Are Blackhawks for real? Big tests await after Red Wings

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. Pre-game coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Heading into this weekend, and heading into March, the Blackhawks find themselves in an unexpected place: playoff position. By Sunday’s game against the Red Wings, the Blackhawks will have faced Detroit six times already this season.

The Blackhawks need to load up against the Red Wings, because for those asking if Chicago’s actually for real … well, the real tests are about to begin.

Let’s dig into the Blackhawks’ recent hot streak, and the challenging March schedule that should tell us if this team is for real (sorry, Red Wings).

What’s behind the Blackhawks’ hot streak

Heading into the weekend, the Blackhawks are red-hot thanks to mix of the expected and the unexpected.

Expected: Patrick Kane‘s leading the way, scoring-wise.

Unexpected: Instead of being a huge weakness, the Blackhawks’ goalies have been a resounding strength. Kevin Lankinen being the primary goalie behind that run adds a bonus unexpected. (Though it’s worth noting that Malcolm Subban‘s been heating up lately.)

Expected, at least if someone told you Chicago was off to a hot start: The Blackhawks’ power play has been deadly.

Unexpected: They’re not enjoying outrageously good shooting luck at even-strength. Instead, they’ve been more respectable when it comes to winning the chances for vs. against (high-danger and otherwise) battles than expected. At least so far.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

To the Blackhawks’ credit, they’re not getting too ahead of themselves. In a piece for The Athletic about the Blackhawks gaining some hope back on Feb. 18 (sub required), Mark Lazerus notes how the team and its coach emphasized how they were building something. This is a work in progress.

“We’ve got to continue to have that mindset that we’re going to improve as the year goes on,” Jeremy Colliton said. “We’re not a finished product, we’re not going to be a finished product. That’s how we’re going to get results. We believe we’re on our way to being an excellent team. But it’s not just going to happen. We’ve got to make it happen with our mentality and our work ethic.”

Keeping at it so far is promising. Staying positive through looming bumps in the road won’t be quite as easy, however.

March schedule poses big challenges for Chicago

Yes, this probably comes across as raining on parades. But, in a year with such unusual scheduling, teams can often give you the wrong impression.

Again, after Sunday, the Blackhawks will have faced the rebuilding Red Wings six times. Lately, the Blackhawks have loaded up on a steady diet of those Red Wings, and also the wayward Columbus Blue Jackets.

If the schedule holds, the Blackhawks begin March with a stretch of three games in four days (March 4-7) against the Tampa Bay Lightning. In case you forgot, the Lightning crushed the Blackhawks by a combined score of 10-3 in Chicago’s first two games of the season.

That’s not the extent of Chicago’s games against the defending champs in March, either, as they’ll also take on Tampa Bay on March 18 and 20.

The Lightning are the type of team to really expose a team like Chicago: one that seemingly has been grinding out tight wins against shaky opponents.

In addition to those tests against the Lightning, there are four potential barometer games against the also-better-than-expected Florida Panthers. (At least in that case, it could be a test of both teams, as the Panthers still have something to prove.)

[2020-21 NHL on NBC TV SCHEDULE]

All things considered, the Blackhawks might cross their fingers that the Stars and Predators don’t have their games in order in March, as Chicago may be gasping for a break with that schedule.

Look, there’s no shame in taking advantage of lesser opponents. College football programs pave the way to mid-tier bowl appearances with that very practice.

The point is just that, while we only know so much about any NHL team this early in the season, it’s especially true with a team that’s generally faced lighter opposition, like the Blackhawks.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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