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Blackhawks Tue Jan 14 2014

One Year Later, Blackhawks Close to 2013 Pace

Thumbnail image for GB blackhawks icon.png When the Blackhawks opened the 2013 lockout-shortened season in Los Angeles nearly one year ago, they began what eventually would be a record-breaking streak of consecutive games without a regulation loss. Forty-seven games later, the Blackhawks finished with the league's best record of 36-7-5 for 77 points, collected the Presidents' Trophy and made its way through the Stanley Cup playoffs, eventually winning its fifth championship in franchise history.

Fast-forward a year later -- thankfully with no lockout of which to speak -- and Joel Quenneville's squad finds itself 48 games into a full season and almost at the same pace as last year's epic run. After sweeping away the Oilers Sunday night in the season series finale, the Blackhawks crossed the 48-game threshold at 30-8-10 for 70 points. The point total is down seven, but certainly isn't from a decline in the level of talent on the ice; in fact, the Blackhawks look better than ever.

It's curious for the casual fan to accept that as fact, but records don't necessarily tell the complete tale of what occurs on the ice. Yes, the point total is lower, but it's not a reason to hit the panic button and throw the remote at the television. A handful of items have contributed to the slightly lower point total, which is being reflected in the win and overtime loss columns (the Blackhawks only have one more loss this season than last after 48 games).

Surely there have been times where the Blackhawks have looked a little sluggish on the ice. Brent Seabrook probably would be the first to point a finger in his own direction after a slow (really slow) start as a blue-liner. Seabs' costly turnovers and ability to screen his own goalie have been cause for concern. It's why he's staying home instead of heading to Sochi.

Michal Handzuš' play as second-line center no doubt has hampered the play of Patrick Kane over the past couple of weeks. Handzuš is very talented, and no doubt helped the Blackhawks during its run in last season's playoffs, but he isn't able to keep up with Kane in terms of speeding up the ice. Not too many are, but the change needed to be made with Marcus Krüger taking Handzuš' spot at the dot.

The shootout has not been the Blackhawks friend this season. Out of the 10 shootouts they've faced this season, they've walked off having only won four of them. That's a difference of six extra points left on the table when all is said and done and a big reason for the point differential from last season to this. The team ranks twenty-fourth in the league in shooting percentage in extra time at 24.4 percent (11 goals on 45 attempts). There's also the fact that the Blackhawks are twelfth in the league in save percentage in shootouts at .683 (13 goals allowed off of 41 attempts).

Speaking of goalies, there was the issue of goalie Nikolai Khabibulin between the pipes at the beginning of this season. Khabi was slated to backup Corey Crawford and was looked upon to be at least be somewhat serviceable with a very good defense in front of him.

The Blackhawks brass was confident enough in Khabibulin to bring him back for a season and spell Crawford once every few weeks. Unfortunately, Khabi couldn't stop much of anything (he currently sports a 5.00 GAA and has a putrid .811 save percentage and was responsible for one of the team's OT losses). Old Nikolai might not be returning this season as he's still dealing with his injury, Meanwhile, Antti Raanta has stepped up to play very well in his stead and while Crawford was hurt.

At this point it isn't a matter of whether or not the Blackhawks have enough talent to repeat as champs. They've already come close to matching a near-impossible record from last season with pretty much the same roster. It will be more of a factor if they can stay fresh throughout the playoffs and not lose focus, especially after the Olympics in Sochi.

On the upside, this team has been scoring a flurry of goals throughout the first 48 games. The Blackhawks currently sit right behind the St. Louis Blues at second place for most goals scored (3.56 per game). The speed and agility of the top-two lines have contributed plenty of fire power for opposing goalies.

Patrick Sharp has stepped up his game big time. He's fourth in the league in total goals with 25, just seven behind league leader Alex Ovechkin. Meanwhile, Kane is on pace for over 100 points (providing Handzuš stays away from his line) and very well could win the Hart Trophy.

Duncan Keith is on pace for winning the Norris Trophy, which would be his second since the 2010 Cup season and Jonathan Toews continues to lead his team in so many way at both ends of the rink. All of that, plus the continuing maturation of Brandon Saad and high-level of play from Marian Hossa makes for an even scarier team than last season.

A difference of seven points from last year to this is not something a lot of prognosticators would have predicted, myself included. Heck, something within 15 points would have been suffice. There's still 34 games remaining in the regular season and the Blackhawks may or may not claim the Presidents' Trophy by having the best record in the league by the time they hit 82 games.

What really matters is rectifying the few issues at hand before it counts, such as becoming more finely-tuned so as not to accidentally score on your own goal, regardless how hilarious it is.

The Blackhawks only have suffered back-to-back regulation losses once this season, and you can bet come playoff time it'll be tough for this team to lose four out of seven. The playoffs indeed are a different beast, but having played about on par this season as they did last hopefully should provide a glimpse into what's to come this June.

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