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Searching for signs of progress from Blackhawks’ team defense

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Did the numbers ever look better for Chicago?

Minnesota Wild v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The 2018-19 Blackhawks season was such a hectic roller-coaster ride that it felt like four different seasons within one.

There was the opening month that saw Chicago leap out to a 6-2-2 start on some incredibly dramatic wins. Then there was the miserable ending to 2018, with the Blackhawks nose-diving to the bottom of the NHL standings. Chicago then exploded up the standings in 2019, with a seemingly unstoppable power play as the main catalyst. And when a late February slump appeared to end their playoff hopes, one final run pulled them back within striking distance of a playoff spot.

What do the numbers say about Chicago’s different runs of play?

To find out, we borrowed a page from the Lovie Smith book on coaching philosophy and divided the Blackhawks 82-game schedule into four quarters (with some minor liberties taken due to the inability to divide 82 games into four even quarters. All of the stats listed below are come from Corsica and reflect 5-on-5 play:

Some observations:

  • Chicago’s penalty kill was consistently miserable and steadily got worse.
  • A 35-percent conversion rate for a power play during a 20-game stretch is simply absurd, but it was the biggest reason the Blackhawks started turning things around in the third quarter.
  • But that power play was also noticeably absent in the fourth quarter, and it failed to capitalize in multiple crucial situations during some of the Blackhawks biggest games — all of which they lost.
  • The Blackhawks quality of shot attempts (measured in the xGF% statistic) always lagged behind the quantity of shot attempts (measured in CF%), which matches up with the eye test of the last season: the Blackhawks routinely allowed their opponents to amass more potent scoring chances than they were able to generate.
  • There’s a lot to like about the final 21 games, which started with a 5-3 loss to the Avalanche on Feb. 22. Chicago had its best xGF% during this time and that coincided with a sizable advantage in even-strength goals. A high PDO suggests some puck luck may have been involved, but there’s enough positive signs out of this stretch to suggest the Blackhawks were onto something in the final quarter of the season.

What does it all mean?

A 17-goal advantage at even-strength during the final 21 games matches up with the eye test from the final quarter, when the Blackhawks looked like a more complete and more defensively responsible team than they had in the prior three quarters. The numbers posted in that span — projected during an 82-game schedule — are good enough for a team to earn a playoff berth, provided that the team isn’t getting destroyed in special teams situations. That wasn’t the case in the fourth quarter or at just about any point in the season. An old adage in hockey suggests that special team percentages (power play + penalty kill) should add up to 100 percent for consistent success. That only happened in the third quarter, and only because of a power play converting at an unsustainable rate.

Of all the things Chicago needs to fix for next season, the penalty kill just might be No. 1 on the list.