A 12-game winning streak from Dec. 29 to Jan. 19 gave the Chicago Blackhawks the cushion they needed to weather their subsequent 12-12-3 record and an injury to goalie Corey Crawford to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the eighth consecutive season.
Chicago, the defending Stanley Cup champion, clinched its playoff berth with a 3-2 win at the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday.
Despite slipping to third place in the rugged Central Division, the Blackhawks are in position to win the Cup for the fourth time in seven seasons because Crawford was having a Vezina Trophy-caliber season before sustaining an upper-body injury that's sidelined him since March 14. They remain a top contender because of Patrick Kane, the front-runner for the Hart Trophy, and Artemi Panarin, who leads the Calder Trophy race. They've also dominated at United Center (24-11-3) and are tied with the Anaheim Ducks for the NHL lead in goals-against at home (75).
If you're concerned about the Blackhawks' slide down the stretch, look no further than last season when they were 11-10-1 after the All-Star break before winning the Cup. The road to a repeat will be the most challenging yet, but Chicago has the pieces in place to make another run to the Final even if they have to get through the Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings or Ducks in the first round.
Here are five reasons the Blackhawks clinched:
1. Patrick Kane
Kane is one goal from scoring 40 for the first time in the NHL.
"It's a great number," coach Joel Quenneville told the Blackhawks website March 22. "We're talking how tough it is to score now. It used to be 50 was the number. Now you get 40, there's a very select few never attaining a goal like that. It's a great number, it's very difficult, and he's had a great year."
Kane is running away in the Art Ross Trophy race. He's set NHL career highs with 55 assists and 94 points while earning at least a point in 59 of Chicago's 76 games. His 26-game point streak from Oct. 17 to Dec. 13 set a record for the Blackhawks and U.S.-born players.
Video: CHI@WPG: Kane roofs his 39th goal of the season
2. Corey Crawford
Before his injury, Crawford tied a career high with 57 starts and was second in the NHL in save percentage (.927) among goalies who appeared in at least 40 games. His seven shutouts lead the League, and his 35 wins are tied for third.
Crawford was at his best when he won nine in a row during the Blackhawks' 12-game winning streak, allowing 17 goals with a .946 save percentage and one shutout.
3. Supporting cast
A big reason for Kane's success is the chemistry he's enjoyed for much of the season with Panarin and center Artem Anisimov. Panarin leads NHL rookies in goals, assists, points and game-winning goals. Anisimov has filled the second-line center role nicely and is approaching his career high of 44 points set with the New York Rangers in 2010-11.
Second-year player Teuvo Teravainen has three goals and nine points in 13 games since he was moved to center the third line after wings Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann were acquired from the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 26.
"Yeah, it makes things a little easier when you know you're in the same spot every game," Teravainen told CSN Chicago on March 11. "You get in the same situations in games over and over, so that makes your game easier."
Teravainen scored a goal against Vancouver while filling in for Anisimov, who is day-to-day with a lower-body injury, at second-line center.
Video: CHI@VAN: Blackhawks move the puck, Teravainen scores
4. Improved power play
Chicago's power play is in a 1-for-27 funk, but it's improved from 19th last season (17.6 percent) to fifth this season (21.7). Prior to the recent struggles, the Blackhawks converted on 37 of 139 power-play chances (26.6 percent) during a 49-game stretch. Only the 2012-13 Washington Capitals had a better conversion rate (26.8 percent) in the past 25 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Kane's 32 power-play points lead the League, further strengthening his MVP credentials.
5. Dandy dozen
The Blackhawks were 11 points out of first place in the Western Conference on Dec. 29, the night their 12-game winning streak began with a 7-5 victory against the Arizona Coyotes. Chicago had a three-point lead atop the conference when the streak ended.
"It was definitely a turning point for our season," Crawford said Jan. 21. "We are feeling good and have chemistry throughout the lines. It was definitely important to get on that streak and move up the standings."
The run validated general manager Stan Bowman's offseason moves after losing Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya last summer because of a salary-cap crunch. He imported Panarin from the Kontinental Hockey League and acquired Anisimov from the Columbus Blue Jackets as part of a trade for Saad. Bowman also reacquired forward Andrew Ladd from the Winnipeg Jets and traded for Weise and Fleischmann prior to the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline.