Trevor Block – Indy Writer
Chicago, IL – With 26 games to go, the Chicago Blackhawks are on pace to lead the West into another potential Stanley Cup Title.
The Blackhawks currently sit atop the West thanks to a 36-16-4 record good enough for 76 points, second best in the NHL. Many analysts expect Chicago to face the current number one team in the NHL, the Washington Capitals, in the Stanley Cup Finals.
However, the Finals remain 26 regular season games and 12 playoff wins away. Patrick Kane and company know just how tough it is to make it through rigorous playoff series after an 82 game regular season. Fortunately for Chicago, the Blackhawks looked poised to make another deep playoff run.
Chicago’s most significant threat in the Western Conference has been the Dallas Stars. That is at least until their impressive season began to even out towards the end of December. Dallas got off to a hot start and set the pace for the Central Division and Western Conference. Led by a dynamic group of young stars, such as Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg, Dallas jumped out in front of the veteran core of the Blackhawks early in the season.
Prior to the holiday break all NHL teams are afforded near the end of December, Dallas had a 10 point lead over Chicago in the Central Division standings. Their lead was punctuated by a 4-0 win over the Blackhawks on December 22, the last day before the break.
Since December 22, the Blackhawks have gone 16-4-0 while the Stars have gone 9-8-3. Chicago now holds a 5 point lead over Dallas in the standings, thanks to a recent 5-1 victory over Dallas. Imagine a 7-game series between these two teams. Should these teams continue their strong seasons, NHL fans might be treated to one of the most electrifying Conference Finals of all time.
Of course, there will be plenty of other teams standing in the way.
Speaking of standing in the way, Corey Crawford has been lights out for Chicago so far this season. Out of all the goaltenders in the NHL, Crawford has seen the most shots (1345) and made the most saves (1252). He’s third in save percentage (.931), second in wins (31) and first in shutouts (7). If it weren’t for the season Patrick Kane is having, Crawford would be the Hawks best player.
Kane only recently gave up the NHL lead in assists to Erik Karlsson of the Ottowa Senators. Before that, Kane led the NHL in all three categories: goals, assists and points. He currently still leads in goals (32) and points (76), but his 44 assists is only good enough for second. The points race isn’t even close either. Jamie Benn and Karlsson are tied for second in total points… at 59.
Kane’s stellar play has heightened the production of his linemates, most notably, rookie Artemi Panarin. Equipped with the skill set of a star Russian hockey player, Panarin leads all rookies in goals (18), assists (34) and points (52). His talent is undeniable, but his chemistry with Kane and fellow Russian Arem Anisimov has been the story of the season. Credit management for filling in vacant spots with talented players after a yard sale of an offseason.
The loss of Brandon Saad, Johnny Oduya, Patrick Sharp and Brad Richards haven’t hurt the Hawks too much this season. The usual suspects, Johnathan Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith and even Marian Hossa lately, have been complimented by a number of role players that have helped this team find itself in second place in the NHL. Chicago has gotten surprising contributions from grinders like Andrew Shaw and Andrew Desjardins, but also from their young guys.
Phillip Danault, second year player out of Quebec, has impressed Chicago’s coaching staff while filling in for an injured Marcus Kruger. Danault, who has been heralded by head coach Joel Quenneville, brings energy to the fourth line. He has also earned minutes on the penalty kill, especially as a defensive zone centerman.
“Danault has been helping our team game,” Quenneville said. “That’s giving us way more balance than we had earlier in the year.”
While the remaining 26 games will be no bed of roses, Chicago looks primed for another deep playoff run. Their position in the playoffs is essentially a lock, from there it’s all up for grabs.
Their experience will suit them among the other best in the NHL that lack it. Teams standing in their way would be foolish to think they’re satisfied with just 3 Stanley Cups.