After dropping the first two games of the regular season, the Blackhawks' focus was probably aimed more at April 13 -- the end of the regular season -- than at winning a Stanley Cup in June. But after now achieving the first step of making the playoffs, the ultimate goal is next.
Despite a slow start, the Hawks claimed the best record in the Western Conference, hitting 50 wins for only the second time in franchise history and collecting 109 points, the second-best total in team history. Those are no doubt terrific results, but as shown many times in the past, that is no guarantee of winning the Cup. In fact, last year, all four division winners, including top point-getter Washington, were beaten in the playoffs. In another demonstration of NHL parity, two of last year's division winners, Dallas and Florida, are not in this year's postseason.
With the infusion of rookies mixing with the old guard, the Blackhawks have more depth than last year, and certainly show a resemblance to the teams that won Lord Stanley's Cup three times in the last seven seasons. This year's squad sports six 20-goal scorers, which doesn't include rookie Ryan Hartman, who scored 19 times -- depth that gives renewed energy for the playoffs. As well, the team achieved a new high in road points while tying its best road win total with 24.
Joel Quenneville, now the second-winningest head coach in NHL history with 851 wins, has managed to find the right blend with the new players and veterans. That chemistry will be vital in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, several players are enjoying their best seasons ever, and some returnees have surpassed last year's stats. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Artemi Panarin have been on fire down the stretch. Artem Anisimov and Richard Panik topped their previous career bests in points. Marian Hossa, after some injuries last year, has regained his form, and Duncan Keith has surpassed both his assist and points totals from 2016.
Scott Darling registered a career high in wins. Ryan Hartman is second among Western Conference rookies in goals scored, and Nick Schmaltz has been steady since his return from Rockford. The return of veterans Brian Campbell in the offseason and Johnny Oduya at the trade deadline added much needed experience to the blue line.
From where I sit, there are three main areas that have to be tweaked in order to ensure a successful run in the playoffs. After a rough start to the year, the team's penalty kill has improved as the season has worn on, but must continue to improve in the playoffs. On the other end of the special teams spectrum, the power play hasn't been as consistent as it will need to be. Finally, faceoffs, which ranked near the bottom of the NHL, should be a focal point going into the playoffs.
Back on June 9, 2010, when Patrick Kane's overtime goal in Philadelphia ended the Blackhawks' 49 seasons of Cup-less frustration, there was a fever and a passion reborn among Chicago fans.
It will be up to Coach Q to find the right chemistry to keep the regular-season momentum going in the playoffs. While the task for bringing another Cup back to Chicago will be difficult, there's no doubt this group is up to the challenge.