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Could the Blackhawks fall into a Wild Card Spot?

Chicago Only Four Points ahead of Nashville for Third in Central

NHL

CHICAGO-A hockey season is like a roller coaster ride for a team and its fans. You have your highs and your lows. There are times where the ride is thoroughly enjoyable and other times where its just exceedingly nauseating. Right now, the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks are experiencing the latter and at the most inopportune time.

The Blackhawks are just 3-5-2 in their last 10 games and sit just four points ahead of the Nashville Predators for third place in the Central Division with eight games left in their season. Things got pretty bad for the defending champs last night when they got booed off the ice after giving up four goals in the first period of their 6-2 loss to the Dallas Stars.

Now, the team is in a pretty comfortable playoff position and it would have to take a monumental collapse on their behalf to miss the playoffs all together. However, their road to the final would get much more physical should they fall into the wild card spot.

As things stand right now, the Predators hold the first wild card position, which means they play the Western Conference division winner with fewer points, currently the Los Angeles Kings. Chicago would play the St. Louis Blues in the first round, if the playoffs started today.

However, should everything in the conference stay the same, but the Predators pass the Blackhawks, then it would be Chicago playing Los Angeles in the first round. A few months, even weeks, ago, this was a popular pick for the match-up to determine who would represent the West in the Stanley Cup Final.

Coach Joel Quenneville and his players will say the right things, that it doesn’t matter who they play in the first round, but they would surely prefer starting the playoffs against the Blues rather than the Kings.

The Blackhawks have defeated the Kings in the playoffs before (2013), but LA returned the favor in 2014, so there’s no real advantage there. The Kings, though, have one of the league’s best goaltenders in Jonathan Quick. St. Louis may be similar in depth up front and style of play as LA, but you would be hard pressed to find someone who would take either of their goalies (Brian Elliott and Jake Allen) over Quick.

Right now, Chicago’s goalie situation isn’t fully set as starter Corey Crawford has been out day-to-day with an upper-body injury since last week. If he returns before the start of the playoffs, it will definitely help their chances to advance past the first round. However, even though Crawford himself has two Cups, I doubt many people would pick him over Quick in a seven-game series.

The Kings also boast the league’s fewest goals against (167), 18 fewer than both the Blackhawks and Blues. And like Chicago, LA knows what it’s like to win multiple Cups in recent seasons (2012 and 2014), so the Blackhawks’ championship pedigree of the last seven years would not intimidate the Kings.

St. Louis, on the other hand, has experienced playoff disappointment the last three seasons. The Blues had 2-0 leads on both the Blackhawks and Kings in the first round of the playoffs in 2013 and 2014, respectively, only to fall in six games in those series. Last season, St. Louis fell to the Minnesota Wild in six games in the opening round of the postseason, meaning the Blues will have a bit of pressure on them this season to get past the first round. Sometimes, teams with pressure on them don’t perform well.

Regardless of who Chicago plays in the first round, both teams will try to punish the Hawks physically, as both LA and St. Louis are big, physical teams. Should Quenneville’s team get past the first round, though, their place in the standings would determine their second round match-up, which could be just as physical as the first round.

Should the Blackhawks finish third in the division and reach the second round of the playoffs, they would play either the Stars, Colorado Avalanche, or Wild, depending on who gets the final Wild Card spot and who wins that first round series with Dallas. Neither of those three teams is overly physical, meaning Chicago’s skill players could have more time to create plays and scoring chances.

However, should the Hawks finish with the first Wild Card position and get past the Kings, assuming LA wins the Pacific Division, in the first round, they would then face either the San Jose Sharks or Anaheim Ducks in the second round.

Chicago did defeat Anaheim last season in the Western Conference Final, but it can be hard to defeat the same team two years in a row in the playoffs, especially if that team has improved. The Ducks are probably deeper this season than last and they are a better defensive team this season. Anaheim is second in the league in fewest goals against, one behind the Kings.

Another similarity the Ducks have with their SoCal neighbors is their physical play. Chicago got a taste of that in their seven-game series last spring, prompting captain Jonathan Toews to state during the off-season that the series against Anaheim was their toughest one during their Stanley Cup run.

The Ducks also have great special teams play, which is key in the playoffs. Anaheim currently leads the league in both power-play and penalty-killing efficiency.

The Sharks aren’t a pushover, either. San Jose, like their other two state counterparts, are just as big and physical. They also have a prolific goal-scoring lineup. San Jose has the second-most goals scored in the Western Conference (214). The Hawks are a strong defensive team, but their lack of depth on the blueline could be their Achilles heel in a match-up with the Sharks, especially if that defense is beaten up in a long series with LA.

San Jose can also defend pretty well, having allowed only 186 goals this season, fifth-best in the West. They have slightly better special teams numbers than Chicago, as well. The Sharks’ Achilles heel in a series against the Blackhawks, though, would be in goal as starter Martin Jones only has two games of playoff experience.

It is pretty much a sure bet that Chicago will reach the playoffs, barring an act of God, basically. However, regardless of the position they finish the season in, the road to the Western Conference Final won’t be easy. I personally believe they will hang on to third place in the division, meaning they wouldn’t have to play one of the big California teams until the Western Conference Final, should the Predators not send everything into a tailspin and have a magical run.

If you’ve watched enough hockey, though, you know that anything can happen, so this will probably go all the way down to their last game of the season on April 5, when both Chicago and Nashville conclude their seasons. Current form suggests that the Predators have a solid chance to catch and pass the Blackhawks. Should that happen, it’ll make things very interesting in the Western Conference when the playoffs start in three weeks.

Until then Chicago fans, try not to throw up over each other because there’s still time for the ride to straighten itself out and become fun again.

Photo Credit: NHL/via Twitter

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