The Chicago Blackhawks come out of the all-star break in a position almost nobody thought they would occupy this late in the season. They’re three points out of the final wild-card spot and they’re trending upward. Prior to losing the last game before the break, they had won five in a row.
But if there’s a team that has a tougher month of February, feel free to let us know. Of the 14 games the Blackhawks play in the month, all but three are on the road. On the other, hand, the Blackhawks have actually been better away from the United Center this season, so you never know…
The Blackhawks are one of the more intriguing teams in the NHL this season, and will continue to be. Dominik Kubalik has been a revelation. The Dylan Strome-for-Nick Schmaltz trade is evening out after Strome’s performance last season gave the Hawks a clear win. A move to the right side has made Slater Koekkoek an essential part of the team’s blueline corps. And then there’s the goaltending situation, with both Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford approaching unrestricted free agency, with the former having no interest in taking another discount and the latter having no interest in returning as a backup goalie.
So what exactly are the Blackhawks? Are they a good, but not great team that is destined to miss the playoffs again? Or are they a contender in waiting? With all of their playoff experience, it’s not outlandish to suggest this group could put together some kind of special run, is it?
“Well, I think it will be interesting,” said Hawks superstar Patrick Kane during all-star weekend. “I think probably how we do over the next few weeks and leading up to the trade deadline will probably determine what we do. It would be nice going into a nice position going into March.”
The Blackhawks have been improved on the defensive side of the puck this season, but not much. They’re actually giving up 35.2 shots per game this season, which is the worst in the NHL, but their penalty killing has gone from worst in the league to seventh-best this season. They’re down more than a quarter of a goal per game against this season, owing in large part to Lehner’s .934 save percentage on the penalty kill, which is best in the league. Alex DeBrincat is starting to show signs of life after falling off the map in the first half of the season and Jonathan Toews is heating up with five goals and 16 points in 10 games in January. Kubalik has eclipsed the 20-goal mark and will almost certainly lead all rookies in goals this season.
“I think we have a pretty dangerous team, to be honest with you,” Kane said. “Some teams might look at us and think we’re easy to play against, but I think we’re kind of changing that. I think we’re playing a more controlled game and a better team game lately. We have a lot of experience, but we haven’t been in the playoffs for a little bit, so it would be nice to get back there and feel that pressure of playing some meaningful games and playoff hockey. I think that would be huge for our team.”
Kubalik, who was chosen in the seventh round by the Los Angeles Kings in 2013, was acquired for fifth-round pick a year ago and, after coming over from the Swiss League last season, has progressively had more of an impact with the Blackhawks. After being a healthy scratch twice in November, Kubalik has seen more ice time with better players and is beginning to show his worth as an impact player in the NHL. Like his linemate Toews, Kubalik has been one of the hottest players in the league of late with 10 goals in 10 games in January.
“He’s been great,” Kane said. “He actually was a healthy scratch a couple of times and started playing well again. He’s been playing really well for us. Good skater, physical to a point and gets to the front of the net and scores some dirty goals in that area. He and Johnny (Toews) have been playing really well together and they have a lot of chemistry. They’ve been really good for us.”
As for Kane, he’s pretty much his usual self, scoring points at a prodigious pace and proving to be one of the most valuable players in the league. After recently passing the 1,000-point mark, he goes into the Blackhawks first game after the break on Saturday in Arizona riding an 11-game point streak in which he has five goals and 11 points. No matter what happens with the Hawks this season, you know there won’t be any let up in his game. Perhaps there are still a few more heartbreaker goal celebrations in him yet.