Can the Blackhawks still make the playoffs this season?
The year after a team wins a championship, you would think that it would motivate the players to have career years, if they didn't already put one up in the pursuit of the trophy the year before. Being champions does wonders for team spirit, player confidence, and performance.
So why have the Blackhawks struggled so much this year? Where has player and team consistency been? In the year after its first championship in 49 years, why are the star players of the Blackhawks struggling so much, and the men who are on track for career years the ones who are 3rd- and 4th-liners (such as Kopecky) and ones who've finally sold their tickets on the Rockford Express (such as Bickell)? The only "core" returning player on track for a career year so far is Patrick Sharp, and even he is having his ups and downs.
If I had the answer to these questions, I'd also be a lottery jackpot winner and would be standing by Coach Q's side on the bench. Obviously, neither of those is happening, so let's take a look at where the Blackhawks stand at this point in the season.
Yesterday, after a lukewarm performance against the Calgary Flames on Monday night which the Blackhawks lost 3-1, the team got their first major bag skate of the season. While Chicago beat reporters had mentioned a few hard skates earlier in the season, this was much more hardcore. Fan commentary on Twitter openly wondered why it had taken so long in the season for the bag skate to take place, when the team hasn't shown consistency since the first pre-season games took place in September.
Even if the team chemistry isn't the same as it was ten months ago, there seems little excuse for this season's lackluster effort. Despite the roster gutting over the summer, the vital core players remained: Hossa, Kane, Toews, Sharp, Seabrook, Keith, and Campbell. Vital cogs from the past few seasons are there, too: Bolland, Brouwer, Kopecky, and Hjalmarsson. Several of the newer players were already familiar to their teammates due to riding the Rockford Express: Bickell, Dowell, Skille, and Crawford. So despite cuts/trades/walks, some 75% of the roster was still familiar, if not part of the players who got their name engraved on the big silver piece of hardware.
That's not much of a valid excuse, either. We all lose friends at work due to layoffs/cuts/etc. New people come on board. And in the end, we all have to pick up the pieces, pick up some slack, and keep doing the job we were paid to do, or we no longer have a job. Maybe the chemistry isn't what it was, but it's still pretty functional. So "lack of team chemistry" can't be on the table any more as an excuse.
The most common excuse people talked about early in the season was "Cup hangover". This excuse might hold water for the first month of the season, when a Cup-winning team has had a shorter summer to recuperate from the grueling playoffs run than other teams do. But let's look at Pittsburgh and Detroit, the two teams which won the Cup before Chicago, and who've been consistently in playoff contention the last few years. Detroit has repeatedly gone deep in the playoffs for the past two decades, and nobody ever seems to accuse them of playoff hangovers. The Penguins went to the Finals two years in a row.
Blackhawks player Marian Hossa was a member of the 2007-08 Penguins, the 2008-09 Red Wings, and the 2009-10 Blackhawks - which means he went to the Finals three years in a row, but, prior to his injury early this season, one would be hard pressed to deny that Hossa started out of the gate as impressive and as strong as the likes of Crosby or Stamkos. If he hadn't been sidelined with an injury, chances are very good that he would be jockeying with teammate Patrick Sharp for that top-5-NHL-scorer spot. Now he's struggling to re-find his early season form.
The Blackhawks also spent the first half of their season plagued with one injury after another. While unfortunately it was one top player after another (Campbell, Hossa, Kane, etc), that is exactly when the rest of the team needed to show they could step up and fill the holes left by injuries. There were times during the first half of the season that the Blackhawks did do that. One needs look no further than the games leading up to Christmas, with both Kane and Hossa still off-ice due to injury, when the Hawks put together some of their best games all year.
Various members of the Blackhawks have been quoted as saying "it's ridiculous" to think that they would not find themselves back in the playoffs this season.
After last season, yes, we'd all agree: it would seem crazy to think a defending championship team would not at least make the playoffs - especially in a league where at least 50% of the teams qualify for them. Did the team think they'd just skate their way back into a playoff position while every other team, night after night, was going to be not only willing, but eager to knock the Stanley Cup champs off their perch?
Could it be that the Blackhawks' biggest enemy this year has been complacency?
Despite a phenomenal season last year, the Blackhawks struggled with complacency last season, too. Far too often we would see it - the team would cruise out to an early lead, they'd take their foot off the gas, the other team would catch up, and then the team would have to battle to hold onto the win. While it makes for exciting 3rd-period hockey, it's not the best way to go around winning a championship. How many more wins could the Blackhawks have bagged last season if it wasn't for those moments?
More importantly, how many wins would the Blackhawks now have if they played this entire season with the same sense of urgency, consistency and solid play that we have seen in far, far too many games this season?
The Blackhawks are looking down the short end of the stick at the rest of their season. The majority of their games are being played on the road, as well, but one small benefit the Hawks have at this point is that they got a sizeable break around the All-Star Game, and the pace of their final 30 games leaves them in better shape than the pace of their first 30.
But to have even a hope of being in the final top eight of the Western Conference for the playoffs, the Blackhawks need to get at least 34 points out of their final games. (This would be to be on pace for 92 pts, the lowest amount a WC team had for the playoffs last season.) That means at least 17 out of their last 29 games have to be in the "win" column, and it wouldn't hurt for any losses to be in the "OT" column.
Talk is cheap. Action is everything this late in the season.
Blackhawks players have said it's "unthinkable" for them not to make the playoffs again this year, but their actions have said otherwise. They've been hard-pressed to put together a two-week stretch of solid, consistent, played-the-full-60 games. Far too often, they've played the first two periods well, only to take their foot off the gas in the third. Or they started out a mess and scrambled too hard late in the game to come from behind and win.
Too many points were left on the table early in the season, and now the team will have to leave it all on the ice every single game for the next two months - which puts them in the undesirable position of being gassed just as the playoffs begin.
Sports writers and fans alike predicted this year might be a struggle, but did any of us think it would be this difficult for the Blackhawks - that it really might come down to the final game of the season for a team that cruised so easily to their position last year? At worst, most thought the team might struggle for a month, perhaps even as late as November, as the players learned to gel with new teammates, and the team worked its way through the most brutal opening month schedule of any team in the NHL.
None of us thought it would reach the point where it actually really, truly became a question of whether the Blackhawks would even make the playoffs. Not the fans, not the sports writers, and clearly not the players themselves.
But here we are, with the Blackhawks holding just 58 points after 53 games played.
Every single game counts. The Blackhawks have 29 games left to prove their championship drive survived its summer with Stanley.