A nine-game winning streak and national respect for the Hawks are the major positive events of the first half of this NHL season.
The Blackhawks entered the All-Star Break a ‘solid 4’ in the Western Conference, and it is tempting to think the primary challenge ahead will be to hold home ice in the first round of the 2008-09 playoffs. However, the team’s primary challenge remains securing a playoff spot, period. That means winning the Central Division title or, failing that, finishing no lower than eighth in the Western Conference.
Fact: the Blackhawks are closer to 9th place in the Western Conference than they are to first place.
Fact: the Blackhawks are ten points behind Detroit for the division lead but just nine points ahead of 9th place Minnesota.
Fact: the Blackhawks have been a sub-.500 team since their nine-game winning streak ended. The team’s record in the final dozen games prior to the All-Star break: 5-6-1. If they play .500 hockey through the end of the season they’ll finish with 94 points. In two of the last three years, 94 points would not have been enough to qualify for the Western Conference playoffs.
Besides, the team’s ambitions surpass just excusing their way in as the eighth seed. What’s more likely to result in playoff longevity: opening the playoffs on the road against Detroit or San Jose or hosting Phoenix?
The Blackhawks are without question having a very good season. They made it to the All-Star Break with 14 points more than they had at the same time last year. However, when the Blackhawks resume play they have eight consecutive road games, seven of which will be played against Western Conference teams who want the same thing the Hawks want: playoff points.
Thus, things don’t get any easier and it’s crucial to remember the first half of the season, as exciting as it was, was simply half of the season.
The NHL (along with the NBA) is the most ‘inclusive’ of leagues when it comes to playoff invitations: 16 of the league’s 30 teams will qualify for the most exciting tournament in professional sports. However, that doesn’t mean making the playoffs is easy, a fact of which Blackhawk fans are well aware.
It’s been seven years since the team was in the playoffs (an entirely forgettable five-game loss to St. Louis in the opening round), and the Blackhawks haven’t won a home playoff game since 1997!
What makes the recent playoff past even more unfulfilling is the distant playoff past: long-time fans will remember that for two and a half decades, playoff hockey was as much a part of Chicago’s April sports calendar as were the Cubs and Sox. The Blackhawks made the playoffs every year between 1970 and 1997 as the NHL grew from 14 to 26 teams.
Playoff hockey has been too long absent from the United Center and the fact the Blackhawks are a ‘solid 4’ right now is no guarantee at all that it will return this spring. The exciting thing this year is the Blackhawks are the team who will determine if it does.