It’s no secret that the Chicago Blackhawks have experienced a fall from grace in recent seasons. As such, some supporters may now be a bit reluctant when it comes to the time they’re willing to spend witnessing their team avoid success. Although the club’s recent roster activity suggests a potential turning of their fortunes sooner rather than later, whether they’ve done enough to push past a rebuild is yet to be seen.
Regaining any level of buy-in from a more casual viewer will be a hurdle for the organization to overcome. In the meantime, even the Blackhawks’ most loyal fans might be left contemplating which contests are worthy of their undivided attention.
As onlookers await what comes next for this franchise, there are matchups that will mean a little more than the rest next season for a variety of reasons. If you’re going to limit the number of dates you circle on Chicago’s 2021-22 calendar, these are the 10 you should start with.
Oct. 13 @ Colorado Avalanche
Opening night matters. It’s as fresh of a start as any team will experience, with a 32-way tie for top spot prior to that first final whistle. Although we can expect some to rise while others fall, the reality is that they’re on an equal playing field before that begins. Even though the Colorado Avalanche is a 2022 Stanley Cup favourite, the Blackhawks enter this contest with an opportunity to improve the odds in their own right.
A single win or loss may seem to hold little significance since 81 games will follow, but it’s those moments that separate the classes of competition. Having to kickoff 2021-22 against one of the league’s best is no small hill to climb. Yet, if Chicago can successfully do so, it will set the tone for what could then become a more successful story than last season’s.
Oct. 30 @ St. Louis Blues
After being forced to avoid each other throughout 2020-21 as a result of the divisional re-alignment, it’s safe to say that both the Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues are looking forward to this reunion. Each known to be among the other’s biggest rivals, that year-long separation likely only fuelled their collective hatred.
St. Louis is hoping to find its way back to form following two consecutive First Round exists. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks have only made it into the postseason once throughout the past four campaigns. Neither wants to be considered worse than the other at the best of times, let alone throughout their struggles, so it’ll give both added motive to step up when they finally meet again.
Nov. 7 vs. Nashville Predators
Following a sluggish start to 2020-21, the Blackhawks began to enjoy some unexpected streaks of success. Impressive rookie debuts and impactful veteran leadership combined to land the Blackhawks right within the playoff picture. Unfortunately, that final spot in the Central Division was eventually taken over by one of their more recent enemies — the Nashville Predators.
The fact that the Blackhawks were only able to muster up a 1-5-2 record against the Predators last season isn’t something either side will have forgotten by the time they face-off for the first time in 2021-22. Nashville will want to continue owning that edge, while Chicago needs to sharpen theirs. For the Blackhawks to achieve any sense of year-over-year progress, dominating the Predators from puck drop is essential.
Nov. 17 @ Seattle Kraken
Facing off against an expansion franchise should always be considered a must-win. They are far less established than their competition and have to prove they belong among those who laid the groundwork to make their reality possible. Obviously, the Vegas Golden Knights didn’t get that memo. As was evidenced by their season sweep of the Blackhawks in 2017-18.
A newcomer narrative that Chicago hasn’t had yet a chance to re-write and even more reason why they need their first encounter with the Seattle Kraken to be a successful one. These are also important points they can’t afford to miss out on. Besides, it’s one thing to welcome the new kids to town, but it’s still necessary to show them who runs it.
Jan. 8 @ Vegas Golden Knights
It’s not just that the Golden Knights are now among the annual shortlist of Cup favourites, thereby making them that much more important of an opponent to stack up against during any season. The more prevalent storyline in this one will be centred around future Hall of Fame goaltender, Marc-André Fleury. Now a Blackhawk, his former teams failed to provide the type of respect he’s earned, despite consistently being one of the league’s best for nearly two decades.
Whether it was the Pittsburgh Penguins leaving him exposed in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft or the Golden Knights gambling with his playing time ever since, Fleury has deserved far better. After what seemed like a messy transaction, which worked in Chicago’s favour, he’ll have a chance to make Vegas regret backing Robin Lehner instead.
Jan. 11 @ Columbus Blue Jackets
Seth Jones was one of the most coveted players on the trade block this past offseason, until the Blackhawks found a way to orchestrate a deal and acquire his talents. Although it was no secret that Jones was looking for a way out of the Columbus Blue Jackets organization, their ego wasn’t spared as a result of the transparency.
As such, it’s fair to predict that the Blue Jackets will focus on making Jones’ first visit back to Columbus one that has him question leaving. Jones will have to channel any aggressive energy thrown towards him into a performance that proves he landed in the right spot. Being their 41st match of 2021-22, it will also be an important mid-season mark in terms of evaluating Chicago’s efforts to that point.
Feb. 2 vs. Minnesota Wild
It’s always ideal to win the last game before an extended break. Especially since the standings will have started to solidify by that point. Before the best of the best head to the 2022 Winter Olympics, the Blackhawks need to ensure they’ve done enough to leave things in a place worth picking up from upon their return.
What’s more, Chicago will be playing host to a Minnesota Wild team looking to do the same, as each hopes to find their way back into the winning column more than they have been of late. It’s projected that these two clubs could be battling for that fourth and final playoff spot out of the Central and one single contest between them could turn out to be the difference.
March 3 vs. Edmonton Oilers
While this will be the third and final contest between the Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers on tap for their 2021-22 schedule, it’s the first time they’ll meet in Chicago since Duncan Keith’s departure. Even if the initial reactions from seeing Keith in different colours have faded by then, welcoming him back to the United Center is sure to stir up some emotions.
With that in mind, let’s not forget that Keith is as dedicated to his defensive duties as one can be and he will not back down from battling to secure this victory. Simultaneously, the Blackhawks will have to focus on stopping Connor McDavid from embarrassing them at the other end of the ice. Winning is one thing, but bettering the game’s best is what separates the good from the great in this league.
March 6 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
March 2020 was the beginning of the end for the 2020-21 Blackhawks. They saw their playoff hopes vanish at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who beat them four out of five attempts within a 17-day span. Par for the course, given Chicago’s lacklustre points percentage of only .188 against Tampa Bay last season.
Although the upcoming schedule can’t be compared to the unique structure set for last year, it goes without saying that the Blackhawks will look to avoid derailing their entire campaign in the same way. Plus, finding success against the back-to-back Stanley Cup winners would be a true indication that Chicago is navigating in a much better direction.
April 29 @ Buffalo Sabres
Whenever Patrick Kane lines up against his hometown Buffalo Sabres, the advantage tends to tip in Chicago’s favour. To date, he has accumulated 24 points through 18 games against the Sabres. It’s safe to say Kane will be looking forward to this one, as it’s the only time Chicago will visit Buffalo in 2021-22. He’ll want to maintain the lasting impression he’s already established, while the Blackhawks will need to rely on his impact.
Ending the season successfully is equally as important as ensuring a solid start. Especially for a franchise that has set itself up to anticipate far greater results. What’s more, the parity throughout the NHL often means that playoff spots might still need securing right up until the conclusion of any respective schedule. Even that last game could matter for a Blackhawks team that might be on the cusp heading into it.
Blackhawks Plan for Season of Success
Within less than a year, Chicago pivoted from proclaiming its rebuild to retooling in a way that communicates a readiness to contend. What once seemed like a situation conducive to allowing their prospects time to blossom, quickly turned into a scenario that suggests winning at any cost is the ultimate goal.
Ultimately, the Blackhawks’ on-ice outcomes will dictate the level of success they’re able to reach with this newly formed plan. While Chicago’s results will narrate the conclusion to their 2021-22 campaign, these are the 10 games that will prove to have mattered most along the way.
Freelance thinker, paying too much attention to digital aesthetic. Oxford comma enthusiast. Spider-Man supporter. Sports fan, with two favourite hockey teams. If the Blackhawks and Maple Leafs ever meet in the Stanley Cup Final, you can find me wherever they’re playing that night.
Find more of my work at mralwayswrite.com.