Every time a question has been asked about whether the Blackhawks still have playoff aspirations, players and coaches have responded by saying they're taking it one day at a time. You could tell by their body language, though, that it didn't seem all that realistic to them when the questions were being presented.
Yet here we are, going into Thursday's game against Vancouver with the Blackhawks on a five-game winning streak and chance to pull within one point of the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.
There are exactly two months left in the regular season and the Blackhawks are playing their best hockey of the year. It's hard not to start standings watching.
"I think if we handle our business, we'll be OK," Patrick Kane said. "Everyone's kind of hovering around that same position. Whoever goes on that run probably finds themselves in a position to be playing in mid-April, so yeah, you'll definitely be watching. You look at the other night, we beat Edmonton, a couple other teams lost for us like Colorado, Vancouver, Arizona, Anaheim, I think Minnesota got one point. You notice those things are going on and when you have a successful night like that, all of a sudden it brings in a little bit more hope."
There's added excitement around the locker room, too. Guys can feel it. The Blackhawks have this newfound optimism that a playoff berth is closer than they ever would have imagined, and are playing a meaningful game at the United Center for the first time in a while.
"There’s no doubt it’s a much better feel, much more fun to be in the room around the guys when we’re winning, when we’re getting results," Jonathan Toews said. "But I think we’ve got to give these guys credit for how we stuck with it, how we’ve kept that mood up even through the tough parts of the season. It’s nice to see it turning into results right now, and that’s getting wins. But we've got to keep working, keep pushing to get better because we know we’re not even close to the ceiling yet."
The Blackhawks don't want to get too far ahead of themselves just yet. They know none of this matters if they don't hold up their end of the bargain.
But at least there's a positive feeling and belief that they've played themselves into the conversation of a race that every team wants to be a part of this time of year.
"Obviously you can’t control the other results, but there’s been a bunch of nights where we’ve gotten some help," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "And we’ve taken care of our part of the equation too. Now it gets a little more fun."
The Blackhawks are back within two points of a wild card spot, and they may finally be getting their star goaltender back soon.
After joining the team on the ice for the fourth time in a week, Corey Crawford met with the media on Friday and acknowledged he's essentially ready to come back. But it's not up to him when he'll actually return.
"It's really hard to say," Crawford said. "It's not up to me. I'm healthy to play right now. Really it's whether they think I'm ready to get in the net."
The Blackhawks have won eight of their past nine games, and have gotten terrific goaltending from Collin Delia and Cam Ward. There's no urgency to rush Crawford back, but if he's ready, he's ready and he basically serves as a trade deadline acquisition on his own.
"We've been playing great," Crawford said. "I think that's a tough situation too. Obviously you don't want to come back in and [not] be at the top of my game. We're in a pretty good run right now, a pretty good stretch. It's really thinking about what game do you throw me in? I'll leave that up to Jeremy [Colliton]. Whenever they want to, I'm ready to play."
Colliton was asked about Crawford's potential timeline and said there will be discussions internally about when he will be back between the pipes for the Blackhawks. All we know is, that won't come on Saturday against Columbus. But it likely will be very soon.
"It’s good to hear he’s feeling good," Colliton said. "That’s good. We’ll discuss it in the staff and let you know.”
If you look at Cam Ward's stat line this season, his numbers don't look great. In fact, they aren't very good.
His 3.60 goals against average ranks dead last in the NHL among goaltenders with at least 20 starts, and .898 save percentage ranks 39th out of 47th. But there's a reason for that.
Ward is facing 9.4 high-danger chances at even strength per game and a shade above 11 in all situations, according to naturalstattrick.com. No other goaltender is seeing that many quality of shots at that rate. Couple that with the fact that the Blackhawks are giving up the second-most shots in general (35.4) and the numbers simply won't favor the goaltender, no matter who's in net.
On Thursday against the New Jersey Devils, Ward faced 19 total high-danger shots against. He stopped all 19 of those. He also turned aside 35 of 36 shots at 5-on-5 to up his season save percentage to .922 in that area.
Where Ward's overall save percentage has taken a big hit this season is the penalty kill. He's given up 26 power-play goals on 122 shots against for a .787 save percentage. Some of that is on him. But the Blackhawks statistically have the worst penalty kill in the league with a 73.4 percent kill rate, so there's plenty of blame to go around.
In the big picture, Ward deserves more credit than he's getting for his on-ice play with Corey Crawford out and off-ice role by serving as a great mentor for Collin Delia. Quite frankly, the Blackhawks likely wouldn't be in the playoff race at this point in the season if it wasn't for him because he's bridged the gap perfectly between a two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie and 24-year-old who had only two NHL starts going into this season.
Remember how last season turned out when they didn't have a veteran like Ward?