Blackhawks were simply not the best team in 2016, but hope for future remains
Despite falling short in 2016, Chicago will assuredly come back strong next season.
One of the beauties of a best-of-seven playoff series is that more often than not, things equal out during the course of the series. Both teams will get favorable bounces in different games, officiating will seem to favor one team over the other at times, but as the series wears on, those minor moments become much less significant than the actual play between the two teams in the series.
The byproduct of things evening out is that the team who wins the series is nearly always the best team in the series. This was the case in the Blackhawks recent first round loss at the hands of the St. Louis Blues. For all of the posturing Blackhawks fans like to do when it comes to playoff matchups with the Blues, the fact of the matter is that this year, the Blues were simply a better team than the Blackhawks.
It's no secret that the 2015-16 edition of the Blackhawks were not as good as previous Cup-winning iterations. The Blackhawks struggled at 5-on-5 this season, barely breaking even in terms of possession with a 50.7 CF, and getting outscored 140-134 during the regular season. Their blue line left a lot to be desired, but tops on that list was consistently sound defensive play from anyone not named Duncan Keith or Niklas Hjalmarsson. They relied heavily on goaltender Corey Crawford, who turned in a superhuman effort in a season that will likely earn him Vezina Trophy consideration.
That is not to say that these Blackhawks were a bad team, however. Their forward group remained one of the deepest in the NHL, even after losing key offensive contributors like Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp over the summer. Players like Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov, Richard Panik and Teuvo Teravainen settled into their roles very well. Patrick Kane was the best offensive player in the NHL by a wide margin. As much as their defense struggled, their forward group was able to cover up some of those holes by simply outscoring the opposition, even if they needed to do a good bit of that on the power play.
Still, they found themselves matched up with a better team when they ran into the Blues in the first round of these Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Blues were one of the best teams in the NHL this season in nearly every facet. During the regular season, St. Louis had the seventh best 5v5 CorsiFor, sixth best power play, and third best penalty kill in the NHL. All of that in front of goalie Brian Elliott, who led the league in save percentage with an outstanding .930 mark.
And while the playoffs are generally a different story than the regular season, many of those trends carried over into the first round matchup between these two division rivals. Even with Chicago controlling 52.8 percent of the shot attempts at 5v5, the Blues outscored the Hawks 13-10 in those situations throughout the series. Both teams brought their strong power plays, with Chicago going 6-for-19 with the extra man, and the Blues notching a 5-for-18 conversion rate. At the end of the day, the Blues three goal advantage at even strength proved to be the difference maker.
More than the scoring marks, though, the Blues were able to overcome so many of their unfortunate circumstances, while the Blackhawks simply could not. Historically, St. Louis had fallen apart when facing any real playoff adversity. This year, they had their chance to do so following Game 2, when they had a goal taken away due to a controversial offside call following a coach's challenge. For a moment, it seemed as though they were ready to breakdown, especially after an Andrew Shaw goal stood later in the game despite possible goaltender interference on his part.
But instead of breaking down, the Blues fired up. They recovered to come back and win Games 3 and 4 in Chicago. They had another chance to break down after squandering their commanding 3-1 series lead with losses in Games 5 and 6, but instead recovered to earn a hard fought victory in Game 7.
The Blackhawks, meanwhile, simply couldn't overcome their bad luck. They hit what seemed like 100 posts in the series, including double post shots from Andrew Ladd in Game 4 and, infinitely more frustrating, Brent Seabrook late in Game 7.
To win the Cup, a team has to overcome those bad breaks. The Blues were able to do so, and the Blackhawks were not.
Perhaps this is a missed opportunity on the part of the Blackhawks. It's certainly disappointing to fall short of Cup glory in a season which saw them go all in with aggressive moves at the trade deadline to acquire Andrew Ladd, Tomas Fleischmann, and Dale Weise. It also hurts to squander a chance at another Cup when you still have a group of core players as talented as Chicago does.
However, at the end of the day, this Blackhawks team did not truly fail. They did not break down, crack, or flounder. They simply were not the best team in their series with the Blues. In order to beat the Blues, the Blackhawks would've needed to outperform what they were truly capable of. It's hard to admit that as a fan of this team, but it's simply an undeniable reality, especially now that they've been eliminated.
What's great about being a Blackhawks fan in this era of the team, though, is that they damn near did beat the Blues, and none of us truly gave up hope that they could do so until that final horn sounded in Game 7. Moreover, we know that they'll be back. The core will remain intact, and Stan Bowman has even more time now to prepare to revitalize this team for next season.
It's disappointing that the Hawks are done this early, but truly not surprising. They were not better than their competition, and that's what it comes down to at the end. But they'll be back, and if we've learned anything in the last six seasons, it's that falling short one year only motivates this team even more to come back harder the next.
So here's to a longer, less stressful spring and summer, and to coming back next season to take the Cup back.
Adam Hess is a staff writer at Second City Hockey. Follow him on Twitter at @_adamhess.