With a loss by the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night, the Chicago Blackhawks officially clinched the Central Division title for the third time in the last eight seasons. Previously, Chicago took the division in 2009-10 and 2012-13, going on to win the Stanley Cup both times. They also reached the 50-win mark for the second time in franchise history with a 3-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday.
The Blackhawks have set the stage to once again challenge for their ‘One Goal’: a fourth Stanley Cup title in this decade. There are three key components that will determine whether the ‘Hawks will make another playoff run or head to the golf course early.
Hot Play Down the Stretch
For most of the season, the Wild had a hold on the Central Division lead and it looked like there might be a shift in power. Minnesota has a talented, young roster that paved the way for lots of success in the first half. At one point, the Wild held a nine-point advantage over the Blackhawks and were dominating in head-to-head matchups. Chicago went 0-4-1 against Minnesota last season and the trend continued in a 3-2 win on Jan. 15.
This loss flipped the script on the Blackhawks season, as they have gone 23-7-2 ever since. The Wild also saw a change in fortune, only in the opposite direction. They have played .500 hockey since that game, but a dreadful month of March in which they compiled a 4-10-2 record allowed Chicago to surge ahead and not look back. The Blackhawks have also defeated the Wild three consecutive times since their encounter in January.
It is not only the Wild, as Chicago has beaten some of the best teams in the league during this run, proving they will not shy away against tough competition. They defeated the defending champion Penguins twice, including a 5-1 shellacking on Wednesday night. Additional wins against playoff teams including the likes of Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, and Nashville show that the Blackhawks are ready for whoever they may face in a given series.
Throughout this hot streak, the ‘Hawks have received contributions from all over the ice, not just the stars who have become household names. This sharing of the wealth will be another factor in determining how Chicago fares in the playoffs.
Production Across the Roster
When one thinks about the Blackhawks, the first names that usually come to mind are Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and for good reason. Kane took the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP last season and has continued to shine in 2016-17. He leads the team with 87 points (34 goals, 53 assists) and put up monster numbers in March, finishing with 10 goals and 12 assists in 16 games.
Toews’ numbers may not have the gaudiness of his teammate (20 goals, 37 assists), but he has turned it on at the right time. This uptick in offense since the All-Star break (11 goals, 18 assists) has coincided with the Blackhawks’ current run of success.
The young guns on the roster have also been showing off their skills, especially Nick Schmaltz (six goals, 21 assists) and Ryan Hartman (18 G, 12 A). What this pair lack in playoff experience, they make up for in raw talent and two-way ability. Artemi Panarin captured the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year last season and has experienced no sophomore slump. He currently sits second behind Kane for most points on the team (28 goals, 43 assists) and will be an important component of the offensive attack for the postseason.
On the defensive side, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have been the anchors on the past three Cup-winning squads. Keith earned the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman last season and is fourth on the team in points this year (six goals, 45 assists).
Seabrook has dipped in the goal-scoring department, down from 14 in 2015-16 to 3 this season, but continues to be a pest to opponents. Niklas Hjalmarsson leads the team with 177 shot blocks and has been integral in all three championships. These three will lead by example for the rest of the defense, playing in front of the third key(s) for a fourth championship.
Dual Threat Goalkeepers
For most NHL teams, having one capable goaltender on the roster can be a difficult task. The Blackhawks are fortunate enough to have two men who can be solid between the pipes in Scott Darling and Corey Crawford. Crawford is the usual starter, starting 53 games this season, and has been the goalie for the last two championship teams. He has posted a 32-17-3 record with a 2.51 GAA and .920 save percentage, as well as winning his 200th career game against Colorado in January. Early in the season, Crawford suffered acute appendicitis and was sidelined for a few weeks. Luckily for the Blackhawks, Scott Darling is one of the best backups in the league.
Darling made a fairly smooth transition to the starting role, winning six out of the 10 starts during Crawford’s absence. Overall, he has had great numbers in limited action all season. Darling has an 18-5-4 record in 31 appearances (26 starts) and a 2.32 GAA, which places him in the top 10 among qualifying goalkeepers. He also played strong during the 2015 playoffs, going 3-1 in four starts and posting a .936 save percentage. If Crawford begins to show signs of weakness, head coach Joel Quenneville can be confident in handing the reigns to Scott Darling.
Overall, this Blackhawks team has all the makings of another special one. They are playing their best at the right time and have one of the deepest rosters in the NHL. Their mix of seasoned veterans and hungry youngsters should be a recipe for success. If they can put it all together once again, the million-dollar question may return: Are the Blackhawks a dynasty?
Representing the great city of Chicago and contributing for the 6-time Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks.