Winnipeg Jets

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

blackhawks_blues_usa_today.jpg
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

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.

Four takeaways: Blackhawks lose in overtime, but live to fight another day

blackhawks_jets_usa_today.jpg
USA TODAY

Four takeaways: Blackhawks lose in overtime, but live to fight another day

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-3 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets at the United Center on Monday:

1. Live to fight another day

Entering the final week of the NHL regular season, the Blackhawks know they're running out of rope. And with the Colorado Avalanche rallying from 2-0 down to force overtime, it put the Blackhawks in a position where they had to pick up at least one point or else they'd be eliminated from contention.

And Dylan Strome saved the day.

Trailing 3-2 in the final minutes of the third period, Strome tied it up with 2:20 left for his second of the night after he had gone 12 straight without a goal. The Blackhawks eventually got it to overtime, which was the key, and it kept their playoff hopes alive ... barely.

"It was a huge goal to get it to overtime," Duncan Keith said. "Obviously, we needed that. Somehow, live to fight another day and we just worry about the next game and doing everything we can to just focus on that and trying to win the game."

2. The Captain ties and sets personal best

Jonathan Toews has never been regarded as an elite offensive player. The thing that makes him great is his effectiveness when it comes to playing a 200-foot game. He's a coach's dream to have in a franchise centerman. It's why Mike Babcock has such an appreciation for Toews, because he's been a key part of Team Canada's success internationally.

After scoring a goal on Monday, Toews tied his career-high in goals (34) originally set in 2008-09 and established a new career-high in points (77) from 2010-11. The most impressive part of his season is that he hasn't gone more than three points without recording at least one point. 

The underlying metrics suggested the Blackhawks captain was due for a bounce-back season offensively and that's exactly what's happened.

"It's nice to produce day in, day out," Toews said. "I think that's always the focus. If you're thinking about numbers way before the fact I don't think that's going to get you very far, so just trying to get back to my game and create offense but also play the right way. There's always room for improvement in any part of your game, but definitely nice to be able to go out there and contribute offensively and just feel like you're going into a game and good things are going to happen. You can keep kind of repeating that same feeling every day."

3. Reuniting the nuclear option

When the Blackhawks were playing their best hockey, Drake Caggiula was on the top line with Patrick Kane and Toews and it oddly worked — not just that group, but the balance up and down their lineup. So with their backs against the wall, Jeremy Colliton went back to his nuclear option.

And it worked for the most part.

Three of the four lines finished with positive possession numbers at 5-on-5. When the Caggiula-Toews-Kane trio was on the ice together, the Blackhawks controlled 59.1 percent of the shot attempts and 60 percent of the scoring chances, according to naturalstattrick.com. It wouldn't be surprising to see them go back to it on Wednesday.

"I think it's probably as good as we've played when they were together and as good as those two have played when Caggiula was with them, so obviously we missed him," Colliton said. "Whether you go to it right away or not, felt like we should go back to it at some point and I thought they had some good shifts. That's what we're looking for, still working on the right combos."

4. Time to scoreboard watch

The Blackhawks will be off on Tuesday, but we've reached the time of year where they aren't afraid to admit that scoreboard watching is a thing. The Avalanche host the Edmonton Oilers at 8 p.m. CT in the second of a back-to-back, and if they record a point, the Blackhawks will be eliminated from playoff contention.

"It’s probably a good idea to watch and see what happens," Strome said. "Hopefully Edmonton ... I mean, we put ourselves in this position where we have to hope other teams win, so it’s not where we want to be. But sometimes in hockey you need some luck. So hopefully we can get some the next three games.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.

Four takeaways: Jets win in overtime, but Blackhawks building momentum

Four takeaways: Jets win in overtime, but Blackhawks building momentum

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-3 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets at the United Center on Friday:

1. Top guns lead the charge for Jets

The Jets are one of the best teams in the NHL because they're absolutely loaded up front and get their scoring from everywhere. The Blackhawks know this of their Central Division foes and after seeing them for the third time in two weeks.

On Nov. 29, it was Nikolaj Ehlers who had a hat trick. On Tuesday, Kyle Connor had a two-goal night. On Friday, it was Mark Scheifele (two goals, one assist) and Blake Wheeler (three assists) leading the way for the Jets with three-point efforts. The top guys have been a thorn in the Blackhawks' side this season, with Scheifele scoring the game-winner 50 seconds into overtime for their third victory against Chicago in 15 days.

"You can play really well against them for 58 minutes, but it only takes just an instant and then it’s in the back of your net," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "That’s something that we gotta learn, to play against those guys and in those situations if you’re going to be able to go head-to-head. A lot of it we were really good, we had let downs and it made it tough for us. But we did a lot of good things."

2. Last-minute goals

In all three periods, there were last-minute goals that changed the flow of the game. 

After the Jets took a 1-0 lead in the first period, Jonathan Toews responded for the Blackhawks with 10.2 seconds left to even it at 1-1. In the second, Mathieu Perreault scored on a breakaway coming out of the penalty box with 18 seconds remaining to put the Jets back in front 3-2. And then in the third, Erik Gustafsson tied it at 3-3 with 7.5 left to force overtime. 

"It's tough after a loss in overtime, but it felt good," said Gustafsson, who missed the previous two games with an illness. "I didn't know it was 7 seconds left, but it was good to see it go in. ... It was good to be back here with the team, too. I wasn't in the last game. We came out hard the first period and I think we played a solid 60 minutes. Tough break in the overtime."

3. Captain Consistency

Toews usually produces on the scoresheet in spurts. Historically, he'll go through stretches where his offense dries up for several games in a row. And then he'll follow that up by getting really hot. This season has been different.

The Blackhawks captain's longest point drought this year is three games. After scoring two more goals, his season total is up to 16 through 34 games, taking over the team lead from Patrick Kane. He had 20 goals in 74 games last season, showing just how far he's come from a year ago.

Toews is on pace to finish with a career-high 39 goals — his current personal best is 34, set in 2008-09. The Blackhawks need him to continue producing at that rate, and there's no reason he can't.

"Our line played well and created a lot of chances," Toews said. "If it's me scoring or [Dominik Kahun] or [Brandon Saad], it doesn't really matter. As long as we're making plays when we've got the puck out there, we're happy about that."

4. Jets power play stays hot

The best advice when you play the Jets: Stay out of the penalty box. Because they'll make you pay.

Entering Friday, they had the top-ranked power play with a 30.4 percent success rate. The Blackhawks gave them three opportunities and they cashed in on one, giving them eight power-play goals on 17 attempts in their past four games (47.1 percent conversation rate). They also improved to 5-for-11 (45.5 percent) in three games against the Blackhawks.

To the Blackhawks' credit, they killed off two key penalties in the third period before the first TV timeout and it allowed them to keep it a one-goal game and ultimately force overtime by scoring the next goal.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.