Blackhawks survive 27-game gauntlet run
After 27 games against some of the best teams in the league, the Blackhawks' run through the NHL gauntlet finally ended Saturday at the United Center.
The bruising, bloodying schedule included matchups against powerhouses like Tampa Bay, Washington, San Jose, Calgary (twice), Pittsburgh (twice), Colorado (twice), Winnipeg (three times), Nashville (three times) and Vegas (three times).
The combined records of those teams was a ridiculous 243-120-41 going into Saturday's games.
With a new coach, new system and a middling roster, it was no surprise that the Hawks went 2-10-0 during the first 12 games of this grueling run.
What the Hawks have done since, however, has been a bit of a surprise, going 7-4-4 over their last 15 games.
They beat the Penguins and Avs twice, defeated Nashville 2-1 on Dec. 18 and took the Jets, Isles, Preds and Golden Knights to overtime.
"We're definitely playing a better team game and when you play a better team game, the game's easier," said defenseman Duncan Keith before the Hawks lost to Vegas 4-3 in OT at the United Center on Saturday. "I'm not saying the games have been easy for us.
"But at least we feel like we know where guys are going to be and there's some structure there where we can rely on a foundation to whether storms and get some through some tougher periods."
So why have things turned around? Let's look at the top four reasons:
When Corey Crawford was injured against the Sharks on Dec. 16, most pundits figured a nose-dive was coming for Colliton's squad. The emergence of Collin Delia is a huge reason why that hasn't happened.
Delia, who was leading the AHL in save percentage before his promotion, has 35, 46, 30, 47, 39, 33 and 30 saves in seven starts.
Veteran Cam Ward has also allowed just 14 goals and is 3-2-0 in five starts.
2. Stablized 'D'
Two somewhat under-the-radar factors have helped the Hawks' blue line immensely:
• Connor Murphy's return after missing the first 30 games with a back injury.
• The surprising play of Carl Dahlstrom, who is averaging 19½ minutes of ice time since being called up from Rockford.
"They've been a huge part of our improved play," said coach Jeremy Colliton. "They're not doing tremendous things with the puck, but they're advancing it, using the walls, going indirect, defending extremely hard, taking tough matchups."
Colliton's confidence in Murphy and Dahlstrom is so high that he's sending them out to face opponents' top lines -- a job that had fallen to Duncan Keith and Henri Jokiharju.
"They're committed to that, they're two big bodies (both are 6-foot-4), they're strong and they're being relatively clean with the puck," Colliton said. "It's a big plus for us."
The ripple effect of Murphy and Dahlstrom's play has not only stabilized the back end, but it also allowed the Hawks to trade the ineffective Brandon Manning and Jan Rutta, and has kept Brent Seabrook's ice time at 15-18 minutes a game.
3. Fear the PP
After struggling for more than a year, the Hawks have finally figured out their power play. The first unit of Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, Jonathan Toews, Dylan Strome and D-man Erik Gustafsson is moving the puck well, finding open lanes, retrieving misses and generally making life miserable for opponents.
Because of how efficient they've been, Colliton isn't afraid to leave them on the ice for extended periods.
"They're spending a lot of time in the offensive zone," he said. "So if you're in the offensive zone, moving the puck around and creating chances, it's a little easier to play. If you've got to break out three times, then you should probably change. But they're not having too many shifts like that.
"And they're the guys that are coming through. They're going to get most of the power-play time."
4. Better starts
When the Hawks were going through the early part of this rough schedule, opponents scored the first goal in 11 straight games. Six times it happened in the first 2½ minutes and twice in the first minute. The Hawks were outscored 27-6 in those first periods and never held a lead.
Now, the Hawks are coming out with a purpose and limiting Grade-A chances in the opening minutes.
This isn't to say everything has been even close to perfect. Some underlying numbers over the last 15 games are quite concerning.
• The Hawks have been outshot 563-444.
• Their Corsi-for at even strength is 45.2.
• Opponents have converted on 10 of 45 power-play chances.
When this stretch began on Nov. 18, we said the Hawks needed to play .500 hockey to stay relevant in the playoff picture. That obviously didn't happen, so their postseason chances remain slim at best.
Still, it will be interesting to see how they fare in the coming weeks against lesser competition like New Jersey, the Rangers, Buffalo, Minnesota, Edmonton, Vancouver and Detroit.
"We know we have a lot to work on, especially in the 'D' zone," Keith said. "No team's perfect.
"But at the same time we're getting better and that's encouraging."
How the Blackhawks have improved during a tough 27-game stretch of their schedule
First 12 games:Record: 2-10-0
Goals scored: 32
Goals against: 54
Power play: 3-for-36
Opponents' power play: 12-for-39
Last 15 games:Record: 7-4-4
Goals scored: 50
Goals against: 50
Power play: 14-for-44
Opponents' power play: 10-for-45