It’s official; the NHL trade deadline is behind us, and we can now focus on the remainder of the season. While the Chicago Blackhawks look a little different than they did a full days ago, they’re still in a decent position to make the playoffs. With 13 games remaining in the 2020-21 season, the Blackhawks are currently two points out of the final playoff spot in the Discover Central Division. Due to a better-than-expected January and February, Chicago has been in that fourth playoff spot for most of the season. But a rough March has brought them back down to earth, and an inconsistent April has put their playoff hopes in jeopardy. Can they pull it together in the home stretch to earn themselves some extra hockey?
It’s not going to be easy. And it very well might not happen. If it did, it would be a bonus for this campaign where expectations were low to begin with. But these Blackhawks are certainly going to try. After all, that’s what it’s all about. If done right, these are the games that are going to matter, and build the foundation for an even more productive 2021-22 season. So, what do they need to do? Here are six keys to the Blackhawks earning a playoff berth.
6. Quantity and Quality of Shots
My colleague Shaun brought this point up on one of our recent Blackhawks Banter episodes, and I’d like to reiterate it. Ever since the Blackhawks had an embarrassing 16 shots on goal against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 30 (ironically, they won the game), they’ve been working on getting more shot attempts and shots on goal. Obviously, they also want these to be good quality shots, of the high-danger variety. Since then, they’ve been doing a good job of this.
Courtesy of Charlie Roumeliotis of NBC Sports Chicago, we look at the five most recent matchups. The Blackhawks were ahead in shot attempts, shots on goal, 5-on-5 scoring chances and 5-on-5 high danger chances in the recent Nashville Predators game and the second Dallas Stars game last Thursday night. In the first Stars contest last Tuesday and the Blue Jackets matchup on Saturday, they won the overall shot attempts and shots on goal battle. They came out pretty even in their most recent tilt against Columbus.
The Blackhawks are best when they are generating and creating, so they should stick with this style of play down the stretch. Outshoot your opponent, out chance your opponent, and work hard to get to the inside and get those quality shots and chances. Sure, defense is still important. It shouldn’t be all run-and-gun. But the Blackhawks have players in Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kubalik who all know how to finish. Give them, and others, the chance to do so.
5. Spruce Up Special Teams
Neither the power play nor the penalty kill has been a strength for the Blackhawks recently. While their overall 5-on-5 play is their bread and butter and should be the primary focus, finding more success on special teams could go a long way towards helping the Blackhawks get more wins.
At the beginning of the season, the Blackhawks power play was hot, and it helped get them in a good position in the standings. Now we all know these things go through their ups and downs, but going 3-for-28 in the last nine games is certainly a major downward trend. To add insult to injury, they also allowed two shorthanded goals in consecutive matchups at the start of April.
The top unit of Kane, DeBrincat, Kirby Dach, Dylan Strome and Adam Boqvist has struggled. Unfortunately, they’re way too guilty of deferring to Kane, who’s way too guilty of trying to get the perfect pass to DeBrincat. This group gets the majority of the ice time on the man advantage, and they’re simply just too predictable.
Kubalik, who happens to be a member of the second power play unit, had some ideas of how to change things up.
Kubalik on special teams struggles: “We had a power play, we were in their zone, and we just didn’t shoot that much [like] we should. For me, [I think we should] maybe just throw it there, we could hit someone, make something out of it.”
— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) April 9, 2021
We all know the old adage, “You’ll miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” The second unit is actually supposed to be more of a shooting unit, whereas the first group is about movement to create the open lane. So, give the second unit more time on the power play. Let them get the puck on net as much as possible. What do they have to lose?! Meanwhile, this will take some of the pressure off the first unit, who are obviously holding their sticks too tight.
Another option might be changing up the personnel a bit. The Blackhawks lost Carl Soderberg at the trade deadline, and newcomer Brett Connelly took his place on the second unit Monday night. Kubalik also saw some time on the top PP unit against Columbus, while Dach moved to the second unit. So head coach Jeremy Colliton does appear to be doing some experimenting.
The good news is these things go through their ups and downs, and the Blackhawks have scored two power play goals in the last two games. Hopefully this is the start of another upward trend.
Since they’re ranked 30th in the league in this department, the Blackhawks have done a good job by staying out of the box the last handful of games. That’s always a good strategy, and one they should continue to employ. But penalties are inevitable. In the last five games, the Blackhawks have given up three goals on seven tries while shorthanded.
Colliton has been doing some strange things by giving Pius Suter, Strome and even Dach some penalty kill time lately. Shouldn’t these guys be saved for the offense? Hopefully this is short-lived. The Blackhawks weren’t penalized this last game against the Blue Jackets, so we still don’t know what Colliton has in mind. The aforementioned Connelly could potentially help moving forward. But the penalty kill is important, and winning it builds momentum for the team. Keep it simple and just keep fighting hard to help this be an asset moving forward.
4. Win More Faceoffs
I mentioned at the beginning of the season that having Jonathan Toews out of the lineup was going to be a huge problem when it came to winning faceoffs. Toews usually took, and won, a huge majority of the draws for the Blackhawks. This has indeed proven a problem as the season has progressed.
The Blackhawks as a team rank 27th in the league in faceoff percentage, with only Soderberg and David Kampf with over a 50% success rate among their regular centers. As we know, Soderberg is no longer a member of the team, and Kampf is the fourth line center.
Meanwhile, Dach (40%), Suter (43.3%), Philipp Kurashev (41%) and Strome (48.1%) all continue to be very inconsistent in the faceoff circle. Strome hasn’t been utilized at center recently, but with the highest win percentage of these four perhaps he should be. Or at least he could take more draws even if he is on the wing. And the wingers can all help out by positioning themselves to retrieve the puck when the faceoff is lost.
Winning faceoffs and gaining possession of the puck is certainly going to be something that could make or break the Blackhawks down the stretch.
3. Great Goaltending
The Blackhawks wouldn’t be fighting for a playoff spot without some excellent performances in net. Goaltender Kevin Lankinen just suited up for his seventh consecutive game, and his 13th start in the last 15 games. The Blackhawks are certainly leaning on him to be the workhorse for the team. So far, he’s done a commendable job, with a .905 save percentage and a 2.85 goals against average in that span. In 31 games on the season, he has a .915 SV% and a 2.79 GAA.
But can he keep it up? And should that much be asked of a rookie goaltender? In the last 13 games of the season, the Blackhawks basically have a game every other night, and two more back-to-back contests to wrap up their campaign.
Meaning we should see Malcolm Subban for at least two more contests. In 10 games this season, Subban has a .903 SV% and a 3.14 GAA. Not terrible, but not all that great either. Hence the heavy usage of Lankinen.
Now we all know the Blackhawks’ defense is a work in progress. Mistakes are aplenty, and the goaltender is forced to cover for these mistakes. Lankinen and Subban will need to be sharp the rest of the way.
2. A Playoff Mentality
After the Blackhawks lost a tough game 5-1 to the Dallas Stars on April 8, top defenseman and alternate captain Connor Murphy addressed the media. He referred to the team as “fragile” in the loss, with the need to band together and support each other.
When you’re a playoff team, when you have your game together, it seems like nothing can faze you. You’re able to give up a chance, or give up a goal, and it doesn’t faze your team game or faze the details you play with as a team…when the things we do well aren’t (working), we’ve got to be able to fall back on our team game and not let momentum get too carried away like it did tonight.
In other words, the Blackhawks still need to learn how to win. Playoff teams know how to win. Even after they make mistakes, they stick to their game, work together, and do what they need to do to rectify that mistake. They are resilient. They have that confidence and swagger that’s necesssary to pull out the victory.
The Blackhawks need to adopt this playoff mentality right now, and utilize it to win as many games as they can moving forward.
1. Beat the Predators
Obviously each point is important, and the Blackhawks should focus on winning every game they can. But if they’re going to get over the hump, they especially have to beat the Predators. In five contests between these two teams, the Blackhawks have only earned two points, and they’ve come out on the losing end every time.
The Preds are the only team the Blackhawks haven’t been able to beat this season, so winning against them would be a huge boost. Nashville is a very difficult matchup for the Blackhawks. They play a very physical, defensively-minded style where they clog up any open lanes and take away all the time and space from their opponent. For a team like the Blackhawks, who are more of a finesse, offensively-minded team, this is their worst nightmare.
The Predators currently hold that coveted fourth playoff spot in the division, with 47 points to the Blackhawks’ 45 points. Three very, very important head-to-head matchups are coming up the week of April 19 between these two teams. Each win will essentially be a four-point swing in the standings. There’s no getting around it. The path to the playoffs goes through the Predators.
Hopefully the Blackhawks can capitalize on these six keys to making the playoffs. One thing is for certain; we’re all going to be on the edge of our seats these next five weeks as therest of the regular season unfolds. It won’t be an easy task, but the Blackhawks are going to do what they can to remain in the playoff hunt. Even if they fall short, they want to finish the season strong and build momentum headed into their 2021-22 campaign.
Buckle up everybody; never a dull moment!
Avid Chicago Blackhawks fan and follower! Would much rather be reading and writing about hockey than cooking and cleaning. Otherwise known as The Hockey Housewife.