Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Can the Blackhawks earn their playoff berth?

United Center, 3/26/11

One year ago today, Chicago reached the 50-win mark for the first time in club history, before going on to win the Stanley Cup.

As the final five days of the 2010-2011 regular season unfold, every point, every game is more important than perhaps any other season in recent history. This year's playoff positioning is so tight that it will come down to the last games in both conferences for not only seeing who gets into the playoffs, but how home ice will be determined.

The Eastern Conference standings jockey daily, with the top four teams all still in contention for first place. Five teams still can earn home ice advantage. Three teams - Sabres, Rangers, Carolina - are battling to find which will be the odd man out.

In the Western Conference, things are even more complicated. Vancouver, as the President's Trophy winners, are the only team with home ice advantage guaranteed throughout the playoffs. San Jose and Detroit dance back and forth between second and third. And no less than seven teams are in competition for the five unsecured playoff berths. This is even more unusual, as the Western teams usually have most of their playoff spots determined while the Eastern teams are the ones racing to the wire.

The team with the toughest road ahead of them is the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. They have three games left, but they're all against division rivals - tonight's game is against St. Louis, and the remaining two are versus Detroit. For Wednesday night's game, Chicago currently leads their series 3-2, but as any analyst will tell you, stats all go out the window when the puck drops. St. Louis has never been a team to give up battling once they've been eliminated from the post-season; just a few days ago, they posted a startling 10-3 win over Detroit, for example. Detroit has, for the first time in years, looked tired in the home stretch before the playoffs, occassionally struggling for wins, with 8 of their 21 games since February 20th being determined by OT or SO. And while Chicago has gone 3-1 vs the Red Wings this year - the only loss being the night of the Blackhawks' home opener - they were all high-speed, hard-fought battles between long-standing division rivals, so expect no less of the final two games.

After losing in overtime to the Canadiens last night, the Blackhawks have no room for error. They first must win against the Blues tonight to eliminate the Calgary Flames from contention. Then they must win out the regular season to secure their playoff berth - which, depending on how other teams finish out, could secure them a berth anywhere from 4th/home ice down to 8th.

The Blackhawks have been in "must win" mode since March 1st, but have gone 7-5-4 in that time frame.

The other team trailing the Hawks by just two points is the Dallas Stars, who practically have a "gimme" schedule to round out their season - two tilts against the imploding Avalanche, and their final game is versus the Wild. But even the Stars shouldn't assume they're going to win out; they've gone 0-2 versus the Avs this season. Granted, both of that games were both back in November, before a series of late-season trades for the Avs that gave away a lot of the top talent on the team. Colorado has been a whole lot of unremarkable since the All-Star break, plummeting out of playoff positioning by going a staggering 4-23-2 in their past 29 games. One can hardly expect Colorado to do Chicago any favors by giving a late-season rally so as to not close out their season in total shame this year, but you never know. The Wild haven't been much better - 4-10-2 since March 1st also dropped them out of playoff contention. Either way, the Blackhawks have to assume that the Stars will win out, and they must also win out in order to keep dreams of defending Lord Stanley's Cup alive.

There are at least five losses which the Blackhawks can look back upon this season and know that points were left on the table through sloppy or poor play (games vs EDM, NJD, CGY, DAL, and FLA) - up to 10 valuable points which would already have them firmly seeded into the top four for the WC. But regret will not change those games' outcomes; and the team's inconsistency has cost them dearly, leaving it to the final days of the regular season to determine their fate.

Tonight is a crucial night for the Western standings, but for no team more so than the Blackhawks. Can Chicago do what Pittsburgh, Vancouver, and Detroit have done -- despite the key injuries that are hampering them this late in the season, reach down deep into their inner reserves and find the fire and drive and desire to get wins out of their last three games?

Rookie goaltender and Calder Trophy candidate Corey Crawford has been doing everything within his power to keep his team in games and give them every opportunity to win. Now the forward lines need to return the favor, and score.

Can the Blackhawks find the necessary fire within themselves this year to win out the season and make the playoffs this year? Tonight will be an important marker as to whether Chicago is ready to defend their Cup.


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