The “midway point” of the NHL season could not have come sooner for the Chicago Blackhawks, who looked very much worn down as a unit Tuesday in a 5-0 thrashing against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Blackhawks have played the league’s heaviest schedule thus far with 53 games before the All-Star break, which officially gets underway Thursday. Couple that with the Blackhawks’ best players coming off a Stanley Cup run, and the break will certainly be appreciated by all in an Indian Head.
The Blackhawks have just 29 games remaining after the break before the postseason starts. The team is in good position, leading the Central Division by three points against the Dallas Stars and 15 points clear of the two wild-card teams, the Minnesota Wild and red-hot Colorado Avalanche.
So it seems as good a time as any to take a look at 10 positives and negatives from the first part of the Blackhawks’ 2015-16 season. As a side note, this list will not include anything from the Kane offseason saga. So let’s start with the good (in no particular order) and end with the bad (still in no particular order).
10 Blackhawks Positives From The “First Half”
Patrick Kane’s breakout offensive season
So, this guy is good at hockey. Kane is the frontrunner for the Hart Trophy, given to the regular season’s most valuable player, behind some absurd statistics. He’s already tied his career high with 30 goals, which leads the league. He’s already achieved 73 points, his second-highest career total and the most in the league. His 43 assists also pace the NHL as well, and he’s playing almost 21 minutes a night. There was also that 26-game point streak that set a Blackhawks franchise record and league record for an American-born player.
Kane’s season to this point has been a huge reason for the Blackhawks’ success, and it doesn’t seem like he’ll be slowing down any time soon. The Blackhawks really can’t afford for him to do so in a loaded Central Division. But Kane’s offensive prowess is certainly a top positive for the Blackhawks thus far in 2015-16.
Artemi Panarin‘s quick adjustment
He’s far from perfect in all aspects of the North American game, but Panarin has made an immediate impact with the Blackhawks in his first NHL season. He’s likely the Calder Trophy frontrunner, as he leads all rookies in goals (17), assists (29) and points (46). His quick chemistry with Kane has made the Blackhawks’ second line one of the most offensively-formidable units in the league to date.
While Panarin’s rapid rise does bring some future concerns, it’s all roses this season for Panarin and his new team. As long as Kane keeps chugging along, Panarin is likely to come along for the ride, although there’s a fair chance Panarin would still be making a healthy impact on this club without lining up next to Kane. A solid offseason investment by Stan Bowman.
Relatively good health
I know, saying this should get me tossed from a middle-story window on the Sears Tower (it isn’t the Willis Tower). But you have to consider it at this point. Minus the knee injury to Duncan Keith, which cost him 10 games, and the broken wrist of Marcus Kruger, which should keep him out until the playoffs, the Blackhawks have been pretty lucky on the health front. Even with Kruger’s injury, the Blackhawks didn’t have to go far to find a suitable replacement, calling up Phillip Danault. This specifically could be a double-positive when Stan Bowman has to deal with salary-cap issues in the next offseason.
Could things change moving forward? Absolutely. The Blackhawks’ 2015 Stanley Cup aspirations looked to be in great jeopardy when Kane went down with a broken collarbone last February. But this is a team that just keeps chugging along regardless of who’s out, and when next to nobody is out, we Blackhawks fans have a lot to be happy about.
In previous seasons, Gustafsson’s strong start to his NHL career with the Blackhawks would probably be met with a “nice going, kid” type of sentiment. This season, it should be met with bear hugs from fans throughout the Windy City. The Blackhawks are boasting one of their worst defensive units in years, and Gustafsson has stepped to the plate to make it better. While Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook are the big three, Trevor van Riemsdyk has seen some sophomore slumping, and Michal Rozsival and Rob Scuderi are just trying to stay alive each time they hit the ice.
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Gustafsson, meanwhile, seems confident and assured when he has the puck, and he’s a bit of an offensive dynamo. He has eight assists in 20 games, including some sweet passes to directly set up goals. Gustafsson has been steady in a time the Blackhawks really need that influence from someone other than the old guard.
United Center success
Don’t worry, we’ll talk about the other side of this coin in the negatives section. But the strong play at the United Center has to be recognized. The Blackhawks are the only team with 20 or more wins at a home arena (21), and they’ve failed to earn one point in just five of their 27 home games this season. Without this success, the Blackhawks are probably a wild-card team right now. But they’ve made the Madhouse on Madison one of the toughest places in which to play. If the season were to end right now, the Western Conference playoffs would go through the UC. The Blackhawks would certainly like to keep it that way.
The other streak
Considering how hyped Kane’s 26-game point streak was, it sort of forces us to call the Blackhawks’ 12-game win streak “the other streak.” To be fair, it was also coming on the heels of a Florida Panthers’ 12-game run, but this slate of games was, is and will be very important to the Blackhawks’ 2015-16 season.
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The team set a new franchise record when it defeated Nashville 4-1 on Jan. 19 for a 12th consecutive win, surpassing two 11-game runs, one of which occurred in the lockout shortened 2013 season that saw the Blackhawks hoist the chalice. This goes hand in hand with home ice advantage, as the Blackhawks were able to rack up some critical points to ensure they don’t have to play perfect hockey through the last 29 games in order to get that home ice.
Sure, most of the wins were against non-playoff teams, but no game is a given in this league. That the Blackhawks were able to rack up 12 straight wins with a sub-par defense and a sometimes-one-note offense is a testament to the winning mentality in the locker room and within the Blackhawks’ core players.
Corey freaking Crawford
Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about this guy. His stats took a dent Tuesday because the defense in front of him was mostly sleeping, but, man, has he been great this season. Crawford leads the league in shutouts with seven (and, no, you can not attribute any of those to lockdown defense), and he’s posting a .931 save percentage and 2.14 goals-against average through 42 starts, 28 of which he’s won. He’s having a career season, and it couldn’t come at a better time for the Blackhawks considering previously-discussed issues (poor defense, one-note offense).
Crow didn’t make the All-Star Game because of the new format and the NHL trying to display some sort of fairness, but that’s fine. Crow needs to rest up, because as Pat Foley said on last night’s broadcast, he’s probably going to make a new career high in appearances this season. He set that mark in the 2013-14 season with 59, and he already has 42 this season. With how rough Scott Darling has had it (more on him later), Crow will be leaned on with the Blackhawks trying to nail down home ice.
Anyone left out there who thinks Crawford will keep the Blackhawks from making an extended playoff run, get your head out of the sand, stat. You’re missing quite the goaltending show.
Joel Quenneville‘s milestone
Coach Q has become a Chicago icon in rapid order, rising up along the likes of Mike Ditka in city sports lore. So it was nice to see him tie and then surpass Al Arbour on the all-time coaching wins list earlier this month, hitting 782 on Jan. 12 against Nashville and 783 two nights later in Montreal.
Q does some things to infuriate Blackhawks fans (more on that later), but the man knows how to coach. He’ll never reach Scotty Bowman’s insane 1,244-win mark, but he can comfortably place himself in the second position on that list in his continuing years in Chicago.
On that note, Q’s three-year extension was also a highlight of this first half, as it gives the Blackhawks more stability moving forward. With the salary cap making sure full stability is not a thing on the ice, it’s nice to have a guy who has helped deliver three Stanley Cups in six seasons sticking around a little longer.
Annihilating the Pacific Division
What an awful collection of teams this division displays this season. Los Angeles has mounted a nice comeback season after missing the 2015 playoffs, but the rest of the lineup is just not good. San Jose will probably win a playoff series by virtue of the Pacific’s No. 3 seed being one of Arizona, Anaheim or Vancouver — unless the Ducks suddenly find their scoring stroke in the season’s second half. Oh, and don’t forget, Calgary (45 points) and Edmonton (43) are 10 points or fewer out of a playoff spot. What a joke.
Thankfully, the Blackhawks have mostly rolled this motley crew, posting an 11-1-2 mark. The only non-point effort was a 6-3 shellacking at the hands of Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin back in November. Those kinds of things will happen, but the Blackhawks taking 24 points out of a possible 28 against a group of teams is really stellar — and necessary, in this case. The Blackhawks still have seven games remaining against teams from the Pacific as well.
Stan Bowman fixing his mistakes
We’ll also touch on this in the negatives section, but the Blackhawks general manager has had a strange season. Of course, he had to do some master finagling to get the Blackhawks under the cap before the season began, which he did. But that brought aboard pieces Quenneville ultimately couldn’t fit into his system. And so, they needed to go. Thus, Trevor Daley was moved for Rob Scuderi, Ryan Garbutt got the shaft for Jiri Sekac and Jeremy Morin was siphoned off for Richard Panik.
Have any of these moves really made the Blackhawks better? No, but at least Stan is staying active and attempting to field a team that the oft-stubborn Coach Q will actually use, and one that can contend for a Cup. It also leaves hope that he’s not nearly done, as the Blackhawks could certainly use a No. 4/5 defenseman before the trade deadline.
Now, on to the not so good.
Next: 10 Negatives From Season's First Half