It's that time of the year again. The Blackhawks are going through their usual mid-March swoon, fueling fans' concerns about the viability of another Stanley Cup run. The team is firmly in position for a playoff spot, but doing little to foster confidence when other teams are building momentum during the stretch run.
A 5-0 loss to the rival Kings on Monday night was the latest misstep in what's becoming an all-too-common trend. The Hawks have now lost three straight games to Western Conference contenders. They've won just three of their past nine. The conversations online regularly vacillate between excited proclamations and questions about whether we should be planning for extra free time this June. It's all so ... familiar.
Yet this time, it might also be different.
It feels like Hawks fans are beginning to split into two camps when it comes to this season's Cup chances. I similarly feel myself being tugged to one side or the other. There's a distinct, "Do I trust my head or do I trust my heart?" flavor to the whole discussion.
On one side, there's the ceaseless optimism that comes with being a Blackhawks fan in 2016. We've been through this before. The Hawks slump every March, they're slumping this March, it didn't stop them from winning Stanley Cups in the past. Just trust the process. Every Hawk fan, even the one who yells at you on Twitter about trading Corey Crawford, has at least a little bit of this.
But if there's a light side, as we've learned in Star Wars, there must also be a dark side. And while the good Jedi fight for hope and dreams of a better world, some cannot ignore the temptations of the Sith. They get fancy red lightsabers, infinite power and are no longer banned from LOVE (seriously, the Jedi ban LOVE, what a dumb children's movie).
And through their dark magic (see: statistics), these people have uncovered some pretty serious issues with the Hawks. Since the team's record-setting 12-game winning streak in January, there hasn't been much to put your hat on with this team. In my head, I know all of this stuff from the past 20-plus games is bad (via War-on-Ice):
- 20th in 5-on-5 Corsi (48.8 percent)
- Tied for 24th in 5-on-5 goal differential (-10)
- 29th in 5-on-5 scoring chances created per 60 minutes (22.1)
- 30th in 5-on-5 high-danger chances created per 60 minutes (8.4)
- 29th in 5-on-5 high-danger chances allowed per 60 minutes (12.6)
- 30th in PK shots allowed per 60 minutes (77.0)
- 23rd in faceoff percentage (48.2 percent)
We could do this for a while. Since the Hawks rolled off that incredible run a couple months ago, the rails have come off. A 9-10-2 record might be even better than the team's actual performance. It's only 21 games but for a quarter of the season, this team has looked nothing like a Cup contender or the successful Hawks teams of the past. If it weren't for a strong power play and Crawford's big year, Chicago probably would be on the fringe of the playoffs.
And again, it seems like there are two ways to view all this. You can stick with your gut and believe the Hawks will overcome all of this, not unlike they've done before. They do have Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and others still suiting up, after all. Marcus Kruger's return will help. You can bet against them at your own peril.
But in the head, reading these statistics and watching the team recently, you can't help but wonder. What if the trade deadline improvements weren't enough? What if the team targeted the wrong upgrades by leaving its blue line corps painfully thin? What if this version of the Hawks simply isn't good enough? This isn't about a four-game swoon in mid-March, either. It's about a 20-plus game stretch where the Hawks have looked straight up mediocre. It's about a Hawks team that's winning with exceptional power play and goaltending numbers, rather than the usual 5-on-5 and possession dominance that defined their success over the past few years. And when I add it all up in my head, I can't pretend like I'm not worried.
My gut says otherwise. It says this team can overcome this and find its mojo. They've overcome so many hurdles in the past. They'll do so again. But then my head reminds me this team is different, half the roster from last year is gone and the rest of the league has been catching up to Chicago's brilliant possession-based strategies. And yet again, the tug and pull of head vs. heart continues anew. I feel like Kylo Ren, gorgeous hair flowing in the wind, trying to decide between the light and the dark.
That's where I'm at, and it seems like a lot of other fans are at, watching this current team. While I'm cautiously optimistic, I cannot ignore the facts sitting right in front of me. There's a ton of reason to be hopeful about the 2015-16 Blackhawks -- none of it has to do with the past few weeks, though.