Colorado Avalanche

Central Casting: Can Blackhawks play the role of playoff team?

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USA TODAY

Central Casting: Can Blackhawks play the role of playoff team?

If the Blackhawks are going to end their postseason drought next season, they are going to have to jump over at least one of the five Central Division foes who qualified for this year’s postseason.

Of course, there is no guarantee the Central will get five teams in next year’s tournament, but let’s look at each club and identify teams that could take a step back next season.

Nashville

Ever since the Predators swept the Blackhawks and lost to Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final, they have continued to regress each year in their attempts to hoist the Cup.

Last year, they lost to Winnipeg in Game 7 of the second round. This postseason, Dallas ousted Nashville in the first round.

The Predators appear to be at a Cup crossroads. They need to find more scoring than just the JOFA line. Do they need to move P.K. Subban to acquire scoring depth?

They also had the worst power play in the league and 36-year-old goalie Pekka Rinne had a sub-par .905 save percentage in the playoffs.

Expect a busy offseason in the Music City as the Predators look to stay in the upper tier of the Central.

Cup contender trending: Down

Winnipeg 

Did the Jets run into a team of destiny in the Blues? Or did the opening round loss highlight some areas of concern for Winnipeg?

The Jets season in many ways was the exact opposite of the Blues. Winnipeg started strong and was just average in the second half of the season.

The Jets have seven players that will become unrestricted free agents on July 1st, including Kevin Hayes. They also have six restricted free agents on their roster, which includes Patrik Laine and Jacob Trouba.

The Jets have had a rocky relationship with Trouba and are expected to trade the 25-year-old defenseman. Connor Hellebuyck’s production dropped off a bit from 2018 when he was a Vezina Trophy finalist.

The Jets have a great power play and three lines that can score. A couple of roster tweaks could help this young team take the next step.

Cup contender trending: Even

St. Louis

From last place in the entire league on Jan. 2 to being one of the final four teams standing in pursuit of Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Craig Berube pushed all the right buttons when he took over last November. The Blues commitment to defense was highlighted by finally finding what appears to be a franchise goalie in Jordan Binnington.

The Blues are strong down the middle with centers Brayden Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Bozak.

The Blues' key players are under contract next season. So, other than finding a new anthem to replace “Gloria” the Blues could be a major roadblock in the Blackhawks climb up the Central standings.

Cup contender trending: Up

Dallas

Another first-year coach in the Central, Jim Montgomery saw his team improve dramatically, as they fell just one goal short of reaching the Western Conference Final.

The Stars have a tremendous 1-2 punch in net with Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.  

They have solid special teams with players like Tyler Seguin, Alex Radulov and John Klingberg putting up monster numbers.

They also saw young players like Miro Heiskanen and Roope Hintz make an impact on the scoresheet.

The Stars spent a second-round pick on Mats Zuccarello. Will the Stars have enough cap room to sign Zuccarello when he becomes a UFA this summer?

Cup contender trending: Even

Colorado

The Avalanche punched the final postseason ticket in the West and rode it all the way to Game 7 of the second round.

Luck was on the side of the Blackhawks during the draft lottery, but that wasn’t the case for Colorado. They had the best odds for the No. 1 overall pick and ended up with the fourth overall selection.

The Blackhawks won’t have to deal with Jack Hughes in an Avs sweater, but they will have to worry about blue line phenom Cale Makar for the foreseeable future.

The Avalanche had the most dangerous line in hockey for much of the season with Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen.

They are a young, fast team with a steady netminder in Philipp Grubauer. They will see Colin Wilson become a UFA on July 1.

Colorado may end up being the elite team in the Central for years to come.

Cup contender trending: Up

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Four takeaways: Blackhawks keep playoff hopes alive with overtime win over Avalanche

Four takeaways: Blackhawks keep playoff hopes alive with overtime win over Avalanche

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 2-1 overtime win over the Colorado Avalanche at the United Center on Sunday:

1. Duncan Keith saves the day

The Blackhawks needed this. After losing three in a row, anything less than a win on Sunday would've been the nail in the coffin on the team's playoff hopes with seven games remaining.

But Keith's overtime heroics saved the day for the Blackhawks, who live to fight another day. It was the third goal in nine games for Keith, who has six goals on the season. He had two goals in 82 games last season. Surely this offensive hot streak — by defensemen standards — feels good.

"I don't score too many overtime goals," Keith said. "[Nathan] MacKinnon was coming down and I'm just trying not to get embarrassed there because he's a pretty good player. And he kind of fell and I had the jump on him, and I was thinking he might try to poke it on my backhand. But I saw that he wasn't going to have enough room, so I just tried to slam it at the net as hard as I could. It hit the net and luckily it went in."

2. Blackhawks keep playoff hopes alive (barely)

Saturday's regulation loss to the Avalanche was a gut punch. Allowing the Avalanche to pick up a point in this one wasn't ideal. But the Blackhawks need to take care of their own business first, and earning two points was the ultimate goal.

The projected playoff cut is roughly 87 points. The Blackhawks have 76 with seven games left. They need 11 out of a possible 14 points in their final seven games to hit that mark. Their odds are bleak. But they're hanging on by a thread.

"This is huge," Keith said. "I think it was pretty much a must-win game. Especially after losing the last one against these guys. I thought we played a really good game tonight as a team. Obviously nothing's perfect but finding a way to get those two points. We're taking it one game at a time. We'll enjoy it, move on and know we still got our work cut out for us. Our theme of taking it one game at a time is a good way to approach it."

3. Loading up 12-19-88

Entering Sunday's game, the Blackhawks had scored only seven goals in their past four games. It's been their toughest stretch of the second half in the goal scoring department after it came so easy to them for months. The lack of power play is one of the main reasons for that.

To help change things up, Jeremy Colliton loaded up the top line with Alex DeBrincat, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and tried to exploit some matchups by having the last change at home. And why not? They've accounted for 45.5 percent of the team's goals this season, and that strategy worked so well for Colorado earlier in the year. They didn't score, but they were very effective together.

In 16:19 of even-strength time, the trio controlled 65.9 percent of the shot attempts, 80 percent of the scoring chances and 80 percent of the high-danger chances, according to naturalstattrick.com.

"Those are the three guys that put the puck in the net the most," Colliton said. "We've been having trouble, so I think throw them together and that's probably the best opportunity to create some offense. I realize they didn't score, but they were really good."

4. Staying optimistic

The Blackhawks know it's an uphill battle to make the playoffs. But until the math says they're officially out of contention, they're going to continue fighting and clawing for that final wildcard spot.

There's still some optimism inside the locker room that they can make a run because they've shown in the past that they can do it. A big game against Arizona on Tuesday is a chance to strengthen it.

 

"We have a big belief in our group," Artem Anisimov said. "We just need to get it done."

Said Keith: "We know it's tough. We look at the standings and stuff, but at the same time I think our focus has to be in the moment. The standings are what they are, our focus needs to be one game at a time and just control that. So good game tonight and good that we got the two points, but we need to go into Arizona and play just as good as a game, if not better, to beat those guys."

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Four takeaways: Blackhawks lose ground in wildcard race with regulation loss to Avalanche

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AP

Four takeaways: Blackhawks lose ground in wildcard race with regulation loss to Avalanche

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center on Saturday:

1. Losing ground

It's been well-documented much this weekend means for the Blackhawks. It could basically make or break their playoff chances with exactly two weeks left. They even got a break when they found out during warmups that Colorado's second-leading point getter Mikko Rantanen would miss the game due to an undisclosed injury, joining captain Gabriel Landeskog on the sidelines.

But the Avalanche seemed to elevate their intensity because of it. Just like their last meeting against Colorado, the Blackhawks failed to hold a lead at any point in the game and were forced to play catch-up in the third period when they fell behind two goals.

With the regulation loss, the Blackhawks fell six points out of the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference with only a game in hand. It didn't help that Arizona picked up a point, either. Time is running out.

2. Lack of power play success reason for offensive drought

The power play was one of the main reasons why the Blackhawks turned their season around at the end of December. It was converting at a 40 percent clip for months. Obviously, that was going to be unsustainable over the course of a full season.

But it has completely dried up over the last several weeks, and it's the primary reason why the offense hasn't been firing on all cylinders as of late.

The Blackhawks had three power-play opportunities against Colorado. They recorded 12 shot attempts, six shots on goal and generated four scoring chances but couldn't find the back of the net. They're now 1-for-25 on the power play in their last 11 games. The 5-on-5 success is there, but the 5-on-4 isn't.

The Blackhawks have scored only seven goals in their past four games, which comes out to 1.75 per game. That's not going to cut it.

3. Not taking advantage of defensive improvement

It really is a shame that the Blackhawks are hitting a scoring drought at the worst possible time. Because there's noticeably been a defensive improvement over the last week. It's their best stretch in a while.

Over the last three games, the Blackhawks have allowed 20 total high-danger chances at 5-on-5, according to naturalstattrick.com, for an average of 6.7 per game. They had given up double-digit high-danger chances in 13 of their previous 17 games, including consecutive games where they allowed 20 to Montreal and 15 to Toronto.

Their season average in that department before Monday was 11.5. So they've shaved off nearly five full high quality scoring chances per game in this mini stretch. That's a huge improvement. But they haven't had much to show for it, recording one out of a possible six points.

4. Turning the page fast

Fortunately for the Blackhawks, they won't have too much time to sulk on this regulation loss. The two Central Division foes will go right back at it on Sunday night at the United Center. And that's truly a must-win game for the Blackhawks. It's why they should start Corey Crawford on back-to-back days for the first time since November 2017.

Another regulation loss would put the Blackhawks eight points back with seven games left, and it would only be a matter of time before they're mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

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