Blackhawks in Playoff Push, but Face Challenges

The Chicago Blackhawks had our hopes soaring last Saturday night with a 3-2 shootout thriller after their bye week. It was just what we wanted to see. They started on time, they had energy throughout the entire game, and picked up where they left off (five wins in the last six games before the break) with a victory and two points in the standings.

We can’t say as much for the following two tilts versus the Minnesota Wild and the Boston Bruins. Against both teams they started flat and had trouble getting the puck on net. Yet against both teams they managed to fight their way back and earn a point in overtime. The inconsistencies continue, making one wonder which team is going to show up on any given night. Or even in any given period, for that matter.

Blackhawks’ Last Three Games

@ Arizona Coyotes, Sat. 2/1, Win 3-2 (SO)

@ Minnesota Wild, Tues. 2/4, Loss 3-2 (OT)

Vs. Boston Bruins, Wed. 2/5, Loss 2-1 (OT)

Well, Blackhawks’ hockey has never been for the faint of heart. Can this team make the playoffs? That’s the question of the hour. We’ll simply have to wait and see how it all plays out. In the meantime, here are five positives and five negatives to consider as the Blackhawks head into this crucial final stretch of the season.  

Positives for the Blackhawks

1. Balanced Forward Lines

It took a while to get to this point, but the Blackhawks are currently rolling four fairly deep and consistent lines. Dominik Kubalik has emerged as a dominant participant alongside Jonathan Toews on the top line. Drake Caggiula is the hard-working energy guy that completes the trio. This frees up Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad to make a formidable duo on the second line, with the rookie Kirby Dach now adding his contributions to the mix. Not a shabby top-six.

Dominik Kubalik Chicago Blackhawks
Dominik Kubalik has emerged as a valuable player on the top line for the Chicago Blackhawks. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, and David Kampf make up the third line. Yes DeBrincat, who scored 41 goals last season, is on the Blackhawks’ third line. It’s true he’s in a bit of a scoring slump this season with only 13 goals through 54 games. But when paired with his favorite buddy Strome, the two present a constant scoring threat. And while these two run rampant in the offensive zone, Kampf provides some balance on the defensive end. Finally, Zack Smith and Ryan Carpenter are the savvy veterans on the fourth line, supporting a talented but struggling Alex Nylander while he tries to find his way.

Related – Dominik Kubalik: The Blackhawks’ Dark Horse

Yes, there’s room for improvement. And expect things to change according to the ebbs and flows of the season, and the ups and downs of the players. But for the time being, head coach Jeremy Colliton has arguably done the best with what he has to work with and created four lines that work well together.  

2. Kirby Dach

Did anyone really expect him to be this good this soon? The Blackhawks’ 2019 third overall pick has shown flashes of his potential ever since the Blackhawks committed to him playing in the NHL in his rookie season. He scored his first goal in just his second game and earned his first assist in his third. He had a stretch in November where he tallied four goals and three assists in five games.

Then he went a bit dry offensively, but Coach Colliton raved about his skating ability, his strength on the puck, and his defensive responsibility. Even if the production wasn’t there, Dach was finding his comfort zone and gaining confidence.

Kirby Dach Chicago Blackhawks
Kirby Dach is thriving in his first season with the Chicago Blackhawks. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The 19-year-old has seemingly put it all together of late. In the last five games, he’s credited with a goal and five assists. He’s also created several prime chances for himself and others. As mentioned above, the youngster has been promoted to the second line between Saad an Kane, where’s he’s been given more ice time and responsibility. He looks every bit like he belongs.

It will be fun to watch Dach progress and contribute throughout the rest of the season and beyond. He’s already exceeded all expectations, and he’s just getting started.   

3. The Penalty Kill

There’s something about watching four guys go head-to-head against the best five guys on the other team and still come out ahead. And since these four guys are more defensively minded, they’re usually not your superstars. These are the underdogs, the warriors, and the guys that have no problem throwing their bodies in front of a flying puck to save a goal.

The Blackhawks’ penalty kill ranked dead last in the league last season. They’re currently sixth in the league with an 83% success rate. Kudos to the Blackhawks’ top penalty killers: Carpenter, Kampf, Toews, Duncan Keith, Connor Murphy and Olli Maatta. Keep up the good work.

Los Angeles Kings Kyle Clifford Chicago Blackhawks Connor Murphy
Jonathan Toews and Connor Murphy are both integral members of the penalty kill for the Chicago Blackhawks. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

And of course credit to the goaltender who is the last line of defense, especially in a short-handed situation. Which leads me to my next point.  

4. Goaltending

It’s a well-known fact the Blackhawks’ goaltenders have kept them in games night in and night out, always giving them a chance to win. The tandem of Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford is arguably one of the best in the league.

Lehner currently has a .923 save percentage, which is 12th in the league. Crawford has an overall .912 SV%, but he’s been trending in the right direction with a .943 SV% in his last four starts. And these two are doing this all while facing more shots than most of their counterparts.

Both netminders will be free agents after this season. Lehner is looking for a much-deserved contract worth big money. And Crawford has indicated he wants a starting role, which he hasn’t exactly been getting in Chicago. So only one of these netminders will likely be back next season. There’s even speculation one of them may be dealt at this year’s trade deadline on Feb. 24. But this rarely happens, so let’s hope that’s not the case.

Chicago Blackhawks Robin Lehner
Chicago Blackhawks’ goaltender Robin Lehner will be a free agent at the end of the 2019-20 season. (Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports)

Because if the Blackhawks are going to make a push for the playoffs, they will need Crow and Lehner to continue to be strong between the pipes.    

5. Road Luck

The Blackhawks have only three home games in the current month of February, one of which is already completed. In addition to their recent tilts against the Coyotes and the Wild, they have nine more games on the road this month, five of which are looming in the next nine days.

In most cases this would be seen as a disadvantage for a team that’s on the bubble of a wildcard spot. But the Blackhawks have fared better on the road this season than they have at home. Through 54 games, the Hawks are 12-12-4 at home, and 13-9-4 on the road.

Related – Blackhawks Hit All-Star Break Trending Up

They tend to keep things simple on the road, playing a more straight-forward game. Plus they don’t have the same kind of pressure or distractions they face in Chicago. Let’s hope the team can embrace this trend and pick up as many road wins as possible.  

Negatives for the Blackhawks

1. Lack of 60-Minute Effort

Part of the Blackhawks’ inconsistency is they have a hard time putting together a solid effort for an entire game. They’ve started strong and then petered out in the second frame. Lately, especially in the last two tilts, they’ve had trouble starting on time.

For the most part the Blackhawks get down to business in the third frame, which I guess can be considered a positive. But one period doesn’t win a hockey game. It takes three strong 20-minute efforts. So the focus should be to get off to a good start. Be the first to score and get the lead. Make it easier on yourself for the rest of the contest. Obvious and simple stuff, right? The harder part is executing it on a consistent basis.

2. The Power Play

With all the offensive firepower on the Blackhawks, it’s a head scratcher this isn’t a positive. But the team currently ranks 28th in the league on the man advantage, with a dismal 15.2% success rate. Last season the Blackhawks’ power play was extremely successful this time of year and was one of the main reasons they were in any sort of playoff contention. So, it’s nice to see them finding success in more of an overall way this season.

But boy, a boost on this side of special teams could go a long way towards helping them right now! Colliton hasn’t made many adjustments, and he’s indicated the chances are coming and they will eventually break through. But time is running out.

Chicago Blackhawks celebrate
The Chicago Blackhawks need to find more success on the power play. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Should the Blackhawks put Kubalik up on the top unit instead of Dach? Should they insert Saad into the mix? Give the second unit more than just 30-40 seconds instead of riding the first unit for most of the power play? Or should they start playing Kane through the entire two minutes again as he’s done in the past? Regardless, improvement in this department is badly needed.

3. Deficiencies on Defensive

Defensive depth, or lack thereof, has been an issue for the Blackhawks for what seems like forever. Even headed into the 2019-20 season, many questioned whether the additions of Calvin de Haan and Maatta would be enough. Then de Haan and Brent Seabrook departed with season-ending injuries in late December.

Since then, Colliton has managed to come up with some relatively solid pairings based on what he has available. Veteran Keith is an excellent mentor for the rookie Adam Boqvist. Good ole reliable Murphy balances out the opposite in Erik Gustafsson. And Slater Koekkoek has been a surprisingly good match with Maatta on the third pairing.

But it’s a precarious balance. One man down could potentially topple the whole deck of cards. Sure enough last Wednesday night Boqvist left the game after a hard hit, holding his right shoulder. The next man up is Nick Seeler, who was just picked up off waivers from the Wild this past Monday, Feb. 3. Seeler has only played six games this season with the Wild and doesn’t appear to have much upside. He was mainly acquired as the backup seventh defenseman for the Blackhawks so the organization could send Dennis Gilbert back down to the Rockford IceHogs for further development.

Adam Boqvist Chicago Blackhawks
Adam Boqvist recently hurt his shoulder, threatening an already thin blue line for the Chicago Blackhawks. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

It’s since been reported Boqvist will travel with the team on the upcoming road trip, which is a good sign. Perhaps the defensive pairings won’t need to be tested, or at least not for long. It’s certainly a reminder that a healthy roster is key moving forward.

4. Tough Schedule

Hopefully the Blackhawks enjoyed their recent three-day break, because it’s the last of its kind for the remainder of the season. From here on out, there’s a contest every two days or every other day, with five more back-to-back tilts in a whirlwind that will define February and March.

Of the 28 games remaining, only eight contests are against opponents with less points than the Blackhawks. Just three of those games (Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, LA Kings) could be considered easy wins. And let’s face it, the Blackhawks tend to play down to lesser competition, making “easy” wins anything but.  

Related – Best Blackhawks’ Draft Picks: 2010-Present

The Blackhawks will need to embrace the grind and remember there are no nights off.

5. Tightness of the Standings

The Blackhawks (58 pts) are merely four points out of the top wildcard spot, but they also have to leapfrog five teams to get there. Highly important divisional and conference games loom on the horizon.

Except for the Colorado Avalanche (thank goodness!) the Blackhawks meet every other division foe twice in the upcoming two months. The St. Louis Blues and the Dallas Stars sit much higher in the standings and will therefore be tough competition. The Blackhawks face the Winnipeg Jets twice in the next eight days, who are three points ahead of them. The Wild (currently tied) and the Hawks square off for two consecutive games in mid-March. These contests could prove very important. And the Nashville Predators are right in the mix as well, with 59 points.

Hockey Penalty Tripping
The Chicago Blackhawks face the division rival Winnipeg Jets two times in the next with days. (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports)

Looking at conference foes, upcoming matchups, and wins, against the Edmonton Oilers (64 pts) and the Calgary Flames (62 pts) could go a long way towards the Blackhawks moving up in the standings.

It’s not going to be easy. The Blackhawks certainly have their work cut out for them, but they also have a lot of things going for them. They need every game, every point they can get from here on out. And they could use some luck as other teams struggle with the same fight for a playoff berth.

Here’s to some meaningful hockey for Chicago!