When it comes to the playoffs, everyone wants the Blackhawks and no one wants the Blackhawks. They’re the team everyone wants to test themselves against, but there’s also a good chance they’ll fail that test and have to watch as the Hawks romp toward another Stanley Cup.
That’s the reality entering Game 1 between the Blackhawks and Predators on Thursday, which starts another playoff run that could conceivably end in glory. Pekka Rinne has been knocked out of the playoffs by the Hawks twice, yet he’s ready for the challenge again. “I feel lucky that I’ve had a chance to play against them a couple times in the playoffs, and this is my third time and really looking forward to it,” Rinne said, via the Washington Post.
This may not be the best Blackhawks team of the past decade, at least on paper, but it’s a contender all the same in a postseason without a clear favorite.
And after finishing best in the West with 50 wins during the regular season, it makes sense that there’s something of a “the West goes through Chicago” feel to the proceedings here. The Hawks have the most experienced core, and just spent a season piling up wins while integrating several rookies. Yes, the Sharks are the defending West champs, and the Wild, or Predators, or Ducks might be better, too, but there’s a sense that they’ll need to prove it.
The Blackhawks also have something to prove with so many new faces in this year’s lineup compared to the past two seasons. They’re the same, but different enough that they’re no sure thing. That hasn’t stopped them from being confident, which has been infectious with fans. We all expect wins because that’s what we keep getting, and while this era will inevitably end at some point, the fact that it hasn’t yet is something to appreciate.
The Predators won’t be an easy out, but yet again Blackhawks fans get to start off a postseason feeling really good about their team’s chances. With the series starting soon, here are a few reasons why that’s the case.
C’mon. Duh. Don’t even need to elaborate on this much. Toews, Kane, Panarin, Keith, Hjalmarsson, Seabrook, Hossa, Crawford. Most of them have won multiple Stanley Cups, and Panarin is just ridiculously good. When they set the tone for your team in a seven-game series, good luck.
The rookies can help
Ryan Hartman had 18 even strength goals in 76 games while getting just 12:46 ATOI. Nick Schmaltz can sling passes with the best of them and will have a chance to show he can take on big assignments next to Toews. He got better as the season went along, recording 21 points over the final 26 games of the season.
They’re the big two that could really etch their way into Hawks history quickly this spring, but John Hayden and Tanner Kero will also be powering a young fourth line. If Hayden can keep providing the combination of shooting and physicality that he flashed in his regular-season stint, he could be a game-changer. Kero might be a weak link in the lineup, but there’s no better all-around option for Joel Quenneville as his No. 4 center with Marcus Kruger on the third line.
Put those two things above together and you know what you got? Scoring depth, baby. Love that scoring depth. The Blackhawks had six 20-goal scorers this season, plus Hartman at 19 goals. They also had four guys with six goals and four guys with five goals, which isn’t as impressive but they’re next up on the list.
It’s a much different balance than last season. In 2015-16, Toews, Kane, and Panarin scored 104 goals, while the next four guys up had 54 combined. This time, those three stars only had 86 goals, but the next four guys had 89. That more than makes up for the decline from the big three, and gives you an idea of why this doesn’t feel like a one-line team anymore.
This tweet about sums it up
CHI playoff 3rd pairings— Satchel Price (@SatchelPrice) April 11, 2017
2015: Timonen, Rundblad, Rozsival, Cumiskey
2016: Rundblad, Rozsival, Gustafsson, Svedberg
2017: TVR, Campbell
Corey Crawford can be a little streaky. That has its downsides when he gives up four goals in back-to-back games during the regular season. But it also means he can go on some serious rolls, and he’s been able to time those pretty nicely over the past few years. At his best, he’s able to go toe-to-toe with any goalie in the league. And the great news is that, even if Crawford has a stumble like the 2015 Nashville series, Scott Darling is one of the best backups in the league. If the Blackhawks get bumped because of goaltending, it’ll be because Rinne or another goalie stands on his head like Brian Elliott did last year, not because Crawford/Darling falter to the extent it costs them the series.
The Blackhawks aren’t a statistical beast like a few years ago. This season, they finished seventh in goal differential (plus-31), ninth in goals for (244), 10th in goals allowed (213), and 12th in 5-on-5 Corsi (50.4 percent). Their special teams have been a weak link, even if the penalty kill has improved since its disastrous start.
Based on all the statistics, it’s fair to consider the Blackhawks a very good team, but not one of the very best. There are some good signs, though. Over the final 30 games of the season, they were sixth in score/venue-adjusted Corsi, per Natural Stat Trick, and even better in unblocked shots and shots on goal. The Blackhawks have done well in 5-on-5 goal differential all season, and they’ve had underlying statistics more in line with that over the past few months.
The development makes sense for a team that was working in several rookies earlier in the season. It also reflects how they weeded out certain young players like Gustav Forsling and Tyler Motte who showed they could use some AHL seasoning.
Sure, the Blackhawks are terrible at faceoffs other than Toews, but the Avalanche were second in faceoffs this season and it won them 22 games. So, not gonna sweat that too much for now.
Time for another Cup?
There are enough reasons to believe. Every team in the field has a flaw, including the Capitals, who always seem really good but flame out every time. They’ll need to prove themselves — which, by the way, I did pick them to beat the Hawks in the Stanley Cup Final, don’t yell at me — just like everyone else. But the Blackhawks are right there in the mix with several teams, and that’s where you want to be in mid-April. Envisioning Toews holding up the Cup again in June isn’t hard.