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The Ides of March Are Upon Us

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A March schedule that appeared brutal has turned out to be exactly that for the Blackhawks.

Chicago Blackhawks v Florida Panthers Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

Yes, the headline is a day late. Sue me.

After the month of February saw the Blackhawks soar above preseason expectations and into legitimate contention for a playoff spot, March’s brutal schedule has brought much of that crashing back down to earth.

It’s been a rough 9-day stretch for the Blackhawks, with the season appearing to turn during the second period of last Sunday’s game against Tampa. Chicago built a 3-0 lead without any heavy lifting from Patrick Kane or Alex DeBrincat, yet another sign that the kids were alright in Chicago. And then Tampa scored six straight goals. And then Dallas obliterated Chicago 6-1 on Tuesday. The Blackhawks came up for air in a 4-2 win over the Stars that felt more like a statistical anomaly than anything else before Florida put together a 10-5 aggregate score in two thorough defeats.

In the last seven games, the Blackhawks have earned just 5 of a possible 14 points (2-4-1). Across the board, Chicago’s 5-on-5 numbers have taken a step back in this stretch, which has seen the Blackhawks get outscored 17-13.

The other shot metrics from the last seven games look even worse:

  • 44.77 percent share of shot attempts (257 for, 317 against), below the season mark of 46.52
  • 40.08 percent share of expected goals (10.0 for, 14.95 against), below the season mark of 45.27
  • 41.92 percent share of scoring chances (122 for, 169 against), below the season mark of 46.48
  • 40.19 percent share of high-danger scoring chances (43 for, 64 against), below the season mark of 43.86

The special teams units have regressed, too. In the same 7-game span, Chicago is:

  • 17-for-25 on the penalty kill (68 percent, below the season mark of 73.1)
  • 4-for-26 on the power play (15.4 percent, well below the season mark of 28.3)

The goaltending that was the foundation of much of the Blackhawks’ early success has taken a step back as well. The team’s 5-on-5 save percentage is at .923 this season but has been down at .909 since March began.

This is why so many previews and recaps and other articles at this site have preached caution regarding February’s glutton of wins, because they weren’t being obtained in ways that are battle-tested against the league’s top teams. This team was closer to winning games in spite of its own shortcomings than they were to winning games on their collective merits. They were being out-possessed, out-shot and out-chanced on a nightly basis, consistently bailed out by goaltending that was lightyears ahead of expectations — especially with Kevin Lankinen.

But now the Blackhawks are consistently facing teams that can make even the best goaltending look irrelevant, that turn a plethora of possession, shots and scoring chances into goals. These aren’t the Red Wings or the Predators on the opposing bench anymore.

And that’s what’s making this run of play so frustrating. The Blackhawks spent the first 20 games of the season distancing themselves from the dredges of the division — and that’s great! It sure beats losing! — but as soon as Chicago was presented with a chance to prove itself against some of the division’s best, it has wilted in the spotlight. What’s even worse is that the Blackhawks keep building leads against these top teams — 2-0 and 3-0 leads over Tampa, 1-0 and 3-1 leads over Florida — but are powerless against the tides of momentum once they turn against them. The real question there is whether these flaws are signs of youth or indicative of a larger overall problem within the team, perhaps rooted in systems or strategy employed by its coaching staff. It’s another question that can only be answered with more evidence and more time and may not arrive until some point in the 2021-22 season.

The Blackhawks are flailing right now, unable to overcome any significant adversity presented during a game. It’d be a perfect time for a few “get right” games against bottom-feeders like Detroit.

Oh, what’s that? Two more against Tampa before two more against Florida on the schedule?

Keep those seat belts fastened.