During Chicago’s 12-game win streak, the Blackhawks once again looked like one of the Western Conference’s foremost contenders for the Stanley Cup. But since that streak ended at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Jan. 21, the Blackhawks have struggled, and that’s putting lightly.
Tuesday night at the United Center, the Blackhawks had a chance to pull within two points of the Dallas Stars for first place in the Central Division. Instead, the Stars dominated the Blackhawks in the first frame scoring four goals in little more than seven minutes to take a 4-0 lead to the dressing room. Dallas would roll to a 6-2 victory, and now Chicago has to worry as much about staying out of a wild-card spot as they do attempting to fight for home-ice advantage in the first round. Even still, panic hasn’t set in for Chicago.
“We know what we’re capable of this year and once we get to the postseason,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said post-game. “We’ll remind ourselves of that and look at the big picture and try to take it shift-by-shift and get out of this little funk we’re in.”
The problem is that this might be more than a “little funk.” In fact, since the loss to Tampa Bay more than two months ago, Chicago ranks 25th in the league in points, sandwiched between the Arizona Coyotes and Montreal Canadiens. There’s real reason to believe this Blackhawks team is more destined for a first-round exit than they are back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.
Many of the signs of struggle have been there for the Blackhawks all season, but much of it has been masked by the outstanding play of Corey Crawford, an MVP-calibre season from Patrick Kane and a breakout rookie campaign by off-season signee Artemi Panarin. Truthfully, if it weren’t for those three, one would have to wonder where the Blackhawks would be this season.
Crawford, who is currently sidelined with an upper-body injury, has the third-best save percentage, .935, of any goaltender to play at least 2,000 minutes at 5-on-5 this season. Kane is leading the league in scoring by 10 points, and Panarin is 15 points up on the next-closest rookie. Together, Kane and Panarin have 36 goals at 5-on-5, which accounts for nearly 31 percent of Chicago’s goal total at full strength.
The issues go far beyond three players leading the charge, though. The Blackhawks have long been an advanced stats darling and a team that won as much on game-breaking skill as they did on their incredible ability to possess the puck. However, this is the worst puck possession team the Blackhawks have iced since the last time Chicago missed the post-season in 2007-08.
This season’s Blackhawks boast a 5-on-5 shot attempts for percentage of 51.1 percent, which is the worst mark since 2007-08 by more than 1.5 percent. It’s a 2.5 percent step back from last season’s Cup-winning club, and it’s the only time under coach Joel Quenneville that the Blackhawks have failed to boast a 5-on-5 possession rate below 52.8 percent. The numbers get worse, though, when considering scoring chances.
Even when Chicago’s possession rates have dipped a bit over the past several seasons, they’ve managed to out-chance opponents. That’s still the case this season, but barely. Through 74 games, Chicago has a 5-on-5 scoring chances for percentage of 50.3 percent, which puts them 13th in the league. That doesn’t seem too bad, but it’s the amount of high-danger chances the Blackhawks are giving up that are really backbreaking. When it comes to high-percentage chances — think shots from the slot — Chicago is tied for 24th in the league with only 48.1 percent of the high-danger scoring chances for. That’s an even worse rate than 2007-08, and far and away the worst mark during Quenneville’s tenure.
And though it’s not the most advanced stat in the book, the penalty kill is another area where the Blackhawks should be incredibly concerned. Chicago’s penalty kill is ranked 24th in the league at a dismal 78.8 percent. In Tuesday’s game, Vernon Fiddler’s shorthanded goal was the marker that really sealed the deal, but Patrick Eaves’ power play tally that made it 3-0 for Dallas early on was crushing.
In none of their championship years have the Blackhawks had a power play operating below 83.4 percent or ranked worse than 10th in the league. And in the two previous times Chicago has entered the playoffs with a sub-80 percent penalty kill, they’ve exited in the first round. The 2015-16 Blackhawks actually closely mirror the 2010-11 club in terms of special teams. Both had a power play operating around 22 percent with a sub-par penalty kill ranked in the bottom quarter of the league. The 2010-11 team lost to Vancouver in a seven-game series, while the fate of the 2015-16 squad is yet to be determined.
There are certainly a few things that can help the Blackhawks muscle through some scary underlying numbers. For instance, Chicago’s PDO — combined shooting and save percentage — since Jan. 21 is 23rd in the league at 98.6. That could potentially normalize to 100 just as the post-season comes, meaning shooters could heat up and the goaltending could get even better. In addition, Crawford is set to return before the playoffs, and the Blackhawks getting back the goaltender who has arguably been their MVP should help matters. And then there’s the return of Marcus Kruger, whose contributions to Chicago’s success are incredibly underrated and who should provide the penalty kill with an almost instant boost.
But regardless of what numbers say, some will point to this team being the Blackhawks, the three-time-in-six-seasons champions who have defied the cap crunch and roster blowups to remain competitive. Those looking to pick Chicago to defend their crown should be wary, though, because without a turnaround the Blackhawks could be destined for an earlier off-season than they’ve grown used to.
(All advanced statistics via War-On-Ice)