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’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports
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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports
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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.