview.
Blackhawks color analyst Eddie Olczyk mentioned on air a week or two ago that he believed Corey Crawford is having his best season for the Hawks, and he may be right.
While Patrick Kane’s injury put a damper on the Hart Trophy talk, the Blackhawks may be in-line to pick up some hardware still this season, and they’ll have Crawford to thank if it happens.
The tandem of Crawford, Antti Raanta and Scott Darling between the pipes have backstopped the Hawks to 157 goals against this season, best in the Western Conference and second only to Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens, who’ve given up 153.
The New York Rangers make it a three team race for the William M. Jennings Trophy with 158 goals given up thanks to the prolific play of Cam Talbot, who bested Crawford in a 1-0 duel on March 8.
But Crawford has been on fire lately, giving up just eight goals in his last six starts. He’s put the Blackhawks back on track in an up-and-down season and should earn an outside chance at the Vezina Trophy as well.
In lieu of Kane, someone has to take the reigns on offense for the Blackhawks, and that someone projects to be Jonathan Toews.
Toews has five points in as many games to start March and the Blackhawks will look to his leadership and scoring ability to carry the team down the stretch.
Certainly Toews has a surfeit of experience in that department and will need to draw on that with tough games against the Islanders, Rangers, Wild and Blues on the list to close out the season.