After a 4-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday, the Chicago Blackhawks have officially arrived at the midpoint of the season, boasting a 20-15-6 record through 41 games played.
Last season, after playing 41 games, the Hawks were sitting on 53 points with a 24-12-5 record. The Hawks added 56 points in the back half of the schedule — buoyed by a 12-1 stretch — to earn the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed.
Before we look ahead to the remaining games, let’s look back at the up, the down, and the everything in-between from the first half of the Blackhawks 2017-18 season.
It was a slow start to DeBrincat’s NHL career, with the then-teenager scoring just one goal in his first 12 games. But he began heating up in November and has emerged as a legitimate scoring threat in his rookie season. The first half of DeBrincat’s season was punctuated by a hat trick against the Anaheim Ducks, scoring three of his 14 goals this season, good for second on the team. His 27 points are fourth on the team, and he just turned 20 in December. The Hawks just might have a future star on their hands.
One of the biggest offseason questions was how the 21-year-old forward would fare in his second season. Would he resemble the tentative player who was sent to Rockford in the middle of last season or look more like the playmaker who thrived after being called up from the AHL? The latter became the answer, with Schmaltz making his case as the Hawks’ 2C of the future with 28 points in 37 games played.
Since being recalled from Rockford in January of 2017, Schmaltz has had 52 points (15G, 37A) in his last 72 NHL games.— Scott Powers (@ByScottPowers) January 7, 2018
That’s just under a 60-point pace in an 82-game season. And with Schmaltz only turning 22 next month, there’s reason to believe he could get even better.
Forget the recent game against Vegas and the subsequent scratch against Edmonton on Sunday: Murphy has been playing excellent hockey, and one bad game does not change that. Acquired in the Niklas Hjalmarsson trade, he’s emerged as one of the Blackhawks’ best defenders by every analytic out there.
Not that this will surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to the Hawks for the last few seasons, but Corey Crawford is again carrying a Chicago team that still leaves its goalie out to dry too often. His goals-saved above average per 60 minutes is the second-highest in the league, indicative of how many times he’s bailed out the Hawks’ defense. The hope, at the moment, is that the current injury ailing Crawford subsides quickly.
Too many times in these 41 games, the Blackhawks have just looked ... off. Finding the right words to describe those games is a difficult proposition. Sometimes it looks like the Hawks just don’t care. Sometimes it looks like every pass is off by a few inches. Sometimes it looks like every bounce goes against the Hawks. Whatever the cause, there have been a plethora of games this season when the Blackhawks’ team we expected to see just never arrived.
The power play
It fees like the same question is asked each season: how does a team with so much offensive talent struggle to dent the net with the man advantage? Here it is again, with the Hawks converting at a 14.7% rate that is 29th in the league.
Corey Crawford’s injury
Losing a team’s best player while struggling to keep pace in an ultra-competitive Central Division? Pretty close to a worst-case scenario. Artem Anisimov’s two stints on injured reserve haven’t been helpful, either.
It’s plagued Chicago’s forwards all season long: an inability to light the lamp. Back in November, we detailed the lengthy scoring droughts affecting some of the Hawks’ top point producers from the recent seasons. Some of those afflictions have gone away, most notably the recent surge by the Saad-Toews-Hinostroza top line. But Richard Panik only has five goals at the midway point following a 22-goal season. Ryan Hartman scored 19 last season, and has just seven so far in 2017-18. Patrick Sharp’s five goals warrant a mention here, but with his salary at just $1 million, his lack of production is not as harmful as the others — especially Panik, who got a raise following last season.
The rest of the Central Division’s play
Complicating matters for the Blackhawks has been the rest of their division’s play, forcing Chicago into a catch-up role for the back half of the schedule. The Winnipeg Jets have surpassed all expectations and sit atop the division with 57 points. The St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, and Dallas Stars have all eclipsed 50 points already, albeit with more games played than the Hawks. And the Colorado Avalanche, everyone’s expected basement-dweller, have overachieved enough to put the Blackhawks in last place in the division for the last few weeks. Chicago does have games in hand, of course, but having to leap at least three divisional opponents to earn a playoff spot makes for a steep uphill climb.
He’s 34 years old and may not have quite the same spring in his stride, but Keith remains one of the Hawks’ top players. He’s started in the offensive zone at a higher rate (63.4%) than any other point in his career, but he’s turned that into a 53.7% CF rate that puts him 0.9% above the team rate. Keith has provided another solid, but not necessary spectacular, performance in his 13th NHL season.
Looking toward the second half
As mentioned at the top, the Blackhawks managed 56 points in the final 41 games of the prior season, including a 13-game stretch where the Hawks won 12 games. It’d be hard to expect the same result this season, given the Jekyll and Hyde performance from the first half of the season. It took 94 points to earn a wild card spot last season, which is just above the pace set by the Hawks in the first half of the season. With so many players immersed in scoring droughts and the team’s general inability to put together a strong stretch of play, improvement can be expected in the second half of the season. However (and this is a major caveat), the Blackhawks had a healthy Crawford in net for most of its first half of the season. With his return not visible on the horizon, survival needs to be the order of business for the immediate future. The hope here is that the Hawks can manage to stay in the playoff hunt until No. 50 gets back, and then take off on a run that locks them into another shot at the Stanley Cup.
Because two first-round exits were bad enough. But missing a playoff spot? That’s going to cost people jobs.