The Chicago Blackhawks have to like where they are halfway through the season. There’s certainly been more good than bad at this point. Here’s a look at what’s going right for the Blackhawks and what they’d still like to improve on before entering the playoffs:
Looking back on the first half
1. The Blackhawks have put themselves in position to make a run at the Central Division title and even the Presidents’ Trophy with a 27-12-2 record through 41 games. They’re tied for third in the NHL with 56 points and are second in the Central behind the Nashville Predators, who have 58 points in 40 games. The Blackhawks have been solid in the Central so far with an 11-5-0 record after going just 13-13-3 in the division last season. They have 13 division games remaining. The division will likely come down to the Blackhawks, Predators and St. Louis Blues. The Blackhawks face the Blues three more times, including twice in the final week of the regular season. The Blackhawks have no remaining games against the Predators.
2. Patrick Kane has been on a tear since mid-November. After having just 11 points through 17 games, he has 34 points over the last 24 games. He’s tied for third in the league with 45 points and is seventh with 20 goals. It’s no coincidence his game took off after joining Brad Richards and Kris Versteeg on a line Nov. 16. Having a consistent and offensive second-line center has done wonders for Kane. He and Richards have created a bond on and off the ice. Kane is on pace to break his career-highs of 30 goals and 88 points, which both came in the 2009-2010 season. He had 53 points midway through the 2013-14 season, but his play slowed down and he also had a late-season injury.
3. Corey Crawford is near the top of his game. His numbers were better during the 2012-13 season, but he shared games with Ray Emery for much of that. When he’s been healthy, he’s been getting the net nearly every game this season. He’s 16-8-2 with a 2.19 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. He’s fifth in goals-against average and ninth in save percentage (minimum 15 games). He had a 2.47 goals-against average and .907 save percentage halfway through last season. It also appears as if he’s shaking off the rust from his latest injury. He’s had 64 saves on 68 shots over the last two games.
4. The Blackhawks have gotten back to being the league’s top defensive team. They struggled to keep the puck out of their net last season. They were 15th in the league with a 2.68 goals-against average midway through last season and finished 12th with a 2.58 average. They lead the league now with a 2.15 goals-against average. A lot of that is due to the play of Crawford, Antti Raanta and Scott Darling. The trio has 1,115 saves on 1,200 shots for a .929 save percentage. Possession has also helped the Blackhawks. They’re third in league with a 54.4 Corsi percentage in 5-on-5 situations. Their penalty kill has also been keeping goals out. They lead the league with a 89.7 penalty-kill percentage. They had a 76.0 percentage after 41 games last season.
5. The Blackhawks are among the league’s deepest teams again. The Blackhawks and Blues are the only teams in the league with nine players with 20-plus points. Brandon Saad is on pace to set a career-high in points. Brent Seabrook has already matched his goal total from last season and needs three more goals to set a career high. Patrick Sharp has found his groove after an early-season injury. Kris Versteeg has dealt with a couple of injuries, but he’s been back to form when healthy. Jonathan Toews has been his usual self. Altogether, the Blackhawks are sixth in the league with a 3.00 goals-for average. That could still go up a bit considering they’re 5-on-5 shooting percentage is still lower than usual.
Looking ahead to the second half
1. The Blackhawks haven’t looked like their usual selves over the last few weeks. They’re still finding ways to pick up points, but they’ll want to avoid what happened in the second half last season. The Blackhawks actually had more points through 41 games last season. They were 27-7-7 with 61 points midway through last season and then broke down throughout the second half. They went 19-14-8 over the final 41 games. Their play picked up in the playoffs, but that’s not something you want rely on happening every year.
2. Injuries have forced Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville to toy with his lineup again, but he’ll want to figure out in the coming months what works best and who can be depended on in the playoffs, especially on that fourth line. The Blackhawks had a consistent fourth line of Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith throughout the regular season last season. The line was solid and dependable. But when the playoffs came, Quenneville began tinkering with his lineup because Michal Handzus wasn’t getting it done on the second line. The fourth line was included in those changes, and he basically lost all faith in the players on the fourth line. The Blackhawks became a three-line team, and their play declined due to it. One of Quenneville’s biggest questions will have to be whether he trusts Daniel Carcillo in tight games. Carcillo’s play has varied this season. He was back in the lineup Thursday. It could be between him and Joakim Nordstrom to be a fourth-line winger in the playoffs.
3. The Blackhawks are finally starting to get some consistent play out of their third defenseman pairing. David Rundblad has been better and has noticeably been more confident with the puck. Michal Rozsival will still have the occasional turnover, but he’s held his own considering it’s been a few seasons since he’s been an everyday player. Going forward, the Blackhawks should get Trevor van Riemsdyk back into the lineup in a few months. Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson have been good most of the season. The Blackhawks would like Johnny Oduya to be more consistent leading into the playoffs. Whether Quenneville will trust Rozsival, van Riemsdyk or Rundblad in the playoffs is yet to be seen. Quenneville’s patience for defensemen diminishes in the playoffs. Nick Leddyk knows all about that.
4. The Blackhawks would love to get Marian Hossa and some of their depth players contributing more. Hossa’s scoring and shooting percentage numbers are down. Bryan Bickell has shown some life lately with four goals over the last five games, but he still has 16 points in 41 games. Andrew Shaw has three points since Dec. 1. Smith and Kruger had better numbers last season.
5. The Blackhawks’ power play has been up and down. It’s been better lately, but they’re still 15th in the league with a 19.0 percentage. It was actually better last season as they finished tied for ninth in the league with a 19.5 percentage. The Blackhawks did a nice job of getting the puck to the net and creating off that for a power-play goal on Thursday. Kane has a team-high 18 power-play points. He and Sharp each have six power-play goals.