If the Chicago Blackhawks are serious about contending for the postseason, they’ll need to come up with a positive record in a rugged January slate
December has been an interesting month for the Chicago Blackhawks. They entered it on a losing streak, which continued for three games. Then they reeled off five straight successes before going 1-3-0 entering tonight’s New Year’s Eve showdown with Calgary.
Considering goaltender Corey Crawford missed two different parts of the month due to injury, you could consider the results a moderate success. Or you could consider them an abject failure for a team that portends to be a serious playoff contender each year.
In discussing that latter point, it’s clear the Blackhawks don’t have the “serious” part down right now. Though they have games in hand on most Western Conference teams, they’re two points out of the second wild card and behind teams like Dallas, Minnesota and Anaheim in that hunt.
January isn’t going to offer the Blackhawks much solace, either. However, if the Blackhawks want to be a realistic part of the wild-card (or Central Division) chase, they need to come up with some triumphs next month.
Slate offers few gimmes
When the Blackhawks duff games like the Vancouver outing on Thursday, it becomes frustrating because you know they should beat teams like that. The NHL doesn’t offer a lot of gimmes, but teams like the Canucks should be a win for a team that wants to contend.
Chicago isn’t getting a whole lot of games like that in January. Ottawa has played poorly and hosts the Blackhawks on Jan. 9. The Blackhawks will also play both of their games against Detroit in January, with the home tilt on the 14th and the away game on the 25th.
Da Windy City
But Detroit tends to show up against Chicago, simply out of respect for a former rivalry. And beyond those three games, the Blackhawks are going to be seeing good teams. Edmonton is the January opponent one outside Detroit and Ottawa that is below .500 right now, and we saw how much trouble the Oil gave the Blackhawks on Friday.
There are also tilts against the New York Rangers, Vegas, Minnesota, Winnipeg, the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay, Toronto and Nashville. This is not exactly an appealing docket of games for an inconsistent team.
If the Blackhawks are seriously looking to test themselves, they can look at this schedule as a positive. There are tons of tests in that group, and even though most of them are in the Eastern Conference, points are points right now for Chicago.
The saving grace in this slog is that eight of the 12 overall contests are at the United Center. The Blackhawks can get last change and use matchups to try and protect Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass for as long as Crow is sidelined.
If the Blackhawks come out of January with a less-than-.500 record, it’s not necessarily the end of the world. But it’ll also mean they’re not in a playoff spot (unless everyone in front of them simultaneously starts losing a lot as well). And not being in a postseason spot come February isn’t a good sign.
The Blackhawks are going to need to find some consistency amid a difficult schedule if they’re to contend for a Stanley Cup Playoffs spot. This is easier said than done with guys like Crow, Artem Anisimov and Connor Murphy suffering injuries very recently, but we’ve been told time and again the core guys know how to win in all conditions. This is a test of that.
Things aren’t getting any easier beyond January, either. The Blackhawks have a ton of key Western Conference tilts down the stretch. Between Feb. 1 and April 7, the Blackhawks face St. Louis, Winnipeg and San Jose three times apiece, Calgary and Anaheim twice, and Minnesota and Dallas once. Those are all teams the Blackhawks need two points against.
So the push for being taken seriously in the postseason hunt begins with a difficult January for the Blackhawks. How they respond will likely determine if we see more than three games of Chicago hockey in April.