The Chicago Blackhawks have positioned themselves nicely for another deep run into the NHL playoffs at the season’s annual All-Star break.
The mood shifted drastically following their final two games before the break, a 6-1 shellacking of the lowly Phoenix Coyotes and a shootout win against the talented Pittsburgh Penguins. Prior to those two games, the Hawks had lost five of 2015’s first eight games including three losses at home. This was a very uncharacteristic slump for a team that looks like an All-Star team itself at times.
On the surface, being one of the most talented teams in the league sounds great. But sometimes, for teams like Chicago, having a loaded roster brings inconsistent, lazy play in the middle “dog days” of a season. That was the case in the few weeks heading into the All-Star break. That is why the two wins, in back-to-back nights, proved to be so vital for this veteran team.
The Blackhawks are sitting at 30-15-2 with the third most points in the Western Conference. For the most part, their stars throughout the first half of the season have carried them. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews both have more than 40 points and Kane is on pace for a career high in goals. The two will be joined by goalie Corey Crawford and defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook at the All-Star game in Columbus, OH. The team’s six All-Stars are the most in the NHL.
For the rest of the Blackhawks, the All-Star break will be used for some much-needed rest.
Despite their stellar position in the standings, there have been a few trends developing that could be a cause for concern in the second half.
Regaining and maintaining health is atop that list. Forward Kris Versteeg and young defenseman Trevor Van Riemsdyk have both missed significant time and continue to rehab. Though just role players, these two provide the depth that make the Blackhawks run effectively and efficiently, especially in the final stretch of an 82-game season.
Another cause for concern comes with Van Riemsdyk’s fellow defensemen. Head coach Joel Quenneville shuffled his defensive pairings in the two wins heading into the break, but at some point, he will want to put Keith and Seabrook back together. This can only be done if the play of struggling Swede Johnny Oduya can regain the form he showed in the 2013-14 season.
While the Blackhawks remain one of the NHL’s best defenses statistically, giving up just 2.28 goals per game (second in NHL), they’ve been allowing cross-ice passes and crisp, fast puck movement from opponents, which has allowed for quality shot attempts at Crawford and backups Antti Raanta and Kevin Darling. Though frustrating, this is a bit more acceptable in January, just prior to the All-Star break. If it continues when they resume their season, it will be a real problem. With just 32 games left until the postseason, it is time to start preparing for the grind-it-out style that is prevalent in the NHL playoffs.
That goes for the offensive side of the puck as well. Chicago has ten players with at least seven goals on the season, paced by Kane’s 22 and Brandon Saad’s 15. The team is third in goals per game with 3.02. As the playoffs approach though, it will become more vital that they continue to get a presence in front of the net and stop over-passing. These ultra-skilled players are selfless, which is a good thing, but sometimes, shots just need to get put on net; this is especially true in the playoffs.
The Blackhawks are on a six-game road trip coming out of the break including games against Western Conference rivals Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, Winnepeg and St. Louis. It may still be January, but this stretch will be a nice gauge for the Hawks.
No matter the outcome of the road trip or any other games in January or early February, Chicago should be in the thick of Stanley Cup contenders talk come their regular season finale April 11.