Sid on the Blackhawks: Sizing Up the Western Conference Race

Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY Sports Jonathan Toews goes on the attack in open ice during the Blackhawks' 2-1 win over Buffalo Sunday evening.

Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY Sports
Jonathan Toews goes on the attack in open ice during the Blackhawks’ 2-1 win over Buffalo Sunday evening.

Sidney Brown brings his weekly dispatches from the front lines of Blackhawks fandom every week during the hockey season.

With the Winter Olympics square in the rear view, the Chicago Blackhawks and the NHL as a whole got back to work this past week.

For the Hawks (38-13-14) that only means one thing — the race to the playoffs, and a return to the Stanley Cup Finals, are on.

The 3-2 record the Hawks posted this week shows that they have the potential to finish strong and possibly win the Western Conference’s Central Division and have the best record overall in that conference. But division rival St. Louis strengthened itself greatly during the recent trade deadline, trading for former Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller. Add on the continually surprising play of the Colorado Avalanche (the team’s next opponent this Wednesday) and you pretty much have a Hawks team that has to stay on high alert moving forward, unable to afford taking a night off and/or give away points in the standings.

Chicago must be more consistent with its play-generating ability and its momentum as it heads towards the playoffs. Two primary issues that concern me are the Hawks’ goals allowed numbers and their penalty kill percentage.

Issue #1 – Goals Allowed (2.5 per game, 12th in NHL): Team defense has been a struggle all season-long, although it has shown improvement since the Olympic break. The Hawks must continue to help out their goalies by blocking shots, getting sticks on pucks and not take dumb penalties. If the Hawks can cut down on opponents’ scoring chances, it will only help them down the road.

Issue #2 – Penalty Kill Percentage (80.6%, 22nd in NHL): Starting off the season in a funk, this unit has improved over the last month and has not missed a beat since the break, shutting down the opposition in 18 out of the last 19 power play chances, the only mishap coming last Tuesday in a loss to Colorado. Notable PK performances during this stretch included the defense going 6-6 versus Pittsburgh, 4-4 versus Columbus and 5-5 versus Buffalo.

This unit was the link that helped the Hawks capture the Cup last spring, displaying toughness whenever they were challenged, hopefully this unit has finally turned the corner and have returned to being playoff-ready. Potential postseason opponents including Anaheim, St. Louis, San Jose and Colorado await in the upcoming schedule so the PK must stay disciplined.

The race to the Central crown will be fun and should remain a three-way race (Chicago, St. Louis and Colorado). Winning the division could be vital because Pacific Division leader Anaheim will likely be in the top two and its second place team, San Jose, is only one point behind the Hawks, who are currently in the No. 3 spot. Falling below the No. 3 spot could mean the Hawks potentially opening the playoffs on the road. The Hawks are a good road team, but they’re not as good when they travel to the best in the West. Overall, it looks like the competition in the conference is much tougher than a year ago.

Who’s Hot?

“Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews has been on a tear since winning his second gold medal for Canada in Sochi.

In his last four games, Toews has scored six goals, including two against Pittsburgh in the NHL Outdoor Series at Soldier Field last Saturday and the game winner against Buffalo Sunday. For the year, Toews has 24 goals along with 37 assists, for a total of 61 points.

With Patrick Kane’s recent scoring slump, Toews has picked up his play at exactly the right time heading down the home stretch of the regular season. Sidney Crosby, I think you may have company in the race for the Hart Trophy for regular season MVP. This race should and will be interesting as this season draws to a close and the award just may be determined by which star’s team finishes with the better overall record.

The Week Ahead

Wed., Mar. 12 — at Colorado, 8:30 PM;  Fri., Mar. 14 — vs. Nashville, 7 PM; Sun., Mar. 16 — vs. Detroit, 6:30 PM.

(All times Central)

Team Leaders: Goals — Patrick Sharp (29); Assists — Duncan Keith (47); Points — Patrick Kane (65); Goals Against Average — Corey Crawford (2.30); Penalty Minutes — Brandon Bollig (69).

Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under Regal Radio and Sidney Brown on Twitter @sidkid80

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