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.

Pageau earns DoPS hearing after boarding Canucks’ Sautner

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Jean-Gabriel Pageau only received a minor for boarding Vancouver Canucks defenseman Ashton Sautner Thursday night, but the Ottawa Senators forward could be punished again following his discipline hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety.

The DoPS will be speaking with Pageau after his second period hit on Sautner. The Canucks blue liner left the game for a bit before returning to finish Vancouver’s 7-4 win over the Senators.

Pageau, who took a big, unpenalized hit from Jake Virtanen earlier in the game, will likely be sitting for one or two games here. He eyes Sautner as he’s going to retrieve the puck along the boards and the Canucks defenseman does not peek behind him to see Pageau coming, nor does he change any part of his body before the Senators forward drills him between the numbers.

Given Sautner’s position on the ice and the fact he didn’t know he was about to be hit from behind, Pageau does not try to minimize contact or avoid his check. That’s a textbook suspension.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Karlsson, Panarin, Bobrovsky can close strong and cash in

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Many NHL teams have plenty to play for down the final stretch of the regular season, trying to get in the playoffs or to improve their positioning, before 16 teams compete for the Stanley Cup.

Some players have a lot at stake, too.

Erik Karlsson, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are a few of the potential free agents in the league with a chance to close strong and cash in by re-signing with their teams or on the open market.

The top trio of stars and some other standouts with a lot to gain financially when the season is finished, if not sooner:

KARLSSON

The San Jose Sharks acquired the two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman from Ottawa before the season started, hoping they would have him for more than a year. To keep Karlsson off the market as an unrestricted free agent, San Jose may have to at least match the eight-year, $88 million deal the Los Angeles Kings gave defenseman Drew Doughty to stay last summer.

PANARIN

Dynamic scorers like the Russian winger rarely are available in free agency and a team that wants to spend a lot of money over many years may be able to land an 80-point scorer. Panarin has already said he wants to see if there are better options in the summer than staying with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are simply hoping he helps them win at least a postseason series for the first time.

BOBROVSKY

Big-time goaltenders, like the two-time Vezina Trophy winner, usually stay with their teams and off the market. Like his teammate and fellow countryman, the 30-year-old Bobrovsky will probably want to make the most of his opportunity to make as much money as he can with his next deal while being at or near the prime or his career.

Matt Duchene

It was a good time for the center, and his bank account, to have one of the best years of his career. He’s averaging more than a point per game this season, starting with Ottawa, before being dealt to Columbus . If Panarin and Bobrovsky appear to be leaving in free agency after the season, the Blue Jackets may give the 28-year-old Duchene a lot to stay before the market opens.

Jeff Skinner

The center has a shot to surpass the 63 points he has reached twice before the team he plays for, the Buffalo Sabres, are relegated to watching the postseason for an eighth straight season. The Sabres want to re-sign Skinner, but he might be willing to take a seven-year deal – instead of the eight he can get to stay – and join a Stanley Cup contender.

Jake Gardiner

He has been out for nearly a month with a back injury, but barring it lingering into the playoffs to cast doubt on his long-term health, one of the best defensemen available will be paid well to stay in Toronto or to go play for another team.

Wayne Simmonds

The winger has not produced much offensively with Nashville, which acquired him from Philadelphia, and yet he will have a chance to make a lasting impression when it matters most in the playoffs. Simmonds has a rare combination of scoring ability, toughness and durability.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

There is an excellent group of players eligible to be restricted free agents, including: forwards Mikko Rantanen, William Karlsson, Brayden Point, Mitch Marner, Sebastian Aho and Matthew Tkachuk along with defensemen Jacob Trouba and Zach Werenski. Teams, though, rarely extend offer sheets to other franchise’s restricted free agents as Philadelphia did in 2012 with a $110 million, 14-year deal for Shea Weber, only to have the Predators match it.

Push for the Playoffs: Blue Jackets’ need to take advantage of favorable schedule

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The Carolina Hurricanes are beginning to strengthen their hold on an Eastern Conference playoff spot. That pretty much heats things up for both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens. Montreal’s only salvation is a wild card place, while the Blue Jackets (and Hurricanes) still have a shot at grabbing one of the Metropolitan Division’s three seeds.

The Blue Jackets started off their four-game road trip with losses to the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames. They head to Edmonton tonight and Vancouver on Sunday in two games where heading home with four points in the bag could go a long way. Of their final nine games, only three come against teams currently in a playoff position. Then there’s March 28 when they host the Canadiens, which could be big boost for either team’s postseason dreams.

“We’ve had a tough schedule, but if you want to make the playoffs and you want to do damage in the playoffs, those are the teams you have to beat,” said defenseman Scott Harrington. “It’s great to prepare us for what’s potentially upcoming and where we want to be.”

Columbus’ biggest issue of late has been their inability to score. They’ve averaged only 2.2 goals per game in their last 12 games. Their big trade deadline acquisitions are still warming up. Matt Duchene has two goals in this last four games after going goalless in this first eight games with the Blue Jackets. Meanwhile, Ryan Dzingel has just one since being dealt from Ottawa.

Given GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s moves at the deadline, there’s pressure on the entire organization to make the playoffs. Columbus is 5-6-1 since the deadline, and while they may have the NHL’s eighth-easiest schedule remaining, those opponents cannot be overlooked.

“We’re not getting the results, which is frustrating, but the process is there,” said Duchene. “The second you deviate from the process is when you start to fail and deserve to fail. We’ll keep going and we’ll stay with it and take it one day at a time.”

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Coyotes
Jets vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Coyotes at Panthers, 7 p.m. ET
Bruins at Devils, 7 p.m. ET
Lightning at Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET
Islanders at Canadiens, 7:30 p.m. ET
Red Wings at Blues, 8 p.m. ET
Penguins at Predators, 8 p.m. ET
Flyers at Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET
Avalanche at Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET
Senators at Flames, 9 p.m. ET
Blue Jackets at Oilers, 9 p.m. ET
Jets at Golden Knights, 10 p.m. ET
Sharks at Kings, 10:30 p.m. ET

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — 100 percent
Maple Leafs — 100 percent
Capitals — 100 percent
Islanders — 99.2 percent
Penguins — 97.0 percent
Hurricanes — 95.8 percent
Blue Jackets — 72.7 percent
Canadiens — 33.6 percent
Flyers — 1.3 percent
Panthers — 0.4 percent
Sabres — Out
Rangers — Out
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Flames — Clinched
Sharks — Clinched
Jets — 100 percent
Predators — 100 percent
Golden Knights — 100 percent
Blues — 99.7 percent
Stars — 95.5 percent
Coyotes — 54.2 percent
Avalanche — 23.6 percent
Wild — 15 percent
Blackhawks — 10.4 percent
Canucks — 1.3 percent
Oilers — 0.3 percent
Ducks — Out
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Red Wings — 11.5 percent
Devils — 9.5 percent
Ducks — 8.5 percent
Rangers — 7.5 percent
Sabres — 6.5 percent
Oilers — 6 percent
Canucks — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Wild — 3 percent
Panthers — 2.5 percent
Avalanche — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Canadiens — 1 percent
(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 119 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 105 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 101 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 93 points
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames — 92 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 48 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 43 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 41 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 38 goals
Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks — 38 goals
Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — 38 goals

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Story behind 2020 Winter Classic logo; Hobey Baker nominees

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The story behind the 2020 Winter Classic logo. [NHL.com]

• Chris Drury has been named general manager of the 2019 U.S. National Team. Drury is currently an assistant GM with the New York Rangers. [USA Hockey]

• The Maple Leafs’ problems could be bigger than their last four games. [Yahoo]

• Adam Fox, Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar are among the 10 nominees for the 2019 Hobey Baker Award. [Hobey Baker]

• What would today’s NHL look like if the salary cap didn’t exist? [USA Today]

• This is a prime opportunity for the Winnipeg Jets to take control of the Central Division. [Sportsnet]

• The story of Brady Keeper is one you’ll want to read today. [TSN]

• The Vegas Golden Knights’ top line is stepping up at the right time. [Sin Bin Vegas]

• Philadelphia Flyers forward Justin Bailey has reached out to a Buffalo-area youth hockey player who was subjected to racial slurs and taunts during a game in January. [NHL.com]

• As they chase a playoff spot, the Chicago Blackhawks find themselves scoreboard watching. [NBC Chicago]

Erik Cernak has emerged as an impactful member of the Tampa Bay Lightning blue line. [Raw Charge]

• There’s no slowing down the Calgary Flames, even after clinching a playoff spot. [Calgary Herald]

• Should the Rangers shut down some of their top players with the playoffs out of the picture? [Blueshirt Banter]

• Ryan Donato has made the most of his new opportunity with the Minnesota Wild. [The Hockey News]

• Finally, Mason is back with round two of his adventures on ice:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.