Chicago Blackhawks Are West’s Best Once Again

Jan 12, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook (7) celebrates with goalie Corey Crawford (50) after scoring a goal during the second period against the Nashville Predators at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 12, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook (7) celebrates with goalie Corey Crawford (50) after scoring a goal during the second period against the Nashville Predators at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /

The Chicago Blackhawks have been the beneficiaries of some impressive streaks this season. Patrick Kane’s 26-game point streak and the current nine-game (possibly 10 with a win tonight against the Maple Leafs) winning streak have helped the Blackhawks rise to the top of the Western Conference standings.

Just two weeks ago, after the Winter Classic, the Blackhawks sat in third place in the Central Division behind the Dallas Stars and St. Louis. Since then, St. Louis and Dallas have hit some rough patches and the Blackhawks have been on fire. So at the midway point of the season and nearing the All-Star break, Chicago has positioned itself as a top contender for the Stanley Cup.

Is anyone really surprised?

Check it out: Quenneville era streaks

Franchise duo leading Blackhawks

This offseason doesn’t need much more delving into, but for a player like Patrick Kane to have spent his summer in not-so-great circumstances, it is amazing to see the season he is putting together. Currently holding a 10-point lead over Jamie Benn (63 to 53) for the NHL lead, Kane also leads the NHL in assists with 38, is second in goals with 25 and is a top-five player with a plus-20 rating.

Not to mention he leads the NHL in powerplay points, as well as being named captain of the Central Division All-Star team. (Take that, Shea Weber!)

Joining Kane in the All-Star game in Nashville is Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. While Toews may not be at the top of the league for points, currently sitting in a tie for 34th in the NHL with 33 points along with Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Max Pacioretty, and Steven Stamkos, he is getting things done where it counts most this season for Chicago.

He is tied for second in the league with six game-winning goals, has taken the eighth most faceoffs in the league while winning the fourth most from the dot, and is averaging a little more than 20 minutes of ice-time a night with 20:07 (16th amongst forwards).

It goes without saying that the investment the organization made with the contracts given to Toews and Kane, basically making them Blackhawks lifers, is going to be one of the best things for the team and city of Chicago for a while.

Crawford having a Vezina-type season

Another decision the Blackhawks organization made in recent years was to stick by goaltender Corey Crawford. I will be the first to raise my hand and say that, after the 2011-12 season, I wanted a change in net. I felt Crawford was a good goalie but not good enough to get the team over the hump and back to Stanley Cup contender status. A year and expletive-laced championship rally speech later, I was convinced. A deflection short in 2014, and an All-Star nod and another Cup in 2015 solidified Crawford as one of the top goalies in the NHL.

This season, Crawford has again put together an All-Star caliber resume. But with the new voting system, only two goalies are named per division, and apparently Devan Dubnyk and Pekka Rinne are having better seasons.

Huh, well, not really.

  • Crawford – (25-10-2) / GAA – 2.17 / SV% – 92.9 / SO – 6
  • Dubnyk – (18-12-4) / GAA – 2.32 / SV% – 92.0 / SO – 4
  • Rinne – (16-14-7) / GAA – 2.57 / SV% – 90.2 / SO – 2

But what’s an All-Star snub, right? I mean, Sidney Crosby isn’t even an All-Star this year. But now let’s take Crawford numbers and stack them up against other top contenders for the Vezina Trophy this season for the league’s best goalie — Washington’s Braden Holtby and Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick.

  • Crawford – (25-10-2) / GAA – 2.17 / SV% – 92.9 / SO – 6
  • Holtby – (28-4-2) / GAA – 1.91 / SV% – 93.3 / SO – 2
  • Quick – (24-9-2) / GAA – 2.05 / SV% – 92.5 / SO – 3

Pretty darn comparable.

Does Crawford deserve the All-Star bid? Uh, yeah. Does he deserve the recognition of being a strong Vezina contender? Totally. Does he deserve to be recognized as one of the best in the NHL of the last five or six years? Of course. Only Crawford and Quick have won two Stanley Cups in this decade as their team’s top goalie.

Check it out: Crawford deserves the Vezina 

Fresh faces adding to the mix

The last of the major ingredients to Chicago’s winning recipe this season has been the play of young and often recalled talent the Blackhawks have used this year. Due to injuries and low level of play, guys like Duncan Keith, Marcus Kruger and Bryan Bickell have missed large chunks of the season that have opened doors to the younger players in the organization to step up and make an impact.

Players like Erik Gustafsson, Phillip Danault, Dennis Rasmussen, Viktor Svedberg, Marko Dano and Tanner Kero have all made an impact on the Blackhawks squad this season after spending time in the AHL with the Rockford IceHogs. Danault, Rasmussen and Gustafsson have all made themselves into regular players in recent weeks and have been given the Joel Quenneville stamp of approval to be trusted in special teams situations and take pressure off of top-end guys like Toews, Kane, Keith and Brent Seabrook.

Not to mention, Teuvo Teravainen has been a solid contributor this season after making his way into the regular lineup late last season and in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Andrew Shaw has been contributing more in the points department as of late and continues to be an absolute grinder on the opposition. Which brings me to one of the newest and biggest contributors to the Blackhawks this season, Artemi Panarin.

If I had asked any Blackhawks fan at the beginning of the season, “Who will be the top two scorers on the team at the All-Star break?”, I’m sure there would have been a heavy number of people saying a combination of Toews, Kane, Keith, Marian Hossa or even a few believers in Teravainen. But I bet that not one person would have said, or even known how to correctly pronounce, Artemi Panarin. The 23-year-old Russian rookie is squarely in the lead for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year, and is second on the team in scoring with 39 points (15 goals, 24 assists). Without the addition of Panarin and fellow Russian Artem Anisimov, Kane and the Blackhawks would not be having the season they are. Period.

You mix all of the following together — top-end talent producing, high-level goaltending and fresh, sometimes unexpected production from role players — and it is no surprise that the Blackhawks are yet again atop the Western Conference and looking like a favorite to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

What do you think is the biggest factor for the Blackhawks to repeat? Let us know in the comments section.