As the games pass and the month of May gets closer, the idea of a Chicago Blackhawks playoff series starts to become more realistic. Given that they play in the same division as last seasons Stanley Cup champion and runner up, on top of a dominant Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes, it’s an accomplishment for Chicago to be in playoff contention at the beginning of March. This could all go horribly wrong for the team, however. This month sees the team facing their toughest stretch of the season, and their playoff hopes on the line. Much like the collegiate basketball tournament, this current month will be defined as the Chicago Blackhawks March Madness.
For a team that was projected to miss the playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks have exceeded those expectations. Before the season started they lost captain Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach. The team had a goaltending group with a combined total of 84 NHL games under their belt before the season. And, to make matters worse, their defensive identity didn’t look like it changed much since last season. How that same team is now sitting with a 55% chance to make the playoffs, nobody will know. But for the Blackhawks this is their reality.
Chicago Blackhawks March Madness
The team has a three game homestead, starting with a back-to-back on the fourth and the fifth, against the Tampa Bay Lightning. They then get a one day break and go on a six game trip to play the Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, and another two games against the Lightning. They leave South Florida and finish the month at home playing another two game series against Florida. This is followed by a two game series against the Nashville Predators, and they end the month with one home game against the Carolina Hurricanes. The amount of days off between the 14 games isn’t anything out of the ordinary for this season. Take in to consideration the quality of the Blackhawks opponents, however, and they’ve got themselves a tough stretch ahead.
Keys to Success in March – a Team by Team Breakdown
Tampa currently holds the top spot in the Central Division after 20 games with a 15-4-1 record. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is currently on one of the greatest performance stretches of his career. He’s won four of his last five games stopping 131 of the 136 shots faced in that time. He’s on a three game shutout streak and has as league best goals saved above expected with 14.9. To say the team in front of him is padding his stats might be an arguable statement. However having three shutouts in a row? That goes above and beyond what any team’s defensive play can do.
If Chicago wants to take more than one game out of their five against Tampa, they’ll need their forwards to exceed their quality of play. Tampa’s forwards, however lethal in their scoring ability, can be stopped. The hardest part for them is going to get all four lines of offence rolling in a way that forces the Lightning defence to open up. It won’t be easy to do, getting past blue liners like Mikhail Sergachev and Victor Hedman isn’t easy. Like most goaltenders, however, if you expose the defence and leave them to face the shots on their own, you’re bound to score a few.
The stars are one of the weaker opponents they face this month. This doesn’t mean they don’t have their strong suits. The Stars are sitting dead last in the Central. Their record is 6-7-4 in 17 games this season, and are currently on a three-game losing streak. Their strongest part of their game is their top-line players. Even in a down year like this one players like Joe Pavelski, Denis Gurianov, and Alexander Radulov are playing well. Add in John Klingberg who is second in team points, and goaltender Anton Khudobin playing as he should too, they’ve got great players. The rest of team falls off of a pretty steep cliff after them though. For Chicago to get past these two games, they’ll need to limit these players any way they can.
This might be a hot take, but going up against the Panthers might be tougher than going up against Tampa. This team is good, scary good. They’ve got all four lines of offence playing meaningful offence each shift they take. The blue line, featuring a rejuvenated Aaron Ekblad and peak Keith Yandle, is stopping rushes with ease. The team’s Goaltending Excellence Department has produced a talented starter in Chris Driedger. There is nothing to really hate about this team. Of all the teams in the Central, the Panthers are what the Blackhawks could look like if they were playing their best hockey 110 percent of the time.
For their matchups against the Panthers the Blackhawks will need to play their game and play it well. As noted above, the Panthers have a deep forward group this year and their blue line is just as skilled. If the Blackhawks are able to play to their own strengths and keep their play simple, they might be able to pull off a win in Sunrise, Florida.
Nashville and Carolina
The Blackhawks end their month against these two teams. They have a two game series against the Predators first, which might benefit them heavily depending on the outcome. If the team is able to carry its play against a weak Nashville team into their lone game against a Stanley Cup contender like the Hurricanes, they could see win to end the month. This is also dependent on the health of Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mrazek. He’s expected to get back from his thumb injury within the coming weeks, and he was on a hot streak and could continue that upon his return.
Regardless, these last three games against these opponents are going to be tough ones at the end of a month like the Blackhawks will have had. If the Blackhawks can stay healthy and keep their pace of play up, these games will be easier than they are expected to be.
Potential Scenarios for Chicago Blackhawks March Madness
There are two realistic ways this month can go for the team. Scenario A, or the best case, could see the team picking up four of the six possible point to start against Tampa. From there they could sweep the Dallas series and split their four games in Tampa and Florida. Coming home to play Florida again they can sweep them and carry the momentum into the last week of March and sweep Nashville before their game against the Hurricanes. This would pick up 20 of 26 possible points.
The worst case scenario for the team this month still has the team barely in the playoff conversation. After dropping the three games to Tampa at the start of the month the team will split each of the next three series they play against Dallas, Florida, and Tampa respectively. From Tampa they’ll pick up two of four possible points against Florida at home before losing all three games against Nashville and Carolina. This scenario sees the Blackhawks showing that they can’t handle adversity; and aren’t the playoff team they have shown to be up to this point in the season.
This Chicago Blackhawks March Madness will test the lineup from the top to the bottom. As the trade deadline looms and playoffs near closer, this month will truly show the teams true colors. It will prove whether they are a legitimate threat in the Central Division, or if they’re just pretenders.