The Chicago Blackhawks have won three in a row and have worked themselves back into a four-way tie for the two Wildcard playoff spots. The wins came against subpar teams and were far from pretty. However, in the NHL two points are two points- we’ll take them. Starting tomorrow, the Blackhawks embark on a difficult stretch of games which include seven of eight road games and three important divisional games. While it’s not make or break for the season, it is crucial that the Blackhawks come away with some points. The division and conference is far too tight to have any kind of stretch that produces points at a less than 50% clip.
It’s easy to look at a three game winning streak and think that the ship has been righted. Beating three of the worst teams in the league proves nothing, but there are some positive signs. Patrick Kane was coming off a four game scoreless streak; in the final two games of the winning streak, Kane notched three points. If Kane has his scoring touch back, the Blackhawks will be better automatically.
The second major positive is the play of the first line. Captain Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad have struggled mightily to score consistently all season. In the three game winning streak, the pair each tallied three points. For the final two games, Coach Quenneville paired the duo with rookie phenom Alex DeBrincat who also scored three points over the three games. Seemingly finding their groove as a line, the trio put two pucks in the net against Florida on Tuesday; all three players notched a point on each goal. If that line continues to blossom, that could be the answer to stagnant first line production.
Finally, the third positive to come out of the win streak was the return of Corey Crawford. Crawford made his return faster than many speculated following a lower body injury. He showed no signs of rust or lingering injury. Over the three games, Crawford had a save percentage of .948- Vezina level numbers. Crawford is clearly the MVP of the team thus far, keeping the Hawks in games they had no business being in due to lack of offensive production. Thank goodness GM Stan Bowman chose to let Scott Darling go last year keeping Crawford in net for the Hawks.
Embarking on these next eight games, the Blackhawks will start without defensemen Cody Franson and Jan Rutta. At the beginning of the season, to think Franson and Rutta would factor in so significantly was unfathomable. However, Franson has been a steady presence on the ice, especially on the powerplay (if one can use the word power with the Hawks’ powerplay) and Rutta has found himself beside another surprise, Gustav Forsling, as part of possibly the Hawks’ best defensive line. Replacing those two will most likely be Jordan Oesterle, who has filled in for Franson for two games and either Michal Kempny or Villa Pokka. Oesterle did a nice job in his previous two games with five shots on goal, one assist, three hits and four blocks. He reminds me a lot of Forsling. With time, he could become a stable nightly defenseman. Hopefully either Kempny or Pokka can fill quality minutes in the bottom pairing to give the Blackhawks a chance.
The Blackhawks have been maligned since the preseason for their apparent lack of defense-suspect at best and worse for losing Niklas Hjalmarsson. It is true the D is aging and Brent Seabrook, especially, has lost a step. However, the fact remains- the Blackhawks have the 6th best defense in the league- possibly due to Crawford’s outstanding play, but at least partially due to this defense clearing the crease and doing a better job on the boards behind the net. The fact that the Blackhawks are currently struggling to get into the playoff picture has nothing to do with defense; it has everything to do with offensive struggles. Hopefully, the increased production from the first line and Patrick Kane will carry over in to this tough stretch and give the Hawks the success they need to remain in the playoff picture.