CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 16: Members of the Chicago Blackhawks inclusing (L-R) Kris Versteeg #23, Ben Smith #28 and Nick Leddy #8 celebrate Leddy's second period goal against the Detroit Red Wings at the United Center on March 16, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The Chicago Blackhawks have been going in fits and starts since the Olympic break concluded at the end of February. They’ve had some really dominant games, shutting out the St. Louis Blues last week and blowing out the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Stadium Series game at Soldier Field, but they’ve also had their fair share of clunkers, like Sunday’s 2-0 loss to the Nashville Predators.
Despite that inconsistency in their results, the Blackhawks still have a few things going in their favor. Their puck possession game, long their key strategy to winning contests, is doing just fine, and they are also doing a much better job of killing penalties than they were earlier in the season. That increase in penalty kill effectiveness has been offset a bit by their struggles on their power play, but overall the special teams units for the team are in good shape.
Even with their own house in order though, there are several other Western Conference teams that are just as hot. The St. Louis Blues, owners of an incredible 20-1-2 record against the Central Division this season, are currently in the top spot in the conference with 103 points, and have a six point lead, plus a game in hand, on the defending champions. The San Jose Sharks have also been lighting the world up lately, recently taking over first place in the Pacific from the Anaheim Ducks.
With those kind of quality teams in front of them, and with teams like the Colorado Avalanche nipping at their heels, are the Blackhawks still the favorites to emerge as Western Conference champions for the second year in a row? The answer at this point is likely no, but it’s not like the Hawks are doomed in any playoff matchup.
Yes, the Hawks have lost seven games combined to the Avalanche and Blues this season. They have outscored the Blues in their four matchups this season however, and when you factor in the fact that the Hawks have had some serious success against other playoff teams like the Los Angeles Kings (swept the season series) and the Dallas Stars (have won four out of five games), it can be argued that the record against those clubs is more of an aberration than a worrying pattern.
Even with that in mind though, a couple of other teams would have to be considered narrow favorites over the Blackhawks at this point. The Blues have gotten some ridiculously good goaltending out of Ryan Miller, and although their lack of playoff success in recent years has left them open to ridicule, they are still a formidable opponent that would be tough for Chicago to overcome in the second round, especially with home ice advantage over the Hawks.
The Ducks are a much less worrisome team than they were earlier in the season, as they have crashed back to Earth with a long stretch of uninspiring play. They still have a potent offense led by stars like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, but they still surrender a lot of goals, and the Hawks still would likely have an advantage over them in the conference finals.
The other team the Hawks really need to look out for in the West are the Sharks. They are ridiculously loaded up the middle of the ice, with players like Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton leading the way, and their wingers are nothing to sneeze at either, with Tomas Hertl and Patrick Marleau raising a ruckus on the outside. Add to that their goaltender Antti Niemi and their Norris Trophy contending defenseman Marc Edouard Vlasic, and you have a recipe for success if the two teams meet in the playoffs.
The Blackhawks have played the Sharks tough this season, but ultimately ended up with a 1-0-2 record against San Jose. Both of those losses came in shootouts however, and the Sharks are much better suited for the skills competition than the Hawks are, so those results aren’t worth looking into.
No, the Blackhawks are not the juggernaut that cruised into the playoffs last year after steamrolling just about everyone in the Western Conference. No, there is no way of arguing that Chicago is the hands down favorite to win another conference title and compete for a Stanley Cup this summer.
The key thing to remember when discussing which team is the favorite to come out of the West is that the conference is loaded with talent, so it really wouldn’t be much of a surprise if any of the top five or six teams (depending on how one feels about the Avalanche or Kings) were to make a run to the Stanley Cup Final.