Chicago Blackhawks’ Record-Setting Season Concealed Fatal Flaws

Apr 17, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) makes a save during the second period against the Nashville Predators in game three of the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 17, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) makes a save during the second period against the Nashville Predators in game three of the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports /

The Chicago Blackhawks’ spectacular regular season concealed key deficiencies that proved to be fatal in a short-lived playoff run

From just about every angle, the Chicago Blackhawks’ 2016-17 regular season was marked by spectacular triumph. With 50 victories, including five streaks of five or more consecutive wins and a franchise-record eight consecutive road wins, the ‘Hawks compiled 109 points to claim both the Central Division and Western Conference championships.

Sure, there were some bumps and injuries along the way, and the usual hand-wringing when the team ended the season with four straight losses. But the Blackhawks entered the playoffs radiating confidence that comes with being the top seed and having home-ice advantage. Eight days later, they were done, swept out of the playoffs in four straight losses to the eighth-seeded Nashville Predators. How could this happen?       

Despite the gaudy statistics and franchise records the ‘Hawks piled up in the regular season, a few key issues persisted throughout the year or intensified down the stretch and would come back to haunt Chicago in the first round. Here’s a brief look at four fatal problem areas.

Trouble with the puck

In today’s NHL, puck possession is usually described with the “Corsi-for” stat, defined as the total number of 5-on-5 shot attempts — on goal, blocked or missed. Fifty percent is the break-even point, and any Corsi-for above 55 percent is considered top-tier.

At their best, the Blackhawks posted a regular season Corsi-for of 56.4 percent that led the NHL in the 2009-10 season. Since then, the ‘Hawks’ Corsi-for rate has dropped steadily year-to-year, and they finished this past season at 50.4 percent, ranking 13th in the league. 

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Over the four-game series against Nashville, the Blackhawks posted a Corsi-for of 49.6 percent, and only four ‘Hawks forwards finished above 50 percent.

In Game 1, they forged an incredibly high Corsi-for rate of 64 percent, but couldn’t score due to poor shot selection and Nashville’s ability to block a staggering 26 shot attempts. See Colin Likas’ report for a detailed analysis of Chicago’s puck possession and shooting issues in Game 1.

Nashville easily carried puck possession in the second and third games, and just like Game 1, the Preds were able to render the ‘Hawks’ superior puck possession irrelevant in Game 4 by clogging the shooting lanes and blocking shots. Puck possession may be just a stat, but you’ve got to have it to score.

Unproductive blue line

The Blackhawks’ fabled D-corps played a pivotal role in each of Chicago’s last three Stanley Cup titles. Brian Campbell kept the play alive that ended with Patrick Kane’s overtime Cup-winning goal in 2010. Johnny Oduya put the shot on net from the left point that Dave Bolland banged home for the Cup-winner against the Bruins in 2013. And, of course, Duncan Keith’s iconic Cup-winning goal in 2015 against the Lightning.

Against the Preds in 2017? Not much to talk about. Keith’s assist in Game 3 on Kaner’s powerplay goal that gave the ‘Hawks a 2-0 lead in the second period was the only point posted by a Blackhawks defenseman in the entire series. Over four games, ‘Hawks blueliners fired a total of 29 shots on goal and combined for an embarrassing minus-22 rating. On the other hand, four Nashville defensemen combined for three goals and 10 points for the series. That hurts.

And yet, we could see this coming. Over the season’s last 30 games, Blackhawks defensemen scored only 10 goals, four of them by Trevor van Riemsdyk. Veteran Brent Seabrook, who scored a career-high 14 goals in 2015-16, potted only three this season, well below his career average of 7.3 tallies per year. Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson had good years offensively, but failed to get it going against Nashville.

Chicago Blackhawks

Defensively, Seabs led the team with 15 blocked shots and 13 hits, while Hammer disappointed with six giveaways and only seven blocked shots. Surprisingly, TVR led all Chicago blueliners with nine shots on goal. Every Chicago defenseman had a minus rating, except Michal Kempny (0), who only played in one game.

Please read Gail Kauchak’s comprehensive analysis of the Blackhawks defense.

Crow faltered

It’s tough to place much blame on two-time Stanley Cup champion Corey Crawford when his team scores only three goals over four games. But Crow couldn’t come up with a big save to steal Game 1, or close out Game 3 with a two-goal lead heading into the third period. Still, you’ve got to admire his incredible 46-save performance in Game 3, a loss that pretty much sealed the postseason for the ‘Hawks.

Looking back, one has to wonder if Crawford ever fully recovered from the emergency appendectomy he underwent in early December. In 20 appearances from Oct. 12 to Dec. 2, Crow carried the team and ranked among the league leaders with a .927 save percentage and a 2.27 goals-against average. In 35 regular-season games he played after recovering from the appendicitis, his statline sagged to .914 save percentage and a 2.71 goals-against average.

Series lost at the dot

We harped all season about the Blackhawks’ declining performance in the faceoff circle. On the season, the ‘Hawks ranked 29th overall, winning only 47.5 percent of their draws. Against Nashville, they lost the faceoff battle in three of four games, and in several powerplay chances lost the crucial opening draw in the offensive zone.

Like the puck possession numbers, the Blackhawks have experienced a steady decline from year to year in winning faceoffs. It’s not a coincidence; puck possession starts with whichever team wins the draw. This is an area that needs immediate and dedicated effort if the Blackhawks hope to successfully compete again in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Next: For Chicago Blackhawks and Ville Pokka, Decision Time is Now

That’s it for this writer looking back at last season’s failures. With the 2017 draft drawing near and a host of high-powered prospects marshaling to compete for roster spots, it’s time to look ahead to an exciting summer when hope springs eternal.