After some concerns down the stretch as they played without injured right wing Patrick Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks assured themselves of a berth in 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 3-1 victory against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.
The Blackhawks, who have 47 wins and 100 points, are third in the Central Division of the Western Conference and still have a chance to pass St. Louis Blues (101) and Nashville Predators (103). Chicago is 11-4-1 since Kane sustained a broken left clavicle on Feb. 24.
Here are five reasons the Blackhawks have qualified for the playoffs for a seventh straight season:
1. Defense-first formula
Chicago is quietly the League's second-best defensive team, averaging 2.26 goals-against per game. That number is even more impressive when you consider the Blackhawks are 21st in the NHL in shots allowed per game (30.2), further proving their ability to buckle down after the opposition enters their zone.
A big part in the defensive success has been their ability to win faceoffs (52.0 percent, fifth in the League) and the play of goaltenders Corey Crawford (2.28 goals-against average, .924 save percentage) and Scott Darling (1.77 GAA, .941 save percentage). Prior to being returned to Rockford of the American Hockey League in February, Antti Raanta was 7-4-1 with a 1.89 GAA and .936 save percentage.
There was certainly a concerted effort to pay attention to detail in the defensive zone, and the acquisition of Kimmo Timonen before the NHL Trade Deadline provided added leadership on and off the ice. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has split up the usually effective pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook at times, instead putting Keith with Michal Rozsival and Seabrook with Timonen. For the most part, the defense made certain most shots were generated from the perimeter while clearing the crease.
"I think the difference for us defensively is offensive-zone awareness or where we leave pucks," Quenneville said. "Sometimes we got in trouble trying to score and where we left the puck when we didn't score. In the end it could be a higher quality chance the other way so I think playing to score and playing tighter this time of the year is almost necessary."
2. Pick your poison
The Blackhawks have been a team that can succeed playing any style you throw at them, whether it be free-wheeling, tight-checking or hard-hitting. That's been the case during the past six seasons; Chicago has reached the Western Conference Final four times in that span and won the Cup twice.
The Blackhawks have won almost as many games on the road (23) as they have at United Center (24) and are in a three-way tie for the NHL lead with nine shootout victories. They are the only team in the League with a perfect record (24-0-0) when leading after two periods. Chicago has a good blend of playoff-tested veterans and youthful exuberance, as well as a coach who seems to get the most out of them in tight situations.
3. No shortage of talent
Chicago's depth down the middle is evident by the fact center Brad Richards is averaging less than 15 minutes per game while skating between Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp for much of the season. The acquisition of Antoine Vermette at the NHL Trade Deadline gave Quenneville a third-line center capable of taking critical faceoffs in the defensive end if needed. More than anything, Vermette has helped give Richards, 34, a breather every so often.
Right Wing - CHI
GOALS: 22 | ASST: 36 | PTS: 58
SOG: 235 | +/-: 16
Marian Hossa, 36, continues to defy the odds as a 200-foot force on a line with captain Jonathan Toews
. Saad is in the midst of a career year and Sharp has reached 40 points for the seventh time in the past eight seasons.
While Quenneville has made plenty of line adjustments throughout the season, Toews with Hossa and Sharp, and Vermette with Teuvo Teravainen and Saad have been effective when they play together. Bryan Bickell always picks up his play at this time of year, and Andrew Shaw is traditionally considered a nightmare for the opposition as a fourth-line wing.
4. Terrific Toews
The Blackhawks' captain can score when needed, of course, but his teammates and coaches also know the other benefits he brings to a contending team at this time of year.
Center - CHI
GOALS: 26 | ASST: 38 | PTS: 64
SOG: 186 | +/-: 29
Toews logs more than 19 minutes a game, pays special attention to his defensive responsibilities, wins faceoffs and, win or lose, is always the face of the franchise in the locker room during the postgame scrums with the media. He can score from the perimeter or get greasy in front. He ranks first on the team in faceoff winning percentage (56.3) and shot attempts/60 minutes (35.86), and second in shooting percentage (14.0).
The bottom line with Toews, and probably the most important factor at playoff time, is that when No. 19 is on the ice the Blackhawks are rarely in their defensive zone.
5. With or without you
The Blackhawks will play the final 21 regular-season games and will start the playoffs without Kane, who still leads the team in goals (27) and power-play points (22), and is tied with Toews for the lead in points (64). When the odds seem to work against the Blackhawks, that's when their true character comes through and what makes the team something special to watch every postseason.
This is the second straight year that Kane sustained an injury during Chicago’s playoff push. He missed the final 12 games of the 2013-14 regular season with a knee injury; the Blackhawks went 6-6-0 before he returned for the playoffs. Quenneville believes the Blackhawks have paid more attention to detail on both sides of the puck in the absence of Kane. Chicago has outscored the opposition 39-31 since he was injured.
"We know if we're going to win, we have to win tight games and have a check-first mentality," he said.
Kane had surgery and isn't expected to be ready until late May; if that's the case, he'd likely miss the first two rounds of the playoffs. Chicago lost more than two straight games once this season, and that was prior to Kane's injury; a three-game skid against the Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche and Boston Bruins in February. It speaks to the depth and determination of each player that the Blackhawks can still prevail without the services of their All-Star forward.