Since the calendar flipped to 2014, the Chicago Blackhawks have amassed 6 wins, 3 regulation losses, 4 overtime losses and 3 shootout losses. They have collected 19 of an available 32 points over that 16 game span. For some fans this is merely a rough patch along the road to the playoffs, but for others that feeling of impending doom has set in. Perhaps some fans are thinking of the 9 game losing streak the Blackhawks went through after ringing in another New Year since passed. That losing streak resulted in the team narrowly escaping having to watch the playoffs instead of competing in them. Perhaps some fans expect so much from the team, that anything less than perfection is disappointing. Perhaps some fans are having trouble setting expectations for this season after the lockout shortened season of 2013. Whatever the reason, a palpable uneasiness has crept into a large portion of the fan base recently.
Social media after the games has become something akin to a battle of old west gunslingers with itchy trigger fingers. A faction of fans are tossing about powerful adjectives about the team's play such as pathetic, disgusting, miserable, awful, lazy, terrible etc... There is a perception that if the opposing team has been in a slump, playing the Blackhawks will bring them out of it. There may be something to this idea given that every team comes out gunning for the defending champs, but the slump buster nomenclature is a bit overblown. Some people are ready to explode over the slightest inference of criticism regarding the play of any team member regardless of the merit to the critic's argument. Any criticism of the way the roster is used or how the penalty kill is run is met with the obligatory response: "How many Cups have you won?" Such is the way of social media and such is the way of 2 Stanley Cups in 4 seasons, particularly for a fan base previously starved of positive attention.
The Blackhawks are not perfect. The players have flaws. The coaches have flaws. The systems have flaws. The game is played, coached and observed by humans. Humans are not perfect. Despite all of these flaws and imperfections, this team has won 2 Stanley Cups in 4 seasons. The team is still the envy of the league. The team is still in position to make the playoffs and built for a long playoff run, but again, this team is not perfect. This means we can talk and yes, even complain about the flaws and imperfections without invoking the overly dramatic tactics that so often make fans seem spoiled or unrealistic. If that is not how you work, so be it. If this makes you think for even a moment about another way to look at an issue, all the better.
The Central Division standings are very tight at the top. The Blackhawks are in first after playing 58 games and accumulating 82 points. Second belongs to the St. Louis Blues who have 79 points from 4 fewer games as of February 4, 2014. The Colorado Avalanche have played 3 fewer games and have 77 points to show for it. The Western Conference stacks up with the Anaheim Ducks leading the way, followed by the Blackhawks, Blues, Avs, San Jose Sharks and LA Kings. The two Western Conference divisions will likely end up each having two horse races for the top spot heading into the playoffs.
The LA Kings are first in the league in possession (FF%) followed by the Blackhawks (who led the way for most of the season), Sharks, Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars, New Jersey Devils, Blues and New York Rangers. Recently, both the Kings and the Blackhawks have gone through stretches of out shooting their opponents, dominating play and ultimately losing the game. The Kings have had a much worse time of this, but there is really no legitimate dispute that the Kings are a good team. The same reasoning goes for the Blackhawks. Jewels From The Crown did an excellent article about this recently that is certainly worth the read.
Because last season was so short due to the lockout, it is difficult to judge how this year's Blackhawks team is doing compared to last season. In order to get a better handle on how the team is doing, I have gathered data regarding Fenwick For Percentage (FF%), Save Percentage (Sv%), Shooting Percentage (Sh%), Shots For per 60 minutes played (SF/60) and Goal Differential per 60 minutes played (GD/60) for the past few Blackhawks seasons. I have indicated the season and where it was available, separated the data into regular season (R) and playoffs (P).
As you can see, since the 2008-09 season, there have been few instances of the team having a season FF% at Score Close or Score Tied below 50%. This simply means that the Blackhawks have the puck more often during a game than their opponent. This should not come as a shock to anyone who has watched this team play over the past several years given that puck possession is a high priority. The 2011-12 playoff numbers are the real outlier in this sample. If you will recall the playoff series against the Coyotes that season, you will remember several games wherein the Blackhawks seemed to dominate play only to be stonewalled by Coyotes net-minder Mike Smith. This season, the team's possession numbers closely mirror those of last season and the playoffs.
The numbers in this graph may appear at first glance to be a bit troubling; however, upon closer inspection are not a cause for alarm. First, both last season and this season represent dramatic improvements over the 2011-12 regular and post season. Second, the Score Close and Score Tied Save Percentages from last season and this season are nearly exactly the same. At Score Close, the Sv% was 92.4% last season and is the same this season. At Score Tied, the Sv% was 92.8 last season and is 92.9 this season. The real difference has come in the 5 on 5 save percentage which went from 93.0% last season to 91.6% this season. There are several reasons for this including the struggles of backup goaltender, Nikolai Khabibulin; an inexperienced goalie, Antti Raanta, coming in to replace Corey Crawford when he was injured; and, a few blowout losses. Since returning from injury, Crawford has looked very good in the net. It is safe to expect the 5 on 5 Sv% to improve as the season goes on, particularly in light of the defensive systems breakdowns that seem to be on the mend as well.
Being one of the most offensively gifted teams in the league has helped the Blackhawks score their way out of trouble this season. Whether due to some defensive mistakes or a poor goalie performance, the Blackhawks are leading the league in goals scored and pulling out wins where they perhaps deserved a loss. Again, the percentages closely mirror those of last season just in case you needed further proof that this team can score a lot.
The Blackhawks Shots For per 60 minutes is a study in the evolution of this team. In 2007-08, the SF number was very low and the team did not make the playoffs. The following season, the offense was starting to gel and there was a dramatic spike in SF/60. The 2009-10 Stanley Cup season built further upon the previous season obviously to great results. The 2011-12 playoff numbers are particularly telling about the quality of goaltending the Blackhawks faced when they were eliminated by the Coyotes. Regardless of his performances prior or subsequent to Mike Smith absolutely owned that series. Comparing last season's SF/60 and this season's, we find the Blackhawks are shooting even more than in previous years during the regular season. Given their recent penchant for shooting even more during the playoffs, this is definitely something positive to see.
While there are some areas of concern for the team, looking at their current performance in the context of prior seasons allows us to see that there are very few differences in how they approached the game. The 2011-12 season was dramatically different than the seasons prior or subsequent thereto. Obviously, the Blackhawks patched some of the offensive and defensive holes in order to turn the Goal Differential per 60 back into a positive where it remains now. Hopefully, this context provides for a better understanding of where the team has been and is going. The dog days of the regular season are nearly behind us. The Olympic break will give rest to those not participating and drive the competitive thirst of the team's Olympians. When the break is over, the race for the playoffs begins and it looks to be a wild and enjoyable ride.
*all data used herein was retrieved from: