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Blackhawks core keys another run to playoffs

Strong seasons by Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, contributions from rookies help Chicago clinch

by Brian Hedger / NHL.com Correspondent

CHICAGO -- It's become an afterthought to include the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They've won the Stanley Cup three times in the past seven seasons, have advanced to the Western Conference Final five times since 2009, and haven't missed the playoffs since 2008, when Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were NHL rookies.

That's nine straight seasons of qualifying for the postseason after the Blackhawks defeated the Colorado Avalanche and the Los Angeles Kings lost to the Calgary Flames on Sunday.

Simply put, Chicago has become a model of consistency.

The Blackhawks' playoff streak is third behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are expected to clinch their 11th straight playoff berth soon, and the Detroit Red Wings, whose 25-year streak is expected to end this season.

"There's no given that you're going to make the playoffs every year," Toews said Sunday. "You've seen teams … that have made good runs, made the playoffs one year and then don't make it the next year. So for us in this day and age to get to that number is a huge accomplishment."

 

[RELATED: Blue Jackets use strong start to surge into playoffs]

 

It also was no guarantee back in October. The Blackhawks had six rookies in their season-opening lineup and have played nine this season. The increase in inexperience was noticeable, but the results stayed the same.

In fact, the Blackhawks clinched a playoff berth in 72 games, the quickest they've done it in a full season during their streak.

"There's a lot of pride in this room that that's the time of the year that matters most to us," Toews said of the postseason. "But there's a lot of work that goes into getting there and making sure you're on the ball for 82 games, which is no easy task."

Here are five reasons the Blackhawks clinched a playoff berth:

 

1. Goaltending

The Blackhawks were routinely outplayed during the first three months of the season, especially in the first period, and had the worst penalty-killing rate in the League. They also watched their puck possession tumble, got outshot a bunch, and allowed five shorthanded goals in November alone.

But what prevented them from plummeting in the standings was the play of goalies Corey Crawford and Scott Darling, who arguably are the best goaltending combination in the NHL. Their stellar play allowed Chicago's rookies to gain experience and spearheaded a 16-6-3 start.

Crawford went 12-6-2 with a 2.27 goals-against average and .927 save percentage prior to his emergency appendectomy in Philadelphia on Dec. 3. Chicago kept winning thanks to Darling, who went 6-4-1 with a 2.21 GAA and .927 save percentage in 10 games while Crawford recovered. Crawford has 29 wins and a .921 save percentage. Darling has 18 wins and a 2.12 GAA, and his .931 save percentage is tied for the best in the League among goaltenders with at least 25 games.

Video: CHI@TOR: Crawford robs Matthews with his blocker

 

2. Core group

The Blackhawks keep subtracting big names each offseason because of the NHL salary cap, but there still is plenty of talent and leadership remaining.

Kane is off his League-leading scoring pace of last season, but he's tied for third with 79 points (32 goals, 47 assists). Defensemen Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook, forward Marian Hossa, and Crawford each also is having a strong season.

Recent additions to the core group also have shone brightly.

Artemi Panarin has 66 points (24 goals, 42 assists) in his second NHL season, and Artem Anisimov tied his NHL career high in goals (22) and set a career high in points (45) before sustaining a lower-body injury March 14 that was expected to keep him out 3-4 weeks.

 

3. Youth served

Chicago needed its rookies, particularly its young forwards, to become productive role players, and they didn't disappoint.

Ryan Hartman has become a versatile, productive forward with 27 points (16 goals, 11 assists). Nick Schmaltz rebounded from a slow start to become a playmaker in the top-six forward group. Tanner Kero has earned a regular role centering a checking line. Michal Kempny is a dependable depth defenseman. And forward John Hayden, who signed after his college season ended on March 12, has three points (one goal, two assists) in three games.

Vinnie Hinostroza, Tyler Motte and Gustav Forsling each had good moments before they were reassigned to Rockford of the American Hockey League.

Video: CHI@TOR: Hayden picks the corner for first NHL goal

 

4. Great start, better finish

The Blackhawks started the season 0-2-0 but won 11 of their next 14 games (11-1-2).

They spun that into a 22-8-4 record through Dec. 18, before going 1-4-1 during a six-game stretch between Dec. 20 and Jan. 2, when they lost 4-1 to the St. Louis Blues in the 2017 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

Since then, the Blackhawks are 24-8-0, including their current five-game winning streak, to move seven points ahead of the Minnesota Wild in the Central Division and Western Conference.

 

5. Hossa rebounded, Panik attacked

Hossa had 13 goals in 64 games last season but started this season with 17 points (11 goals, six assists) in 18 games, including his 500th NHL goal against the Philadelphia Flyers on Oct. 18. He has 22 goals, including six game-winners, second on the Blackhawks. His three overtime goals lead Chicago.

Panik has set NHL career highs in goals (19), assists (19) and points (38) in 72 games, and has become a fixture at right wing on Toews' line. Not bad for a player who had 47 points (25 goals, 22 assists) in 181 NHL games prior to this season.

Video: MIN@CHI: Hossa breaks in and slaps one past Kuemper

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