NHL On NBCSN: Kevin Lankinen is keeping Blackhawks in playoff race

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Thursday night’s matchup between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hurricanes-Blackhawks stream coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When the 2020-21 NHL season began, expectations for the Chicago Blackhawks were probably as low as they have been in close to 15 years.

They were coming off of three consecutive down years, the roster had several shortcomings on paper (defense and goaltending mainly), a rebuild was just getting underway, and two of their top-three centers (Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach) were not available for very different reasons. The only real expectation was that it would be a brutal season.

But as the Blackhawks enter Thursday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) they are tied for the fourth playoff spot in the Central Division.

If they can maintain that pace and actually make the playoffs, there are going to be a lot of narratives as to why that happened. Patrick Kane, currently the league’s third-leading scorer, will no doubt receive a lot of MVP votes. Head coach Jeremy Colliton will definitely get Jack Adams consideration for the league’s Coach of the Year award.

The main story here, though, is the same as it is in most cases when a team with no expectations plays its way into playoff contention. It is not about one superstar forward, or the coach, or their sudden commitment to a “system.”

[Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

It is the goalie. It is almost always the goalie.

In this case, rookie goalie Kevin Lankinen.

No position in the sport can impact a team as much as a goalie can, and the Blackhawks are seeing that through the first half of the season due to the emergence of Lankinen. It has been a season-changing and season-saving development.

On a roster full of question marks, the goalie situation was probably the biggest unknown for the Blackhawks at the start of the season due to the lack of an experienced starter. With Corey Crawford not re-signed and Robin Lehner traded at last year’s trade deadline, Chicago was opening the season with three wild cards in Collin Delia, Malcolm Subban, and Lankinen. It has been Lankinen that has emerged as the go-to player.

Entering play on Thursday he has been one of the league’s most productive goalies and should be considered the most valuable player on this particular Blackhawks team.

In his first 25 appearances this season he has recorded a .921 save percentage that currently ranks in the top-10 among the 40-plus goalies that appeared in at least 15 games this season. His .939 even-strength save percentage is third-best in the league behind only Nashville’s Juuse Saros and Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy.

All of the flaws and question marks that existed for the Blackhawks at the start of the season still remain in place.

The forward depth after the Kane-Alex DeBrincat duo is non-existent as the team gets absolutely destroyed when those two are not on the ice (they have a minus-20 goal differential at 5-on-5 when neither Kane or DeBrincat is playing).

[HURRICANES-BLACKHAWKS COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

They are also still one of the league’s bottom teams when it comes to limiting shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances.

Without spectacular goaltending, those two developments do not produce a sustainable winning environment without sensational goaltending. The difference between the Blackhawks with Lankinen in net versus without him this season is night and day. In his 25 starts the Blackhawks are 13-8-4, a 98-point pace over 82 games. That is a playoff team. In the 12 games he has not started, they are 4-7-1, a 60-point pace over 82 games. That is top pick in the draft territory.

Given how inexperienced their goalies were at the start of the season it would have been difficult to imagine that position turning into a strength this season. But thanks to Lankinen’s strong first half that is exactly what it has become, and it is probably the single biggest reason they are in contention for a playoff spot.

There are some positives on the roster. Kane can still score at an elite level and DeBrincat has bounced back from a down year during the 2019-20 season. Kirby Dach is back in the lineup, while Dominik Kubalik is showing his rookie season was not a fluke. They also seem to have a really good find in Pius Suter. But even with those developments it is still the goaltending of Lankinen that is driving the bus this season. He is Chicago’s MVP at the moment.

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.