The Chicago Blackhawks clinched a playoff spot with Sunday’s wild win over the Colorado Avalanche. It’s fair to say that feat was easier than many expected entering the 2016-17 campaign.
The Blackhawks entered the season in a bizarre spot. They still had an outstanding core that was capable of a Stanley Cup run, but lacked the proven role players necessary to truly consider them title contenders. A revamped defensive group also provided plenty of potential depth, but featured a mixture of age and inexperience.
As the season opened, I foresaw a year much like the 2010-11 season. The newcomers would take time to gel and Chicago would probably have to fight for a playoff berth. It probably wasn’t going to come down to the final day of the season like it did back then, but it was fair to think the Hawks were destined for a second or third-place finish in the division and maybe a wild-card spot in the worst-case scenario.
Somehow, the Blackhawks have played their way into first place in the Central Division with 10 games remaining and certainly look like Stanley Cup contenders.
Somehow, the Chicago Blackhawks found a way to exceed expectations.
Nobody saw the emergences of Nick Schmaltz, Ryan Hartman and Tanner Kero coming. Not this soon, at least. Who would’ve thought Richard Panik would be flirting with a 20-goal season?
Wasn’t Jonathan Toews finished in December? Toews resurrected a season that appeared to be left for dead and had many questioning whether his best years were somehow behind him. Things were looking grim for the captain through the first three months. He had tallied only 18 points in 30 games and missed time with a back injury.
Since then, Toews has produced at a torrid pace. He’s scored 14 goals and tallied 35 points since January, with 11 of those goals and 25 of those points coming in February and March.
Patrick Kane has also caught fire the past two months and is only three points behind Edmonton’s Connor McDavid as he attempts to become the first player since Jaromir Jagr to win back-to-back Art Ross Trophies (Jagr won it four years in a row).
Corey Crawford and Scott Darling have both been tremendous at times in net and have remained steady throughout the season. Both have helped the Hawks steal games they probably had no business winning at the beginning of the season and those points loom large as they look to clinch the division crown.
But the youth movement has been the most encouraging part of this journey. Schmaltz has transformed from a lost puppy on the ice at times into a reputable threat and a reliable top-six player when needed. He’s recorded 15 points in his last 18 games after accumulating only seven points in his first 33 contests.
Hartman has become more than just a bottom-six filler, but is now an important role player who has achieved more than most expected in his first season. He’s seventh on the team with 16 goals and has made people forget about Andrew Shaw rather quickly.
Kero has thrived since getting called up to replace an injured Artem Anisimov at the end of December. He’s scored five goals and has 12 points ever since and forced himself onto the roster upon Anisimov’s return.
Oh, and each of those three players are only 21, 22 and 24 years old respectively. And you can bet they’ll have a say in how far Chicago’s postseason run goes.
And with only a few weeks left in the regular season it’s time to start thinking ahead to the greater goal. This certainly might not be Chicago’s best team during its dynasty, but it’s plenty capable of winning a fourth Stanley Cup since 2010.