What's the ceiling for the surging Blackhawks?


What's the ceiling for the surging Blackhawks?

It took a while, but the Blackhawks are finally playing their best hockey of the season. And fortunately because of a subpar Western Conference, playoff talks are actually realistic in Chicago.

After a 4-3 overtime victory on Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks, the Blackhawks’ winning streak was extended to six games. They hadn’t won more than three in a row all season before this stretch. And yet they're only two points out of the final ward card spot despite their points percentage (.482) ranking fourth-worst.

The most notable reason why they're having so much success is the power play, which is converting at an astonishing 39.1 percent clip since Dec. 18. But their 5-on-5 success has been strong, too.

The Blackhawks have a plus-6 goal goal differential at 5-on-5 during their six-game winning streak and a PDO — a metric that combines on-ice shooting percentage and save percentage to measure luck factor — of 104.8, which ranks second-best since Jan. 20, according to In their previous 49 games, they had a minus-21 differential and PDO of 99.4 (the mean is usually 100).

Most importantly, they're finding ways to win when they don't play their best. Like Thursday.

"It's part of why we're winning games right now," Jonathan Toews said following the win. "Whether we're on our A game or not, tonight we had spurts where we were making mistakes and I think collectively we know we could be better in those areas, as far as managing the puck and managing our shifts and playing with a bit more energy if we keep them short. The fact that we can hang in there — it's unfortunate to give up a late goal, but we're finding ways to win right now even if we're not playing our best hockey."

Why is that?

"It just shows that everyone’s raising their game, everyone’s playing better hockey and we’re all committed to doing the right thing and at least being on the same page no matter what the situation is," Toews said. "When, across the board, we’re getting consistent efforts, we’re getting good starts, we’re getting smart changes, four lines rolling, everyone playing with energy, conserving their energy by not extending themselves, things just fall into place.

"Our power play’s confident right now, we know that we’re not taking anything for granted. You gotta go out there and work hard and out-work the PK. Same goes with our 5-on-5 play. When you work hard and you stick to your team game and all five guys know what each other is doing out there, it’s just easier to play the game. You rely on your teammates and it’s much more fun to play out there when you have purpose and you’re getting rewarded for it, too."

Before Thursday's game, Toews said the Blackhawks haven't reached their ceiling yet. Not even close.

So what is the ceiling for this team? The answer, and part of what makes this stretch fun: nobody knows, including their head coach.

"I don't know,” Jeremy Colliton admitted. “But I agree, we're not there yet. There's many things we can do better, but I think that's every team. The teams that get to play when it's the most fun, they continue to improve as the year goes on, and I think we've had a good stretch where we have taken some steps forward. Today was a step back, but in a way it wasn't cause we won. That's what teams who get to move on, they find ways to do that and that's a good sign."

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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


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 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?