Blackhawks

Evaluating Blackhawks' Stanley Cup playoff chances amid hottest stretch of season

Evaluating Blackhawks' Stanley Cup playoff chances amid hottest stretch of season

The Blackhawks' playoff percentage has been in the low single digits for a while now. But Tuesday was a good day. Actually, a very good day.

After winning their fifth game in a row, the Blackhawks found themselves only three points out of the final wild card spot in the Western Conference. But they received major help from around the league that has Chicago thinking about the playoff possibilities.

Going into Tuesday, six teams stood in the way between the Blackhawks and the second wild card position. Five of those teams (Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Edmonton and Vancouver) lost in regulation. The other (St. Louis) won in regulation. Heck, even Minnesota, which is sitting in the first wild card spot, lost — albeit in a shootout.

With their comeback victory against the Oilers and the Ducks losing their fifth straight game, the Blackhawks jumped Anaheim in the standings. One down, five more to go.

Because of how Tuesday unfolded, the Blackhawks' playoff odds nearly doubled in one day, going from 3.5 to 7.2 percent, according to sportsclubstats.com. It doesn't seem like a lot, but consider this: their percentage was at a mere 0.3 prior to their five-game winning streak.

Clearly, getting above the playoff line remains a longshot because four of the five teams ahead of the Blackhawks still have at least one game in hand — Colorado has two and St. Louis has three. The only team that doesn't? The Canucks, who visit Chicago on Thursday and have a minus-13 goal differential on the road compared to a plus-4 at home.

Here's where the big picture challenge lies: The Blackhawks have 28 games left. Only eight of them are against the five teams referenced above — three of which are against Colorado. That means they need to continue getting major help from around the NHL because they don't exactly control their own destiny. And they need to do it with the roster as currently constructed because it's difficult to envision a scenario where the Blackhawks deviate from the plan and become buyers.

So it's not impossible, but it's still a significant uphill battle. Crazier things have happened in hockey.

If the Blackhawks can somehow pull this off, this would fall right into that conversation, considering their chances at landing the No. 1 overall pick (7.5 percent) outweighs their chances of making the playoffs (7.2). But the gap has closed considerably, for better or worse.

Corey Crawford acknowledges he's ready to return for Blackhawks

Corey Crawford acknowledges he's ready to return for Blackhawks

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.”

Breaking down why Cam Ward has been better than his numbers show with Blackhawks

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USA TODAY

Breaking down why Cam Ward has been better than his numbers show with Blackhawks

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?