If Marian Hossa is still Marian Hossa, this is the time to prove it.
After playing in just 10 of the Blackhawks’ final 23 games of the regular season, Hossa will at least be relatively fresh going into the playoffs. And the 37-year-old three-time Cup winner is in need of rejuvenation after the least-productive season of his 17-year NHL career — 13 goals and 33 points in 64 games.
Though Hossa is one of the most admired and respected athletes in recent Chicago history, the inevitable downturn that was feared when he signed the 12-year, $63 million contract with the Hawks in 2009 is here. Hossa’s 13 goals are a career-low. His 33 points are a career-low for a full NHL season. His plus-10 rating is the lowest in his seven-year Hawks career. And his shooting percentage has fallen from 14.7 in 2012-13 (the third highest of his career) to 12.4 to 8.9 to 6.8 this season — nearly half his career average of 12.3 percent. That’s not bad luck. That’s age.
“Shooting percentages don’t concern me,” Hossa said. “It’s more [about] getting chances. I know I’m getting chances. But obviously the finish is not there as much as I would like — definitely this season. But getting in the areas where there are chances, because there are pucks, being hungry for those. Goalies are so good it’s never easy to score right now in the league.”
Hossa still plays a formidable all-around game, but with Brandon Saad in Columbus, the Hawks likely will need Hossa’s offense in the playoffs more than in previous seasons. In Hossa’s seven postseasons, the Hawks are 16-0 when Hossa scores a goal and 40-9 when he gets at least one point
Will a fresher Hossa be a more productive Hossa in the playoffs? Even he is not sure about that. “Sometimes you feel better when you play 82 games and you’re just not stopping a moving train,” Hossa said last week. “Then sometimes, you get a few days off but then you have to catch up to the moving train. Sometimes, it’s actually tougher to jump on a moving train.”
That is unlikely to be a problem for Hossa. The Hawks won five of six games before losing to the Blues and Blue Jackets in overtime to conclude the regular-season. They were 0-8-4 in their last 12 games against Western Conference playoff times. The “moving train” is just chuggin’ along, waiting for a boost. A refreshed Hossa is a good candidate to provide it. The question is: How much does he have left in the tank?
1a. At 37, even a rejuvenated Hossa will be challenged to sustain his energy throughout the playoffs. Hossa has not scored in the Hawks’ final playoff series in each of the previous three postseason. In 18 games against the Bruins (2013), Kings (2014) and Lightning (2015), Hossa has no goals, nine points an a minus-2 rating. In 46 games prior to those series, he has 13 goals, 38 points and a plus-17 rating.
In fact, 10 of Hossa’s 12 lowest Corsi percentages in the last three postseasons (ranging from 43.5 to 29.0) have come in Games 5-7 of the series, according to statistics compiled by war-on-ice.com.
1b. As a responsible two-way player, Hossa generally posts impressive Corsi numbers. But of his 17 playoff series with the Hawks his worst Corsi numbers (45.8) came against the Blues in the first round. The only other series he was even below 50 percent was in 2011 against the Canucks in the first round (48.2).
2. With 106 points (46 goals, 60 assists), Patrick Kane won the scoring title by 17 points over the Stars’ Jamie Benn (89). That’s tied with Sidney Crosby (104-87 over Ryan Getzlaf in 2013-14) for the second biggest margin since Wayne Gretzky (163) had a 32-point edge over Brett Hull (131) in 1990-91. Jaromir Jagr won by 20 points (127-107) over Teemu Selanne in 1999-2000.
3. The Blues have lost in the first round of the playoffs the last three seasons under Ken Hitchcock — despite home-ice advantage each time — including a 4-2 series loss to the Hawks in 2014. But to expect the Blues to crumble again this time could be a mistake. This team is deeper at center, more balanced and is getting better goaltending from Brian Elliott and Jake Allen than the team that lost to the Hawks with Ryan Miller in goal in 2014. The Blues that season lost their final six regular season games. This year’s team had won 14 of 17 before losing to the Capitals at home in the season finale.
4. Two X-factors for the Blues are rookie defenseman Colton Parayko and 20-year-old rookie center Robby Fabbri in their first postseason in the NHL. The 6-6, 226-pound Parayko has been a revelation this season, with nine goals, 24 points and a particularly impressive plus-28 rating — fifth overall in the NHL, No. 1 among rookies and No. 2 among defenseman (behind former Hawk Brian Campbell of the Panthers, who was third overall at plus-31).
When Vladimir Tarasenko was in his first full-time playoff series in 2014 against the Hawks, he scored four goals in the first four games, but was shut out by the Hawks in Games 5-6 — which the Hawks won to clinch the series.
5. Hitchcock has a healthy respect for the Hawks and won’t take anything for granted. He wouldn’t bite earlier this season when asked if he saw indicators the Blues were catching up to the Hawks. And his response was the essence of this series. The Blues are good enough to beat the Hawks, but do they have what it takes to play up to that potential against a team with a history of using mental toughness to impose its will in a tight series.
“I don’t think anybody catches a championship team until you beat them in a playoff series,” said Hitchcock, who is fourth in NHL history with 757 victories. said. “You can talk all you want about the regular season — and we’re like that, where we’re trying to get in. But you have to beat them in a playoff series, because there’s an emotional gear that championship teams go to that not many teams can sustain. And just when you think you’ve got ‘em, they come with another gear. So if you’re ever going to beat them, you’re gong to have to beat them in a playoff series before you can say anything.”
6. The Hawks obviously would rather have home-ice advantage, but they’re comfortable without it. The Hawks are 26-23 on the road in the playoffs under Joel Quenneville and have won at least one road game in 17 consecutive playoff series — and 19 of 20 under Quenneville. (the only series they did not win a road game was the 2009 Western Conference final, when they lost to the Red Wings in five games).
Arguably the Hawks’ most impressive single statistic of their entire six-year run as Cup contenders is their 12-3 record on the road in Games 5-7, with a 51-35 goal differential. No other team is even close. The Kings are 8-6 on the road in Games 5-7, including an overtime victory at the United Center in Game 7 of the Western Conference final in 2014.
The Blues are 7-7 at home in the playoffs under Hitchcock.
6a. Of course, the hallmark of the Hawks’ run of three Cups in six seasons in their ability to reel in an opponent as a series ensues. The Hawks are 26-25 (.510) in Games 1-3 of the playoffs since 2010. They are 38-11 (.776) in Games 4-7.
And their consistency throughout the six-year run has been impressive. Only once in 17 playoff series from 2010-15 have the Hawks failed to at least break even in Games 4-7: In the first round in 2012, the Hawks lost four of the last five games of a 4-2 series loss — playing without Marian Hossa for most or all of the final four games.
The Blues, for what it’s worth, are 7-8 (.467) in Games 1-3 under Ken Hitchcock and 3-9 (.250) in Games 4-7.
7. It remains to be see if Corey Crawford will be in playoff form after missing 10 of the final 11 games of the regular season with an upper-body injury. (Even after coming into the playoffs fresh last year, Crawford allowed three goals in the first period of Game 1 against the Predators and six goals in Game 2, losing the starting job temporarily to Scott Darling). But in general, the Hawks have gotten a boost from players returning from injury in the playoffs — Brian Campbell in 2010; Dave Bolland in 2011; Jonathan Toews in 2014; and Patrick Kane last season.
Hossa, Crawford, Andrew Shaw and Artem Anisimov are expected to ready for Game 1 on Wednesday night. And defenseman Duncan Keith — the defending Conn Smythe winner — will return from suspension in Game 2 on Friday night.
8. Game 1 against the Blues will be an early indicator of how well prepared the Hawks are. They often have started relatively slowly in the playoffs. Last year against the Predators they were down 3-0 in the first period before rallying to win in double overtime. And were unimpressive series victors against a Nashville team that had gone 0-4-2 to finish the regular season and was playing without center Mike Fisher for the entire series and defenseman Shea Weber for the final four games.
But the Hawks have a knack for rising to the challenge. When they opened against the Blues in 2014, they played two of their better early first-round games despite losing both in overtime. This series calls for a similar effort. If the Hawks wade into this playoff, it could be a short one.
9. You can never count out the Hawks, but this is one of those years where there is a better chance that they will lose in the first round than win the Stanley Cup — or even get to the Cup Final. It seems like the Kings’ year, if not the Capitals’.
There’s a reason why no team has repeated in the salary-cap era (not since the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998, in fact). The cumulative effect of the short offseason, a summer of Cup celebrations after winning the championship, roster change and another grueling regular season take a mental and physical toll and the Hawks show the effects of that. (When the Kings won the Cup in 2012, they had a longer offseason because of the lockout and reached the Western Conference final in 2013; when they won the Cup in 2014, they had the typical short offseason and did not even make the playoffs last year. That’s the difference).
The Kings were done on April 11 last year. The Hawks played through June 15. If the Hawks can even get to another conference final showdown with the Kings, it would be a significant accomplishment in the Toews-Kane-Quenneville era.
10. Picks to click: Panthers over Islanders in 6; Red Wings over Lightning in 6; Capitals over Flyers in 5; Rangers over Penguins in 7; Ducks over Predators in 6; Kings over Sharks in 5; Blackhawks over Blues in 6; Stars over Wild in 6;