Blackhawks are back in playoff race, but are they a serious threat?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

It was barely one month ago that the Chicago Blackhawks had the worst record in the NHL. Not just one of the worst, but the absolute worst. Dead last and sitting in the basement all by themselves.

They had just 41 points in their first 49 games, their season looked lost even in the lackluster and historically weak Western Conference, and it was time to start looking at what veterans could — or would — be shipped out before the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline in an effort to clear future salary cap space off the books. A second-consecutive non-playoff season seemed to be a given.

Truthfully, that is probably the position they should still be in. Entering Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings (6:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN) they have won just 25 of their first 60 games and are only on pace for 80 points this season. But because of the incompetence of everyone else in the West to secure the two wild card spots, as well as an 11-game stretch where they have won nine games, the Blackhawks once again find themselves firmly in the playoff race just one point back.

They also have an opportunity to keep that stretch rolling as only three of their next nine games are against teams currently in a playoff spot, and two of those three games are against a Dallas Stars team that is right there on the playoff bubble with the Blackhawks. All of it is a great opportunity to come back from the basement and salvage what looked to be a complete failure of a season.

While acknowledging that the biggest factor in their place in the race is the current state of the West, the Blackhawks do deserve some credit for turning their season around over the past month.

They still had to win those games, and they have put themselves in a position to make a serious run at a playoff spot.

How have they done it, and is it something the rest of the Western Conference should be worried about?

Their stars have carried the offense

On Wednesday morning, our Joey Alfieri wrote about the resurgence of Jonathan Toews this season after several years of decline, and he has been outstanding over the past 11 games with a team-leading 10 goals and eight assists during the Blackhawks’ climb up the standings.

He is not the only one that has leading the charge.

Patrick Kane has been arguably the hottest player in the entire league over the past month with 26 points since Jan. 17. That run has helped him climb the NHL’s scoring leaderboard and has him in second place with 90 points. Overall, this has been by far the best offensive season of his career — even better than the 2015-16 season when he won the Art Ross Trophy and Hart Trophy. His current point pace has him on track for 125 points this season.

Then there is Alex DeBrincat. The second-year standout has taken a massive leap forward this year and has already blown away all of his rookie year totals with still 22 games remaining on the schedule. He continues to look like the steal of his draft class and another reminder as to why teams should never overlook the skillful, undersized player that has shown an ability to fill the net.

There is no replacement for high-end talent, and for all of the flaws the Blackhawks have they still have plenty of impact players sprinkled throughout their roster and they are shining for them right now.

Dylan Strome has been a home run

In a lot of ways he has looked like the players thought the Arizona Coyotes were getting when they selected him with the No. 3 overall pick a few years ago.

The 22-year-old Strome has made the most of his opportunity in Chicago and enters play on Wednesday night with 35 points in 36 games, including 19 points over his past 11 games. This was always a great gamble for the Blackhawks because they needed to find young, cheap players that might be able to make an impact around their core of aging, high-priced veterans. They still have him for one more full year at an entry-level price of $863,000. If they can get this sort of production out of him over a full season at that cost he could be a game-changing presence in the Blackhawks’ lineup.

Simply put, they’ve been lucky

This can not be overlooked because it is probably the biggest factor in the turnaround.

They have been lucky in the sense that the bottom half of the West is a raging inferno of a dumpster fire. Even with this most recent stretch of strong play they are still, again, on pace for only 80 points. That point total in the West a year ago would have been 15 points short of a playoff spot. Eighty-seven points is the low-end total for a playoff team in the salary cap era, and it seems to be a given that floor is going to be shattered this season with one of these teams sneaking in.

Even with the recent hot streak and the great offensive performances from their top players the Blackhawks still aren’t playing all that great as a team in some very key areas.

Their possession and scoring chance numbers during 5-on-5 play are among the worst in the league since Jan. 17, while they are giving up 3.34 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play which is the absolute worst mark in the league during that stretch.

What has saved them has been the scoring from their top players, but even that seems like a hot streak that’s going to cool off.

As a team the Blackhawks have scored on more than 10 percent of their 5-on-5 shots during this stretch, the second highest mark in the league. When you break it down to an individual level it’s simply a lot of great players that have all hit a hot streak at the same time. They currently have five players that are carrying shooting percentage of 17.6 percent or higher over the past month, including four that are over 22 percent and three that are over 24 percent.

Nobody consistently scores on a quarter of their shots over an extended period of time, no matter how talented they are.

That should be the concern here.

Once some of that shooting luck dries up (and it will) there is not much else going on here to bail the Blackhawks out.

They are not good defensively, their goaltending is a huge question mark, and they don’t really dominate possession the way they did in their glory years. This has the look of a team that simply got on a hot run with the schedule falling in their favor a little bit. Had it not been for the circumstances of the Western Conference playoff field we probably wouldn’t have even noticed it. Keep in mind, this recent stretch isn’t even as good as what the Philadelphia Flyers have done over the past month-and-a-half (13-3-1 over their past 17 games!) and they’re not even within serious striking distance of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Because of the competition (or lack thereof) around them, as well as the their upcoming schedule, the Blackhawks have a pretty good shot to actually pull this off and get in the playoffs. Once you get in there is always a chance that something crazy could happen in a seven-game series, and given that both potential top seeds in the West (San Jose and Calgary) have pretty big question marks in goal right now the potential for an upset could be there, especially if the Blackhawks’ shooters could get hot again. Where the Blackhawks have to be careful is thinking that this dramatically changes the big picture outlook for the team.

Getting in the playoffs this season, in this manner, with this roster doesn’t mean their championship window is opening back up. This is still a top-heavy team with some bad contracts and big holes that is, for the time being, taking advantage of the circumstances around it.

For the first time in his career, Mike Tirico will call play-by-play for an NHL game on Wednesday when the Red Wings host the Blackhawks. He’ll be joined in the booth by Eddie Olczyk and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Brian Boucher. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Maple Leafs get embarrassed as losing streak reaches 5 games

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The Toronto Maple Leafs opened an extremely important six-game road trip in Pittsburgh on Saturday night and turned to 26-year-old rookie goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo to try and snap their current losing streak.

It did not go well for him in his NHL debut as he gave up six goals on 38 shots.

That was the bad news for Toronto. The even worse news for Toronto was that even with those numbers he was by far — BY FAR! — their best player in an ugly 6-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins that extended their losing streak to five games.

With that loss the Maple Leafs are now an extremely disappointing 9-9-4 on the season, have just four wins in their past 15 games, and have allowed at least four goals in each of their past four games.

This one might have been the ugliest of the bunch as they were never competitive.

If you wanted to you could try to look for some excuses for such a lackluster effort, and you wouldn’t have to look very far.

They played the night before and had to travel from Toronto to Pittsburgh. They are without two key forwards in Mitch Marner and Alexander Kerfoot. They started a 26-year-old rookie in goal making his NHL debut.

All true. All worth noting. But it takes about a half-second to poke holes in all of them when you consider the Penguins also played on Friday night and had to travel (from New Jersey to Pittsburgh), and were playing without Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Nick Bjugstad, and Patric Hornqvist, and were also using their backup goalie (Tristan Jarry) in net.

They still controlled the game from the opening face-off.

When asked how to fix this current mess, coach Mike Babcock went back to the same well he always goes to when things are going poorly and talked about needing to play harder.

“The number one thing is, we have to play harder, and for longer,” said Babcock (via TSN’s Kristen Shilton). And as soon as something goes bad, we can’t stop playing. Push through it. Every one of us in our life, things go bad. Dig in.”

Forget playing harder, they need to play better.

As if the pressure wasn’t already through the roof for this team things are probably about to get a whole lot worse. This is still one of the league’s worst defensive teams and has shown no real improvement in that area. If they do not get elite, All-Star level goaltending the whole thing seems to just collapse around them. In recent years Frederik Andersen was able to give them that level of play in net and mask many of their defensive flaws. This year he has not been able to do that as often, and the unsettled backup situation behind him only makes things worse (they are now 0-5-1 when Andersen does not start).

You have to feel for Kaskisuo on Saturday. He waited years for this moment and was completely abandoned by the team in front of him as the Penguins had players skating wide open throughout the neutral and offensive zones. Odd-man rushes, uncontested forwards driving down the middle of the ice, and chance after chance after chance. The play of Kaskisuo is the only reason the Penguins did not score eight or nine in this one.

At some point the temperature under Babcock’s seat is going to start increasing dramatically, and if this thing does not get turned around soon you have to wonder how much longer management will along things to continue like this. They are now 3-6-0 on the road this season (with their only road wins coming against Columbus, Detroit, and Philadelphia) and play 11 of their next 14 outside of Toronto. Their next three are in Vegas, Arizona and Colorado so things are not going to get any easier this week.

Related: Maple Leafs, Sharks, Golden Knights entering potentially make-or-break stretches

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Seguin, Benn become difference makers as Stars keep rolling

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Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were certainly difference makers on Saturday.

One week after being the focal point of post-game criticism from their coach (which he later apologized for), the Stars’ top duo played a massive role in a come-from-behind 5-4 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday afternoon to continue the team’s recent surge up the Western Conference standings.

Trailing by two goals with 15 minutes to play, Blake Comeau started the rally with his second goal of the season and set the stage for Seguin and Benn to take over later in the game, turning what looked to be a sure loss into two more points in the standings.

Seguin scored the equalizer — his fifth goal of the season — with less than two minutes to play and then set up Benn for the winner just 1:14 into overtime.

“They’re stud players in this league and when they play like that, our team is going to be elite all the time,” Stars coach Jim Montgomery said after the game.

They were both outstanding on Saturday. Seguin finished with three points (one goal, two assists) and now has seven points in his past six games. This was also his second straight multi-point game.

Benn, meanwhile, desperately needed some kind of a break to go his way having entered the day with just a single goal on the season and riding what had been a 15-game goal-scoring drought.

Here is a look at his game-winning goal.

This year’s internal criticism of Seguin and Benn was a little more justified than it was around this time a year ago, but even with their early struggles you still had to believe things were going to turn around for them at some point. Even if their production has started to slide as they get older they are not yet totally washed up and still have the ability to be top line players and take over games like they did on Saturday.

The great news for the Stars is that after starting the season with a 1-7-1 record through nine games they are now on a 10-1-1 run over their past 12 games. And they are doing all of this lately without John Klingberg (their best defenseman) and Roope Hintz (still their leading goal-scorer this season). With the goaltending back on track, the depth players starting to produce (especially big free agent acquisition Joe Pavelski), and now a couple of big games from Seguin there is reason to believe in this team again.

More on the Stars

Seguin, Benn focal point of more internal criticism
Stars coach apologizes for criticism
Ben Bishop is back on track and so are the Stars

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Darcy Kuemper slams Matthew Tkachuk to ice, nearly sparks goalie fight (Video)

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You can add Arizona Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper to the lengthy list of players around the NHL that has snapped in the presence of Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk.

Late in the second period of the Coyotes’ 3-0 win on Saturday afternoon, Kuemper came to the defense of his teammate, defenseman Jason Demers, and slammed Tkachuk to the ice setting off a chaotic line brawl that nearly ended with a goalie fight.

It all started when Demers knocked Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau to the ice away from the play.

Gaudreau responded by skating up behind Demers and cross-checking him in the back, knocking him to the ice. While Demers was down on the ice, Gaudreau and Tkachuk each got in a little extra shot and it was at that point that Kuemper decided to enter the situation.

Once that happened, Flames goalie David Rittich stormed the length of the ice and tried to come to the defense of his teammate. The two goalies never actually fought, but they did both receive their share of penalties. Kuemper was assessed two roughing minors, while Rittich was given a two-minute penalty for leaving the crease to join an altercation.

Kuemper now has 20 penalty minutes since the start of the 2017-18 season which is by far the highest total of any goalie in the league. Rittich (now with 10) is the only other goalie with more than eight.

Tkachuk was also given four minutes for roughing, while Gaudreau received two minutes for cross-checking and Demers was assessed two for roughing.

You can see the entire sequence in the video above.

As for the actual game itself, it was a huge day for Kuemper as he stopped 38 shots to record the shutout and help the Coyotes improve to 12-7-2 on the season.

It is his second shutout of the season and improved his save percentage to an outstanding .937 in 14 appearances.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Paul Bissonnette to get chance to back up lacrosse boast

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Paul Bissonnette will have a chance to back up his lacrosse boast.

Two days after tweeting that he could make a National Lacrosse League team without having ever played a game, the former NHL player signed a professional tryout Friday with the Vancouver Warriors.

”Bissonnette will be given every opportunity to make the Vancouver Warriors,” Warriors coach Chris Gill said. ”Paul talks a pretty big game. Let’s see if he can back it up and be a part of our team.”

The 34-year-old Bissonnette, now the radio color commentator for the Arizona Coyotes, played 202 NHL games with Pittsburgh and Arizona. He had seven goals, 15 assists and 340 penalty minutes in his six NHL seasons.

He’s gained notoriety more for his outspoken and often humorous tweets commenting on hockey and others sports.

Bissonnette will join the Warriors for their final week of training camp at Rogers Arena on Nov. 22 and 23.