Blackhawks

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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman outlined the league's return-to-play plan on Tuesday, which included a 24-team format involving the top 12 seeds from each conference. And while there are many hurdles to overcome before play actually resumes, the announcement gave fans something to be excited about.

If you're a Blackhawks fan, you're thrilled. Their playoff hopes were just about zero prior to the March 12 pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic and now they have a chance at making some noise.

The top four teams in each conference will compete in a round-robin format to determine their seeding while the bottom eight teams will compete in a five-game play-in series for the final four spots in their respective conferences. That means the No. 12-seeded Blackhawks will square off with the No. 5-seeded Edmonton Oilers for a chance to secure a playoff berth.

Here are four reasons why the Blackhawks could make a run with this format:

1. A healthy lineup

The Blackhawks were one of the most impacted teams this season when it came to man games lost, many of which were key players: Drake Caggiula (concussion), Duncan Keith (groin), Connor Murphy (groin), Brandon Saad (ankle) and Dylan Strome (ankle) were all sidelined for an extended period of time on separate occasions.

But most notably, the Blackhawks had four season-ending injuries: Calvin de Haan (shoulder), Brent Seabrook (shoulder/hips), Andrew Shaw (concussion) and Zack Smith (back). If the NHL returns around late July or early August, you have to wonder whether any of those four players would be medically cleared to finish the season. The Blackhawks aren't a team that can afford not playing at full strength, so this would certainly be a boost.

 

The Oilers were a healthy group going into the pause. Connor McDavid did not play in one of the three matchups against the Blackhawks this season because of a quad injury, but he recorded 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in nine games upon returning to the lineup.

2. Corey Crawford

You can say this every postseason, but now more than ever goaltending is going to be a major factor in the qualifying round and Stanley Cup Playoffs. The team whose goaltender can get back to performing at a high level the quickest very well might be the team to make a surprise run.

How does a two-time Stanley Cup champion sound? 

The Blackhawks couldn't ask for a better situation with Crawford, who was one of the best goaltenders down the stretch. In his last 15 appearances, he went 7-7-1 with a 2.46 goals-against average, .927 save percentage, 7.60 goals saved above average and 9.76 high-danger goals saved above average, which ranked No. 1 among all netminders over that span, according to Natural Stat Trick.

If Crawford can regain that form, that's not good news for the Oilers.

3. A Top 10 penalty kill

While they may be the No. 5 seed in the West, the Oilers weren't a very good 5-on-5 team this season. They had a minus-16 goal differential compared to the Blackhawks' even differential, which is a surprising discrepancy.

Where the Oilers have been lethal is the power play, where they were converting at a 29.5 percent rate. That's a ridiculous number and it's thanks to superstars Leon Draisaitl and McDavid, both of whom ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, among all skaters in scoring.

But the Blackhawks may be able to combat the Oilers' strength.

After a historically bad penalty kill last season, the Blackhawks finished tied for eighth in that department this season with an 82.1 percent kill rate. They went only 4-for-7 on the penalty kill in their three games against the Oilers this season, but stymying Draisaitl and McDavid with the man advantage could be the difference in a series that's likely to be high scoring.

4. Championship pedigree

Patrick Kane probably deserves his own bullet point, but the Blackhawks have three Conn Smythe winners on their roster and the Oilers don't have a single Stanley Cup winner on theirs. That means something when the stakes get higher in the postseason.

While no fans in attendance will certainly take away from the atmosphere, the games will still carry a lot weight and feel like a big deal to players. And when the lights are shining brightest, that's when players like Crawford, Kane, Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews are at their best.

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