This is sad news, but we all need to hear it: The Chicago Blackhawks have the fewest regular-season games remaining among all NHL teams. Shed the necessary tears and come back to your computer, phone or tablet screen when you’re ready.
The Blackhawks have played 61 games this season, with only Colorado and St. Louis having played 60. Some teams have played as few as 56 games thus far. So we have to get used to stretches like this one, in which the Blackhawks are off for three consecutive days. Such stretches also give us time to ponder some important questions as we reach the regular season’s stretch run.
In the spirit of that thought, let’s take a look at five burning questions facing the Blackhawks over their last 21 regular-season games as they make a push for the Western Conference’s top seed (or maybe the top overall seed, if Washington experiences a massive collapse) and home-ice advantage through most/all of the postseason.
How will the Blackhawks handle their tougher schedule?
To be specific about this question, I’m referring to a portion of the remaining 21 games that starts Thursday and ends Monday, March 14. In that stretch, the Blackhawks will face Nashville at home, Washington at home, Detroit on the road, Boston on the road, Detroit at home, St. Louis on the road, Dallas on the road and Los Angeles at home. You might recognize all of those teams as playoff squads if the season ended today (yes, even the Predators).
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Despite the typical groggy stretch the Blackhawks usually experience this time of year under Joel Quenneville, which we saw in full effect last week in losses to San Jose, Dallas and Anaheim, I think the Blackhawks will play well in that run of games and come out with a positive record. One reason for my thought is they’ll be getting closer to the end of the regular season and looking to secure home ice (more on that later), so they’ll need every point they can get with the Stars and Blues hot on their heels.
On top of that, the Blackhawks have posted a 21-8-3 record against all teams currently in the playoffs, i.e. teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. That’s pretty darn impressive, and it should serve the team well through that very difficult run of games. Of course, that 21-8-3 record I mentioned brings up another question …
Can the Blackhawks get up for games against lesser competition?
If you’ve done the math (or even if you haven’t), the Blackhawks’ record against current non-playoff teams this season sits at an absolutely average 17-10-2. We know a portion of the reason for this lies in the Blackhawks’ relative inability to totally care about facing teams they know are inferior. It’s why we see them practically asleep against the likes of New Jersey, Philadelphia, Carolina, Buffalo, Calgary and Edmonton, among other teams. They’re still able to pull out wins against these teams at times in spite of their attitude toward them, but when you need all the points you can get and the opponent is aware of this, it becomes a little more difficult for Corey Crawford to drag the team to competence or Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane to carry the entire offense.
So the answer to this question kind of depends on the opponent and the night. Two more games against Winnipeg would certainly stir up some emotions, as the Blackhawks and Jets tend to play rugged affairs against one another. The remaining game against Arizona might turn into a 60-minute brawl if the Coyotes are out of the playoff picture by that point (April 5). But two more games against Minnesota (not including Sunday’s Stadium Series game) and one each against Calgary, Vancouver and Columbus? Who knows what Chicago team we’ll see then, especially against the Blue Jackets in the regular-season finale, which is typically the Blackhawks’ time to phone it in unless they’re playing for something legitimate (i.e. home ice).
So, most optimistic answer … we’ll see. Sorry, that isn’t very optimistic.
Will the Blackhawks get consistent bottom-six scoring before the regular season ends?
This could be answered by a big move from Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. If he decides to jump on a top-line left wing, things could improve for the Blackhawks’ bottom six, which hasn’t done a whole lot on a regular basis outside Teuvo Teravainen. If Andrew Shaw is able to be moved down to the bottom six and Brandon Mashinter is able to then go away, we could see some settled third and fourth lines. Commonality among those players would likely lead to more opportunities and more conversion.
We saw the line of Andrew Desjardins, Phillip Danault and Teuvo get some killer scoring chances early Wednesday against the New York Rangers, with Desjardins potting the game’s first goal. We could see more of that moving forward, and even though Shaw isn’t the most dynamic offensive player, he would be an improvement over Mashinter or even Desjardins. Marcus Kruger‘s impending return could also spur some offense, although he wasn’t doing a whole lot before he went down with a wrist injury.
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Even if Bowman doesn’t make a move to send Shaw to the bottom six, it seems Q is getting a little more comfortable with the combinations he likes on the bottom six. That alone, with some time for players to mesh, could result in more scoring. Matchups against an opponent’s inferior defensemen and forwards are also a potential plus. So I’d like to say we will see more consistent scoring from the bottom six, though I’m not sure it’ll be anything like what Teuvo and Antoine Vermette provided in the 2015 postseason.
Next: Two More Burning Questions