Blackhawks’ midseason reset: With 41 games left, playoffs seem strangely attainable
The Hawks are only four points out of a wild-card spot with an easy schedule coming up, a promising reality that seemed unfathomable a few weeks ago.
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Little about the first half of the Blackhawks’ season makes sense.
The Hawks have been better against good teams than bad teams and better on the road than at home. They’ve sputtered through some of their worst performances in recent memory, only to flush them immediately. The defense, which the Hawks spent all summer retooling, has remained horrible, while the goaltending, one-half of which fell into their lap, has been world-class.
And in spite of occupying a bottom-five spot all season in nearly every advanced stat, a torrid finish to 2019 has a playoff berth come April seeming viable, if still unlikely, entering January.
“There’s a lot of points on the board left, and if we have the right mentality, then we can get all we need,” coach Jeremy Colliton said Tuesday. “We’ve got some great players. If we give them a chance to win the game for us, a lot of time they will. That’s got to be our focus.”
The ongoing 5-1-0 surge, extended with the 5-3 win Tuesday in Calgary, has moved the Hawks within four points of a wild-card spot in a weak Western Conference (they’re also only five points out of last place, but that can be ignored for now).
According to MoneyPuck.com, the Hawks’ playoff chances stand at 35.5 percent, up from a season-low 13.6 percent just three games ago during the holiday break, and that seems about right.
There are a lot of teams in the mix, including two in between the Hawks and those wild-card spots — the Winter Classic-losing Predators and the just-defeated Flames — that were sure-fire playoff teams last season and seem likely to improve in the second half this season. (The Oilers and Wild are also in between, but they seem much less formidable).
Nonetheless, the Hawks’ primary focus must be on themselves, not the race, the rest of the season.
They’re playing better lately, but they were playing better in early November, too — winning four of five, including big triumphs in Vegas and Nashville — and that obviously didn’t last. And they’re still 29th in the NHL in scoring-chance ratio, according to Natural Stat Trick, a sign this success might rest on a shaky foundation.
The Hawks’ two MVPs, Patrick Kane and Robin Lehner, can offer a convincing counter-argument to that scoring-chance ugliness, though. Kane, as evidenced by his upcoming league-leading ninth All-Star appearance, can regularly convert chances far more than most. And Lehner, who ranks among the league’s best with a .926 save percentage, can consistently keep opponents from converting their chances far more often than most.
And they both know it.
“I look at the game tonight, I look at the game in Winnipeg,” Kane said Tuesday. “We came out flying, short shifts, everyone getting into the game, capitalizing on our chances, and that’s a recipe to win on the road.”
“Screw the negatives here, learn a little bit from them, but keep building on the positives,” Lehner said moments later. “We’ve just got to try to keep getting better and keep climbing in the standings. We want to make the playoffs.”
The Hawks’ quest to continue this momentum will, on paper, be aided by their upcoming schedule. After Thursday’s meeting against the respectable Canucks, they’ll enjoy six consecutive matchups against sub-.500 teams, including the dreadful Red Wings, Ducks and Senators.
But the Hawks did just recently lose to the Devils 7-1, then beat the Islanders 5-2. Indeed, this season has been weird — and the second half hasn’t even started yet.