Blackhawks are in position to accomplish something — finally — in season’s second half
The Blackhawks have been largely spinning their wheels for four years, aside from the gift of a playoff berth last summer. Entering the second half of the 2021 season, though, they could finally achieve something significant.
The Blackhawks enter the second half of the 2021 season in position to accomplish something substantial.
They could make the playoffs by merit.
The Hawks have spent much of the last four years spinning their wheels, staying above the NHL’s basement but chugging along below the playoff cutoff line. Their 33 wins in 2017-18, 36 wins in 2018-19 and 30 wins in 2019-20 didn’t amount to much.
Arguably their most significant achievements — drafting Kirby Dach third overall in 2019 and winning last season’s qualifying-round series over the Oilers — only happened as gifted opportunities.
But that could change in the next two months.
Those spinning wheels have finally found traction at the most unexpected time. The Hawks ended the first half after their victory Thursday against the Stars with a 14-9-5 record, their first time at or above .500 midway through a season since the 50-win 2016-17 season.
They’ve made the playoffs the last nine seasons in which they’ve been .500 or better at the halfway point. The last time they didn’t was almost two decades ago, in 2002-03.
Despite being outscored 88-87 in their first 28 games and ranking 25th in the NHL in scoring-chance ratio, the Hawks’ power play (third in the league at 31.0% efficiency) and goaltending (eighth in the league with a .911 save percentage) have helped drive their success.
It’s easy to imagine the second half going much worse for the Hawks. Goalies Kevin Lankinen and Malcolm Subban could regress, the Hawks’ bountiful youth could falter in high-pressure games, unfortunate injuries could pop up and those possession struggles could finally bite them.
This season being shortened means all the sample sizes are smaller. The Hawks have had to play well for fewer games (28 instead of 41) to get to the midway point at .500 than they normally would have, and one extended losing streak in the second 28-game segment — which began Saturday with a worrying 4-2 loss to the Panthers — could hurt them more than it normally would.
But it’s also increasingly easy to imagine a second half that goes well. The Hawks’ youth could continue to develop, Patrick Kane could continue his Hart Trophy-caliber season and the possession numbers could improve as coach Jeremy Colliton molds this team.
The temporarily realigned Central Division’s top-heavy nature — the Lightning, Hurricanes and Panthers were first, second and third in the NHL in points percentage entering Saturday — makes for some tough series. But the Hawks are nonetheless safely in fourth for now, and that’s all it’ll take to qualify for the postseason.
Nothing has gone right for the Stars and Blue Jackets so far, and the Predators also have underperformed. While trying to catch the Hawks, all of those teams will have to play the Lightning, Hurricanes and Panthers regularly, too.
Even if, say, the Stars do catch up, and the last two regular-season games in Chicago turn into a miniature play-in series, the buzz for those matchups will be exciting.
The even-more-shortened 2013 season provides two relevant examples for how the Hawks’ second half could go.
On March 14, 2013, just past the halfway mark of that 48-game schedule, the Hurricanes and Maple Leafs were big surprises. They ranked fifth and sixth in the Eastern Conference with 15-9-1 and 15-11-1 records, respectively, despite entering the year carrying lengthy playoff droughts.
The Leafs smoothly saw out their breakout season, going 11-6-4 from then on to finish fifth in the East and easily make the playoffs. The Hurricanes, on the other hand, imploded, going 4-16-3 from then on and finishing 13th.
Either route is possible for these unproven Hawks.
But being in this position, needing only a respectable second half to qualify for the playoffs, is an accomplishment in itself — especially considering how low expectations were entering the season.