The Chicago Blackhawks will put an undefeated record on the line when they take the ice against Columbus shortly after this post goes online. The Blackhawks are rolling at 14-0-3 and pulling away with the top spot in the Western Conference standings. Our question for the day is whether Chicago is winning in the kind of way that can signal a playoff run, or whether this team will just be a regular season wonder.
I’ll admit to being a skeptic about the Blackhawks, at least when it comes to playoff hockey. They have tremendous offensive talent, but some bad goaltending last year made them a postseason disappointment waiting to happen. Sure enough, they played Phoenix in the first round and were eliminated by a team that had only a shadow of the talent, but did have a top-caliber goaltender in Mike Smith. Teams that win by offense alone are made for the regular season, regardless of the sport.
The statistical data inside Chicago’s 17-game run of getting at least one point indicates something different this time. While the team is obviously doing everything well, it’s actually defense that’s slightly more responsible than offense for the success. Chicago ranks second in the NHL in goals allowed, with goalies Ray Emery and Corey Crawford splitting time and each playing at a high level. The defense in front of them has been above average, doing a good job at limiting exposure to high shot volumes.
Even more encouraging for Chicago fans is the improved power play. Last year’s special teams were terrible on both sides. This year the Blackhawks are in the top half of the league with the man advantage and they’ve been positively outstanding when it comes to killing opposing power plays. The combination of good defense, excellent goaltending and solid special teams work is enough to grind out wins even when the offense doesn’t run smoothly.
Now, about that offense. Chicago is very deep in skilled offensive skaters. It starts with center Jonathan Toews, who both scores and rings up assists. And this team goes to its right side so frequently that one might think they’re running in a Republican primary. The top three players on the right wing are all outstanding scorers. Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa could all be the main offensive weapon on a lot of teams. There’s depth underneath all of this, with the second, third and fourth-line centers all chipping in points, along with Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg on the left side. The defensemen are good passers, led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
The offensive success is nothing new, as Chicago has been in the top six of the NHL in goals scored each of the last four years. The defensive play is at its highest level since 2010—not coincidentally a year the Blackhawks hoisted the Stanley Cup. Furthermore, in addition to the solid power play work this season, Chicago is also posting its best results in 5-on-5 play in this four-year period, including the ’10 championship team.
What it adds up to is that I’m a little less skeptical of Chicago than when the season began. When you show the ability to kill power plays, limit shots and generate your own offense without reliance on the man advantage, you’ve got the formula for sustained success. I do wonder if the two-goalie system will work in the playoffs—doesn’t it always seem that postseason series are won by a single hot goalie that catches fire? But right now everything’s looking bright in the Windy City. And while it would be unreasonable to expect this scorching success to continue, or even to make winning the Cup as the barometer of success, this does look like a team built for its first extended run since winning it all in 2010.