Patrick Sharp had just eight goals and 10 assists in an injury-plagued 2016-17 season. (Getty Images)

X-factors: How the Blackhawks start could affect how they finish

SHARE X-factors: How the Blackhawks start could affect how they finish
SHARE X-factors: How the Blackhawks start could affect how they finish

There’s a growing sentiment in the hockey world that this is the beginning of the end for the Blackhawks, that their window is shut, that their run of dominance is over. A few prominent pundits even are picking the Hawks to miss the playoffs for the first time since Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were rookies in 2007-08.

It’s a bit extreme. The Hawks’ top nine is the best it has been since they won the Stanley Cup in 2015, with seven of them having scored at least 19 goals in a season, the eighth being rising star Nick Schmaltz and the ninth being the prolific rookie Alex DeBrincat. And Corey Crawford is still one of the top goalies in the league.

Yes, the blue line is a concern, full of potential but no proof. But even in the brutal Central Division, the Hawks’ strengths will be enough to get them into the playoffs.

How high can their seed be and how far can they go? These X-factors might determine that.

Scary start

Noteworthy: There will be no easing into the season for the Hawks, no leash to figure out defensive pairings and line combinations. The Hawks’ first eight opponents averaged 102 points last season, and all eight made the playoffs. Remember last October, when the retooling Hawks allowed 14 goals on the first 26 opposing power plays? That can’t happen again, or they’ll find themselves in quite a hole to start the season.

Quoteworthy: ‘‘[A fast start] is usually pretty important,’’ winger Brandon Saad said. ‘‘It’s tough to even make the playoffs. . . . We’re facing some good opponents early, and you always want to get off to a great start. So that’s what we’re looking to do.’’

Kill ’em all

Noteworthy: Speaking of the penalty kill, who’s going to man it for the Hawks? They lost five of their seven most-used penalty killers in Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger, Johnny Oduya, Dennis Rasmussen and Marian Hossa. Saad basically steps into Hossa’s skates, but the turnover likely means big roles for Artem Anisimov, Tanner Kero, Schmaltz and John Hayden. Since 2008-09, in the three seasons in which the Hawks have won the Stanley Cup, they’ve had a top-10 penalty-killing unit. In the other six seasons, they’ve had a bottom-12 unit. It’s no coincidence.

Quoteworthy: ‘‘We saw the trouble it caused us early last year; we dug a tremendous hole,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said. ‘‘I thought we progressed well off a terrible level.’’

Keeping him Sharp

Noteworthy: The season might hinge on Patrick Sharp’s hip joint. If he truly is 100 percent and returns to form after a concussion and hip surgery led to the worst season of his career, then Sharp becomes a huge multidimensional threat for the Hawks. He can score 20 goals, can play capably in the top six or bottom six, can fill Artemi Panarin’s role on the power play and can help fill Hossa’s skates with his strong two-way game. Even at 35, Sharp has shown in the preseason that he still has a lethal shot and life in those legs.

Quoteworthy: ‘‘He doesn’t seem to be aging at all,’’ captain Jonathan Toews said. ‘‘He’s tough to keep up with in that sense. We know he’s ready to go.’’

Big backup

Noteworthy: The Hawks have been spoiled at backup goalie lately. Ray Emery earned Vezina Trophy votes in 2013, Antti Raanta ranked among the league leaders in save percentage and Scott Darling almost won a playoff series by himself. Now comes Anton Forsberg, who has played in only 10 NHL games but won a Calder Cup in the American Hockey League and was outstanding in two preseason starts (70 saves on 74 shots). Crawford never has played more than 59 games in a season, so the other 25 or so easily might make the difference between a playoff spot and catastrophe.

Quoteworthy: ‘‘The biggest thing is just to keep my confidence and play the same way [I did] in the AHL,’’ Forsberg said. ‘‘Just keep building on that. I shouldn’t play any different than how I was playing down there. It should be the same game.’’

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com


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