In many ways, Wednesday night’s more-difficult-than-it-had-to-be 5-4 overtime victory over the Red Wings is a perfect encapsulation of the last month with the 2018-19 Blackhawks.
Chicago flexed its offensive muscles early, with many of the usual suspects contributing. Brandon Saad, Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane all scored as the Blackhawks raced to a 4-1 lead early in the second period. Goaltender Cam Ward even joined the recent scoring binge, notching a secondary assist on Saad’s goal. With four Blackhawks posting some of the gaudiest numbers of their careers, scoring hasn’t been an issue lately for this team.
The Blackhawks essentially have four point-per-game forwards in their top six right now.— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) February 21, 2019
Kane: 37-54—91 in 59.5 GP
DeBrincat: 33-28—61 in 60.5 GP
Toews: 28-32—60 in 60.5 GP
Strome: 12-24—36 in 36.5 GP*
*with the Blackhawks
This is where good teams would’ve coasted to a 4-1 victory. Or perhaps responded with an insurance goal after Detroit made it a 4-2 game, just to keep quiet any thoughts of a late comeback. But the Blackhawks still aren’t quite in the realm of “good” NHL teams, loosely defined for the intentions of this article as the teams in the top third of the league standings.
Chicago’s defensive issues surfaced over the final two periods, as the Wings scored twice in 64 seconds early in the third, then knotted the game at 4 with 1:26 remaining after a brilliant pass from Anthony Mantha to Andreas Athanasiou. The Blackhawks made it to overtime and then — in what feels like a formality in every overtime period — Kane put the game away with his team-high 38th goal of the season.
This is who the Blackhawks are in the last month of the 2018-19 season.
A team with incredible offensive firepower that, at times, can score at will. Kane, Toews, Strome, Saad and DeBrincat give the Blackhawks a top six that is as good as any in the NHL. And when four of those five are on the power play with another offensive weapon in Erik Gustafsson, goals feel inevitable.
But defense is going to be the Achilles’ heel of this team at some point. Eventually, all the offense the Blackhawks produce won’t be enough to overcome the constant defensive breakdowns that are allowing opponents to rack up goals almost as fast as Chicago scores them. That defense is what will keep the Blackhawks from making any sort of deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, if they even make it that far.
Two loaded scoring lines combined with a lethal power play can carry an NHL team awfully far between October and April — it’s already carried the Hawks from the league’s basement into contention for a wild card spot in a month. But, once the postseason arrives, defense becomes the primary objective. Think of all the success Chicago’s had during the last decade with teams who were wildly incompetent with the man advantage. Those teams made up for it with a strong corps of defensemen, an excellent goaltender and an impenetrable penalty kill. Chicago has currently allowed more goals than any other team in the league and remains dead-last with a 73.48 percent conversion rate on the penalty kill.
It sure is fun to watch at times, though, isn’t it?
And this offense may carry the Blackhawks to the playoffs. It may carry them into a victory or two in the opening round. If it can combine with an out-of-this-world goaltending performance, the absolute ceiling for this team feels like a first-round upset. But, eventually, team defense will be this team’s downfall.
It’s just a matter of when.