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Blackhawks’ 6-1-3 run sits on a shaky foundation

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It’s fun — but it’s also not something that lends itself to long-term success.

Chicago Blackhawks v Dallas Stars Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Watching a team outperform expectations is one of the purest joys a sports fan can enjoy. That’s what made the the Blackhawks’ recent 10-game stretch with a 6-1-3 record so much fun: they weren’t supposed to be this successful.

While some familiar names like Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat have been central to this success, adding to the enjoyment is the flurry of young players who’ve contributed in key moments: Phillip Kurashev and Pius Suter at forward, Nicolas Beaudin and Ian Mitchell on defense and Kevin Lankinen in net. That’s just a short list, too.

A finished product this is not, however.

Far from it, really. And that’s fine! This team wasn’t supposed to be good anyway!

But it must be understood that how the Blackhawks are winning games now is not a recipe for long-term success.

Chicago is largely winning because its goaltending has been great and it’s dominating at special teams. Following Tuesday’s win over the Stars, the Blackhawks have the league’s No. 9 penalty kill at 82.98 percent and the league’s No. 4 power play at 35.56 percent. That PK rate could be sustainable: Chicago was at 82.13 last season. The PP conversation rate is not. No team has posted a season-long power play percentage over 30 percent since the 1978-79 Canadiens. Edmonton came close in the abbreviated 2019-20 season at 29.5.

Speaking of those Oilers, they’re the case study for what the Blackhawks doing right now. Last season, Edmonton rode to the No. 5 seed in the West thanks to the league’s top power play and second-best PK unit (84.42%). They were not great at 5-on-5 hockey, though: the Oilers gave were tied for 28th in the league in 5-on-5 goals against (157) and were 25th with a minus-16 goal differential at 5-on-5.

We all know what happened to them in the postseason, when 5-on-5 play is one of the strongest indicators of team success.

With that in mind, here’s how the Blackhawks stack up at 5-on-5 play this season (with data, of course, from Natural Stat Trick):

  • 27th in the league with a 46.97 percent share of shot attempts (aka CF%)
  • 23rd with a 47.91 percent share of shots on goal (SF%)
  • 23rd with a 47.16 share of expected goals (xGF%)
  • 27th with a 46.08 share of scoring chances (SCF%)
  • 26th with a 45.95 share of high-danger scoring chances (HDCF%)
  • 30th in the league with a goal differential of minus-10

Narrow the range down to the last 10 games, when the Blackhawks are 6-1-3, and the numbers don’t move much:

  • 45.97 CF% (23rd in the league)
  • 47.27 SF% (25th)
  • 48.20 xGF% (22nd)
  • 45.28 SCF% (28th)
  • 49.39 HDCF% (19th)
  • A goal differential of zero (15 for, 15 against) is tied for 16th

One other stat should be mentioned here because it’s staggeringly low: the Blackhawks have the league’s worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage at 5.42. Last season, they were 14th at 8.42. While an improved shot percentage doesn’t necessarily mean more possession (which is the Blackhawks major flaw at the moment), it does suggest there are more 5-on-5 goals coming for this team when that number progresses to the mean.

None of those numbers are encouraging. But let’s not wander too far into the doom and gloom, however, because this sure beats losing. Having strong special teams can be a massive boost to this team down the road — it doesn’t have to be a temporary feature.

If the Blackhawks sustain a level of production on the power play and penalty kill that leaves both units in the league’s top 10 or top 15, then combine that with significant improvement to Chicago’s 5-on-5 play, it all adds up to a team that can compete for championships.

Getting there is the tricky part.