There’s nothing ‘regular’ about any Blackhawks season that includes qualifying for the playoffs, winning the division title, finishing ahead of Detroit, and setting a team record for victories. Add to all that the important contributions made by Blackhawk players to their respective Olympic teams, as well as opening the season in Europe, and one is tempted to apply the word ‘extraordinary’ to the campaign that ended Sunday.
- To begin with, the Blackhawks have qualified for the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since 1997.
- Second, prior to this year the Blackhawks hadn’t won a division title since 1993, when they finished ahead of Detroit, Toronto, St. Louis, the Minnesota North Stars and Tampa Bay in what was then the Norris Division. (How long ago was that? Bill Clinton was in the fourth month of his first term as President, leading-edge video gamers were experimenting with the intravenous insertion of Mountain Dew to facilitate round-the-clock play of a game called ‘Doom’, and Clint Eastwood’s "Unforgiven" had recently been named Best Picture at the Oscars).
- Third, that 1993 Norris Division title was the last time the Blackhawks finished ahead of Detroit; the Hawks earned 106 points that year compared to 103 for the Red Wings.
- Fourth, the Blackhawks won 52 of their 82 games this season, a team record. Previously, the team’s best effort was good for 49-win seasons in 1971 and then again in 1991.
However, in the NHL not all wins are created equal, and because of that the ’71 and ’91 teams can actually be considered even more successful than this year’s squad. While the season is a bit longer now, giving teams additional chances to win games, the much more important distinction is that the ’71 and ’91 teams accumulated their 49 wins in 68 minutes each night.
Until 2000, NHL games that were tied after regulation ended that way; prior to that season, teams didn’t have overtime or a shootout to possibly snatch victory from the jaws of a tie. This year the Blackhawks have 36 ‘regulation’ wins (meaning the team held the lead after 60 minutes), while the 16 other victories came during the overtime or shootout. The Blackhawks aren’t the only team to play a lot of extra hockey this year; slightly fewer than 300 of the league’s 1,230 regular season games (about 25%) went to overtime, a new NHL record.
While it's interesting to study what a hockey team accomplishes between October and April, what really matters is what happens between April and June during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The satisfaction of excellence achieved during the regular season can vanish almost instantly in the wake of failure early in the post-season. The ’91 Blackhawks had a two games to one lead over Minnesota in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, but the season crashed to a close in just 96 hours between April 10th and 14th as they lost three straight to the North Stars, managing to score just two goals in nine periods of playoff hockey.
A great regular season can also be a precursor to playoff success: the ’71 Hawks, after winning their 49 games, disposed of Philadelphia and the Rangers en route to the Stanley Cup Finals, which ended in a game seven loss to Montreal.
Within a few days, playoff hockey results will completely overshadow the 2009-10 regular season. Before they do, fans should savor the following: the Blackhawks finally broke Detroit’s stranglehold on the Central Division; several of the team’s players were key members of their respective Olympic teams; they’re in the playoffs for the second year in a row; and they piled up the most wins in team history.
2009-10 was certainly a most irregular regular season.