Things didn't go very smoothly for the 2019-20 Blackhawks during the regular season.
The goalie tandem of Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner carried the team for most of the year in light of the glaring disconnect between the team's highly-decorated veterans and promising youth. If you put enough pucks on net and generated enough quality chances against Chicago, as most teams did, some would get through and victory would likely be yours as the defense again struggled mightily, allowing a league-high average 35.1 shots against per game.
Patrick Kane still looked like Patrick Kane and rookie Dominik Kubalik recorded 30 goals with his sensational shot, earning a Calder Trophy nomination in his first NHL season. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews had another strong year, grabbing 60 points in 70 games, to follow up the best season of his career, but it wasn't enough to put the team's offense over.
The Hawks were destined to miss the postseason, sitting at No. 12 in the Western Conference on March 12 — the time of the NHL pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic — six points out of a wild card spot with four teams to jump in the 12 remaining games of the season.
When the NHL set up its Return to Play program, featuring the Blackhawks taking on the Edmonton Oilers in a qualifying round best-of-five series for entry into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the seeds of hope were planted for both the veterans and youngsters on Chicago.
It was clear at training camp ahead of the 24-team postseason that players young and old used the pause to enhance their game through studying up, reflecting and staying fit, or for players like rookie center Kirby Dach, taking their fitness to the next level. They saw entry into the postseason tournament as an opportunity to show what they can do.
After Kane and Toews' team-leading nine postseason points, Kubalik was in third with eight. The rookie's production dipped as the postseason dragged on, but Kubalik exploded in Game 1 of the qualifying round, helping set the tone and foundation for unlikely postseason hope for the Hawks with two power-play goals and three assists in the contest, breaking Steve Larmer's record for most points by a Hawks rookie in a playoff game. Larmer had four points (one goal, three assists) in Game 2 of the 1983 Division Finals. Kubalik also became the first player to record five points in his postseason debut in NHL history.
Dach was much stronger on his skates come playoffs and took no prisoners in board battles. Four-plus months after the season stopped, his game and muscle looked to improve at least a full season. His offensive playmaking ability took a big leap as well, although he can learn to be more selfish with the puck. He scored his first postseason NHL goal in Game 2's 4-3 overtime loss to Vegas Golden Knights in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before Chicago was eliminated after Tuesday's Game 5, losing the series 4-1.
Forward Matthew Highmore, 24, showed an ability to go to the net and get rewarded on the big stage, picking up three goals in his first NHL postseason.
Rookie defenseman Adam Boqvist was one of the younger Hawks to noticeably struggle in the playoffs, but he had one of the biggest roles, logging top D paring minutes with Duncan Keith. Boqvist was a healthy scratch for Game 2 vs. the Golden Knights and missed several shifts in Game 5, but gained valuable experience in playing playoff hockey against a top team like Vegas and getting to go along for the ride in the bubble.
On the veteran side of things for the postseason, Toews shined in the qualifying round against Edmonton, not only helping shut down the league's top two regular season point leaders in Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, but got in on the offense, recording seven points (four goals, three assists) in the play-in series. Toews disappeared a bit offensively against the Knights, only recording an assist in Game 2 followed by a big goal in Game 5 to put the Hawks ahead 1-0 in the first period.
Kane also scored in Game 5, snapping a six-game goalless drought. Like Toews, Showtime's offense was needed more in the Vegas series.
At training camp before the postseason, Keith was unsurprisingly one of the most recognizable physical specimens looking stronger and buzzing all over the ice. Keith had his moments in the tournament and still looks like a valuable top-4 defenseman. Being paired with Boqvist cut back on his ability to help generate offense for Chicago.
D-man Olli Maatta was a pleasant surprise for the Hawks in the playoffs, recording three goals, three assists and a +/- rating of +7. Connor Murphy, Slater Koekkoek and Calvin de Haan stepped up their game and were pretty solid on D as well for the Blackhawks in Edmonton.
What else is there to say about Corey Crawford? In the Vegas series, he was the biggest reason the majority of the games were close. We've seen him battle back from injuries before, but he was quarantining from COVID-19 just three weeks before the Hawks left for Edmonton and missed the first 12 days of training camp. After another spectacular, albeit brief, postseason performance from Crawford, he's about to become an unrestricted free agent following the completion of the playoffs and his future with Chicago is up in the air.
"He got better and better every game, especially in (the Vegas) series," Toews said following Game 5. "I think there's moments where we had momentum in the series or maybe pucks weren't going in for us but a lot of moments where they were coming at us and throwing the kitchen sink at us and Crow had an answer for everything.
"It could have been a quick four games if it wasn't for him the other night, gave us a chance to creep back in the series tonight. Again, we were close and just came down to it at the end there. It just seems like people are quick to jump on him and put the onus on him. He's always taken responsibility for everything and he's always been great for us but even better in the big games and he showed that in this series as well. Even again, like without all the preparation everyone else got for these games, so says even more about him."
The 24-team postseason tournament showed us a lot about a Blackhawks team that not only didn't look like much during the regular season, but had an uncertain future as far as the good years the vets had left and how long it would take the younger players to find their game.
"If things would have gone the way they were supposed to before this entire situation, we wouldn't have had a chance to play in the playoffs," Toews said. "It was a great opportunity for us to come in and play some meaningful hockey. I think a lot of guys stepped up to the plate and showed what they can do and I think even in this series, a lot of our smaller guys were playing a lot bigger than they really are. Go down the list, guys like (Alex) DeBrincat and Highmore and (Drake) Caggiula... I mean Kaner was throwing the body around tonight. I think a lot of young guys contributed and showed a lot. So there's definitely some positives there."
The gap between the veteran and youngsters' talent and ability to be difference makers is narrower than we thought it would be at this point. And as the squad's made up now, based on how they upset a good team in the Oilers sporting not just offensive juggernauts but the league's best power play and second best penalty kill during the regular season and in hanging in there with the West's No. 1 seeded Knights — with three of the Hawks' losses to Vegas being decided by one goal — they showed us they have character, guts and resolve. At the end of the day, what more can you ask for?
"The last two games (Vegas) probably outplayed us. The first three games of the series I don't think we deserved to be down 3-0, so maybe it would have been nice to have a different outcome in that situation, but that's why you play the game. It is what it is," Kane said. "You lose an overtime game, you lose a tight game in Game 3 and all of a sudden you're down 3-0, it's tough to come back from that. But I thought we hung in there, we fought, we gave it a good chance the last couple games and like I said, Crow was great, he played amazing for us and gave us a fighting chance as well."
The season's over but because of incredibly unlikely circumstances, it's not in April after the final regular season game, but in August after two postseason series. With a lot uncertain in the world right now, hopefully Blackhawks fans were provided with some hope from a team that was supposed to be down and out, maybe for some time to come, but instead showed that the future is brighter than we suspected.