We’re in another one of those lulls in Chicago Blackhawks action where we need something to talk about until the team plays again. In this case, we’re waiting until Thursday’s tilt against the New Jersey Devils. So, let’s have a discussion about the Blackhawks and the Central Division in which they play.
The Blackhawks have gotten off to a less-than-spectacular start, and it has them behind all but the Colorado Avalanche in the Central. Still, the team is just seven points behind first-place Dallas, and the Blackhawks have hardly played within their own division. They’ve contested a single game against each of the Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues, and while they got no points out of those three games, it’s still just three of 29 the men in the Indian Head have against their divisional foes. So it’s certainly far from time to panic.
But even if things don’t fully turn around for the Blackhawks — meaning they play well enough to be in the playoff hunt but not to crush their entire division — there really isn’t any reason to worry. What I’m saying is, we need to place less emphasis on the Blackhawks leading or winning the Central Division and more on the team just qualifying for the postseason.
Yes, it’s really early to be talking about this, considering the Blackhawks have played 15 games of 82. But every time the team hits a roadbump — especially one like the blown 5-2 lead against St. Louis — some fans would have you thinking the end is nigh for the Blackhawks, and that they might as well try to earn next year’s draft’s top pick. Meanwhile, past recent results have shown this is far from the mental approach we should be taking.
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Last season, the Blackhawks finished third in their division, just barely out of one of the wild-card spots, and managed to turn that into a third Stanley Cup in six season. The Tampa Bay Lightning grabbed second in their division and were the Cup runners-up. The division champs in the Central and Atlantic, St. Louis and Montreal, didn’t even qualify for the conference finals.
Maybe the most-extreme example of the idea that not winning your division isn’t such a big deal came in the 2014 playoffs, when none of the four division winners reached the conference finals. Instead, Montreal (third in the Atlantic) and the New York Rangers (second in the Metropolitan) faced off for the Eastern Conference title, while Chicago (third in the Central) and Los Angeles (third in the Pacific) competed in the West. What was better about this: A strong portion of hockey fans widely regarded the battle of third-place division teams in the West to be more of a Stanley Cup Final than whatever would actually be produced … and it turned out they were right!
Sure, in 2013 the Blackhawks ran the table for another Stanley Cup, but they were almost knocked out of the postseason by the league’s 13th-best team (record-wise) in Detroit, and wound up facing just the third-best team (again, record-wise) in the East in Boston in the Cup Final.
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In 2012, the Kings were the eighth-seeded team in the West (the wild-card format wasn’t started until the 2014 playoffs), and they lost just four games in the entire postseason en route to a championship. Who did they face in the Cup Final? The sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils, who were certainly more of a product of getting hot at the right time than being any sort of juggernaut. In fact, the No. 1 seed in the West (Vancouver) and the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds in the East (Boston, Florida and Pittsburgh) couldn’t even get out of the first round.
I could go on and on with this, but the point is already clear. There’s no reason to worry about the Blackhawks missing out on winning a division title or the President’s Trophy. Sure, it’s fun to be ahead of everyone. I’m sure Stars fans are having a blast right now, and they should be. But when the playoffs roll around, things can change in a hurry. Colorado saw that in 2014 when they surprised everyone by winning the Central, only to get rolled by Minnesota in the first round of the postseason. Vancouver saw it repeatedly when their championship window was open, as President’s Trophy victories meant absolutely nothing when the playoffs came around.
Simply put, the Blackhawks need to stay within striking distance of their in-conference foes, but there’s no reason to panic at them not roaring out of the gate to 30 points in 15 games. It’s just not realistic. Teams get off to slow starts, but when those teams have a championship-caliber and battle-tested core like the Blackhawks do, there really isn’t much reason to think they’re going to tumble to the conference’s dregs.
There are things the Blackhawks need to improve on, no doubt. And worrying about those from game to game is only natural. But worrying about the Blackhawks being behind divisional foes and about them not getting home ice, especially at this point in the season, just isn’t necessary. No team wants to face the Blackhawks in the playoffs, so its just a matter of getting there for the guys from Chicago.