Brad: After watching the Tampa Bay Lightning defeat the Chicago Blackhawks Monday night from section 322, I wanted to call the bearded men of SCH together with me to talk about the state of the union. Specifically, if this is the beginning of the end of Chicago’s playoff appearance streak. What are your thoughts?
Brad: I don’t think the fat lady is warming up just yet. The Hawks have managed to assemble some relatively new faces that have made big impacts to the lineup, specifically on the first and third lines. As a BIG fan of Jan Rutta, it was really nice to see him return to early season form after his second upper-body injury from a big hit. Throw in Jordan Oesterle to the top line defense, and these two are guys that can make a difference when it comes to making a playoff push.
We also have to see how the “Anthony Duclair experiment” goes (and members of the Anthony Duclair experiment), but I like what I see in his inclusion on the top line. Hopefully he can kick-start Saad’s production offensively, as those two are going to be the guys Chicago needs along with the core players.
Dave: Well, it certainly doesn’t look good. The Hawks’ struggles’ have been one issue, but the apparent inability of other Central Division teams to actually lose a game is just heightening the mountain that Chicago has to climb just to get to the playoffs. And there’s no outside fix available, really. The last few trade deadlines have depleted Chicago’s picks and prospects, so acquiring players in a trade isn’t a likely scenario. The improvement has to come from within. And with the season about 60 percent done, there hasn’t been enough evidence to suggest that improvement is going to get here.
But I will add that failing to make the playoffs this year does not necessarily spell the end for this era of Blackhawks hockey.
Brad: “Heightening the mountain” a reference to the Colorado Avalanche winning 10 in a row?
Looking at the schedule, there are only seven games or so that really scare me. Two games with Boston, two with Winnipeg, two with Anaheim, Vegas and Washington. Everything else certainly seems like a “winnable” game no?
And I’m with you, Dave. Given the surprise circumstance that was Marian Hossa’s injury, to the Corey Crawford situation, this season is simply a rough patch in their relationship with the NHL postseason. This too shall pass.
Brandon: Chicago has the second longest playoff streak at nine seasons only to those non-flying Pittsburgh types, who could also have their streak end this year with a tight Metropolitan Division race. The Hawks are seven points out of a wild-card spot, so I’m not ready to accept a spring without them in the playoffs just yet. But hey if they don’t make the playoffs, hopefully they’ll end up like the Flyers did last year and barely miss to provide some hope but get stupid lucky in the lottery.
Also, if the Hawks miss the playoffs y’all better pay attention to the Fire more because hot damn is that team on the rise.
Brad: You mean they’re on...fire?
Brandon: Oh sure. Plus, Toyota Park has cheap BEvERage prices.
Dave: If I can steer this back in the direction of the Hawks, I wanted to take a closer look at the climb Chicago faces in the standings and offer a brief glimmer of optimism. Last season, on February 7, the Hawks were six points behind the division-leading Minnesota Wild, who also had two games in hand on Chicago. The Hawks finished three points ahead of the Wild, a nine-point swing.
Brandon: People forget that.
Dave: They really do, Brandon. And a nine-point swing would catapult Chicago into third place in the Central Division. But the major caveat that must be included here is that there are three teams Chicago would leapfrog in the process. It’s one thing to count on a single team to slump for an extended period of time. But needing three teams to do that? It’s just not as realistic. That’s what makes the Hawks’ playoff outlook so bleak: they have to pass three teams in a little over two months to make it happen.
Brad: Have to think that Colorado is one of those teams that will “cool off” sooner rather than later? Also should consider that Dallas has had a relatively easy schedule through the first half of the season. Even if the Hawks don’t jump on a 4-6 game winning streak to jump back into contention, someone’s gotta fall back down right? Not an ideal thing to bet on at this point in the year, but it can’t hurt Chicago’s playoff chances...
Brandon: I keep expecting Colorado and Nathan MacKinnon to hit a true rough patch, but to no avail. Also, he’s totally winning the Hart Trophy or at least he has my vote. Anyway, Dave is right on the money about banking on three teams to slide AND having the Hawks go on a run being a stretch.
Brad: Don’t count out Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler... he’s been a dark horse of sorts while names like Kessel, Crosby, Ovechkin, Gaudreau and Stamkos hang near the top of the league in points. Wheeler has been in the mid to high 70’s in points the last two seasons, and I bet you he breaks the 80+ mark this year.
My big question with the Hawks is, when? When is this team going to turn “it” on? Sure, it sounds like Corey Crawford is making his way back to the lineup, but that doesn’t address the power play struggles this team seems to face every year.
Brandon: Someone better call ComEd.
Dave: Never underestimate Brandon’s comedic timing. And to your question, Brad, I thought we’d be in the middle of that stretch right now, with the Hawks wrapping up a nine-game stretch on Wednesday night against Toronto that included eight home games. Crawford’s absence didn’t help, but the Hawks are 3-5 so far in that timeframe. Just not good enough when you’re fighting an uphill battle in the standings. And I don’t see any other stretches on the calendar that stand out as a potential record-booster. One small thing that might give you hope? The Hawks do face the teams they’re chasing a fair amount over the final 35 games: three against Colorado (all in March), three against St. Louis, one against Minnesota and one against Dallas. Still ground to be gained in those, at least.
Brandon: If the Hawks don’t make the playoffs, what teams in each conference do you think and do you want to make the Cup Final?
Brad: Is it too late to take back my preseason pick for an Edmonton - Toronto final?
I’ll take the “hollywood ending” with Vegas over Washington in the final. Go Golden Knights!
Dave: It’s the Tampa Bay Lightning’s year. As long as Victor Hedman is OK when he returns from injury and no one else misses substantial time, they’re winning it. The West is not as clear-cut for me. I still don’t believe the Golden Knights and I don’t care what the standings say. Maybe Nashville again? Might have to revisit this after the trade deadline. But I don’t see anyone in the West beating Tampa.
I had Montreal and Edmonton. S-M-R-T!
Brandon: My preseason pick was Tampa Bay vs. Minnesota with the Lightning winning it all. I still believe the Bolts will win and Minnesota could still make it, but it’s a bit of a stretch. Tampa Bay vs Calgary rematch from 2004 is what I want to happen, but I have a feeling one of the wild card teams makes it out of the West. It would really hurt my brand if that was the team down South.
Dave: Upon further consideration, I’m going to nominate the Los Angeles Kings as my Western Conference pick. Anze Kopitar has that look again, and they’ve been down this road before. So there ya go: Lightning/Kings in the Final, with Stamkos winning the Conn Smythe. Lock it in, because my predictions are always perfect.