NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
If you gave up on the Chicago Blackhawks’ playoff chances in the middle of December it would have been an understandable decision.
They had won just 12 of their first 31 games, were getting buried in the Western Conference standings, and looking like a deeply flawed team in need of some sort of a reboot. They may still have their flaws, but there is no denying that they are right back in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race, entering Tuesday’s game against the Minnesota Wild (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) just three points back of a playoff spot with a game in hand.
A win against the Wild, combined with a Coyotes regulation loss in Edmonton, would close that gap to just a single point. Considering where this team was just five weeks ago that is a huge accomplishment and turnaround, especially when you consider just how bad of a start they had, and how much it typically buries a team in the standings. Keep in mind that in the salary cap era only five teams (out of 68) with 12 or fewer wins through their first 31 games of a season have been able to bounce back to make the playoffs.
The Blackhawks still have a lot of work ahead of them (even a three-point gap is a lot harder to make up than it looks) and are going to have to maintain their recent pace, but they have at least given themselves a shot.
What has been driving their recent success?
For starters, their two superstar forwards — Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane — have helped carry the offense. Kane is again one of the league’s top-10 scorers for the season, while Toews is continuing to show that he isn’t yet ready to fade off in a decline. Toews has been especially productive over the past month.
They have also found something in rookie Dominik Kubalik, one of the league’s hottest goal scorers at the moment. He has 13 goals since Dec. 14 and is starting to climb the rookie rankings and look like one of general manager Stan Bowman’s best acquisitions in years.
The biggest factor, though, is the play of the goaltending duo of Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford. The Blackhawks’ defense still has its issues, but Lehner and Crawford have both been outstanding in net this season. This duo was always going to be the Blackhawks’ X-factor this season because they are both capable of playing at a level that can elevate a team around them.
They have done that.
This recent surge also creates a lot of questions for general manager Stan Bowman and how he handles the trade deadline later this month. Is this is a team worth adding to try and get in and make a run in a Western Conference that only has maybe a couple of really strong contenders at the top? What does he do with his goaltending situation where both players are unrestricted free agents at the end of this season? How much is Erik Gustafsson worth a new deal?
The answers to those questions will almost certainly depend on what happens over the next couple of weeks. They have 10 games between today and the trade deadline, with most of them coming against teams they could be competing with for a playoff spot. They’ve already won a couple of those “four-point games” recently (Winnipeg, Arizona) and have a bunch more ahead of them.
Wild have no margin for error
The Wild, meanwhile, are going to need a miracle to play their way back into the playoff race.
They enter the Tuesday’s game having lost eight out of 12 games, are coming off a brutal 6-1 loss to Boston over the weekend, and open the day seven points back of a playoff spot with four teams ahead of them. A win on Tuesday could help close that gap a little, and they do have a favorable schedule in the second half due to the number of home games they have, but this might be too much to overcome.
The big question here is how many more losses general manager Bill Guerin needs to see before he starts selling? And how drastic will he look to get with the changes?
Chris Cuthbert and Pierre McGuire will have the call from St. Paul. Liam McHugh hosts studio coverage with Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones.