The Chicago Blackhawks have been one of the NHL’s most dynamic and offensively dangerous teams over the past seven seasons. It’s not surprising that Joel Quenneville’s side has been difficult to stop considering that they have iced a lineup featuring the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, not to mention defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. However, in 2014-15, strong team defense and stingy all-round play has been the real story in Chicago, while the offense has struggled for consistency. Fans will be keen to see their star players rack up the points, but strong defensive play is a terrific sign that the Blackhawks might be ready to make it three Stanley Cup titles in six years.
In many ways, the 2014-15 NHL regular season has been nothing more than ordinary for the Blackhawks. They currently sit in third place in the Central division and the former offensive powerhouse hasn’t been as much of a powerhouse so far this year.
Defense Wins Championships
The reason for the success of Chicago this year has been a defensive unit that – potentially to the surprise of some – is arguably the best in the league. They currently rank third in the NHL conceding just 2.26 goals per game. Quenneville also has the penalty kill working tenaciously hard and using its speed to disrupt man advantage units. Chicago’s penalty kill is the best in the league killing off 87.9% of opponents’ chances. It helps that this team spends very little time shorthanded too.
The defensive corps is led by one of the NHL’s top pairings in Keith and Seabrook, who make big plays at both ends of the ice. The second pairing of Niklas Hjmarlsson-Johnny Oduya is underrated; they play a high standard of shutdown hockey. It’s been a struggle to find the right players to round out the blue line. Michal Rozsival, David Rundblad, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Tim Erixon and Kyle Cumiskey have all seen time as Quenneville tries to find the right balance often splitting up the top tandem of Keith-Seabrook.
Equally crucial to the Blackhawks defensive success has been hard-working defensive hockey played by a forward group that creates turnovers and disrupts offenses with aggressive and high-octane fore-checking and back checking. Possession hockey also plays a critical role in this team’s style of play and that takes pressure off of the defense.
The other part of the equation is a goaltending tandem that has quietly enjoyed a lot of success. Corey Crawford has established himself as a reliable starting goaltender, but there has always been a feeling that the 30-year is at his most effective when he shares the load (like most goaltenders actually). There’s no doubt that the emergence of Antti Raanta has helped both Crawford and the team. The 25-year old has posted a .938 save percentage and 1.80 GAA in 13 games and will be a viable option to ensure that Crawford enters playoffs well-rested. That’s more bad news for Chicago’s competition.
Strong defensive play and improved goaltending doesn’t take away from the identity of this team, which is still led by dynamic duo Toews and Kane. There are few teams with a better battle tested and deeper offensive group. Richards has a history of showing up in the postseason, expect Shaw’s line to be better as well. It’s hard to believe that these Blackhawks won’t score goals in the playoffs when they need to. Even now, Chicago ranks eighth in the league in terms of goals per game and its power-play unit ranks 13th. Those are not terrible numbers by any means.
Weak Western conference?
Maybe it’s an exaggeration to suggest that the NHL’s Western conference is “weak”, but aren’t too many elite contenders either. The defending champions LA Kings are looking a little worn out and battle to try and make the playoffs at all. The San Jose Sharks are in a similar battle just to reach the postseason. The Anaheim Ducks and St Louis Blues are once again high up the regular season rankings, but neither team’s goaltending situations feels trustable and there are usually reasons that teams endure prolonged periods of postseason disappointment. Maybe the “time has come” for one of these two, but Chicago should fancy their chances in a seven game series against either.
The Nashville Predators lead the conference of course. There’s a little bit of 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche about that group. The Avs got knocked out in the first round after finishing second in the West and have slumped to last place in the Central division this year.
Chicago has been as good and consistent as any NHL team over the past six years, winning the Stanley Cup in 2010 and 2013, and reaching the conference finals in 2009 and 2014. Last year, they came very close to a second straight Stanley Cup Finals appearance only just being edged out in Game 7 overtime as a part of a classic series against the LA Kings. It’s hard to believe that the Blackhawks wouldn’t have eased past the New York Rangers just as the Kings did. Jonathan Toews and his teammates will know that they were very close to adding to their already impressive history.
They’re getting a little closer to making up for last year’s disappointing conclusion. In 2012-13, the last year that the Blackhawks won the cup, they finished with the best goals against average in the NHL. As good as last season’s team was, they finished outside the top 10 in terms of goals conceded. History suggests that Chicago are a team to watch out for when they are clicking defensively.
No team has an unlimited window in which to try and win Stanley Cups, even one with a core featuring Kane, Toews, Keith and Seabrook. This year’s group isn’t perfect and GM Stan Bowman will already be reviewing options in terms of adding veteran pieces for a deep playoff run.