Fans in Chicago is looking at Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Jose and picking which team they would prefer the Blackhawks face in the first round of the playoffs.
On face value, the Blackhawks didn’t do very well against the Pacific Division this year. But looking deeper into the numbers should lead fans to realize a simple reality: what happened in the regular season means very little, if anything at all.
The Coyotes now control their destiny by virtue of a win in St. Louis on Friday night. Against Phoenix this year, the Hawks were 1-2-1 and were outscored 12-9 in the four games.
Chicago did a little better against San Jose this year, managing a 2-2-0 record. The Sharks, like the Coyotes, outscored the Hawks in the season series, posting 11 goals to the 10 the Blackhawks were able to score.
The season series against the Kings may appear to be as one-sided as any the Hawks played this year. Chicago was 1-2-1 against Los Angeles and was outscored 9-4 in the series, including being shut out in two of the four games.
So what are the totals? The Blackhawks were 4-6-2 against the three potential Pacific champions, allowing 32 goals (2.67 per game) while scoring 23 (1.92 per game). All three teams shut out the Blackhawks at least once this year.
All of that sounds like Chicago is going to be a one-and-done in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, right?
Not so fast.
Go back and look at the dates of the games played. Only one of the 12 games against the three teams battling for the top position in the Pacific Division happened after the Feb. 27 NHL Trade Deadline (March 11 vs. Los Angeles). The last time the Hawks played the Sharks and Coyotes were back-to-back nights Feb. 10-11.
Why is that significant? Since Johnny Oduya joined the team, the Blackhawks have closed the season with an 11-2-4 record. Included in those 11 wins are victories over Western Conference playoff teams St. Louis (twice), Vancouver and Nashville, as well as the Eastern Conference playoff-bound New York Rangers and Washington Capitals.
The defensive improvement felt when Oduya joined the lineup has been evident all over the stat sheet.
For the season, Chicago is tied for eighth in the NHL in shots against per game (28.5, tied with San Jose). But since acquiring Oduya, the Hawks are allowing only 25 shots on net per game.
On the entire season, Chicago is tied for 22nd in the NHL in goals against per game (2.83). But since the deadline, the Hawks have allowed 40 goals in 16 games (2.50 per game).
While the numbers are ugly, there has still been improvement in the Hawks’ penalty killing as well. For the year, Chicago ranks 27th in the NHL on PK (77.9 percent), but that has improved to 79.4 percent (27 for 34) since acquiring Oduya. Suddenly elite? No. But baby steps…
The point is, the Blackhawks have been a better team since the trade deadline, despite not having Jonathan Toews on the ice.
If the defensive numbers give fans some thought before stepping to the edge, the offensive numbers since the beginning of March should provide Blackhawks fans some confidence. Since March 1, the Blackhawks have averaged 2.81 goals per game. Of the three Pacific contenders, only the Kings (3.06) have scored more goals per game than the Hawks; the Coyotes (2.50) and the Sharks (2.32) are both in the bottom-third of the NHL over that time span.
Now, it would be inappropriate to ignore some recent strong play from the three Pacific teams.
Mike Smith in Phoenix is stopping everything – literally. In the Coyotes last four games, all wins, Smith has allowed only one goal against 168 shots! There isn’t a hotter netminder in the game than Smith right now.
In Los Angeles, Anze Kopitar has been ridiculous since the first of March. He’s posted 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) in 17 games to lead the Kings to the brink of a division title. And for the Sharks, Joe Pavelski has scored seven goals in his last ten games.
The regular season provides an 82-game track record for teams to show what they are over the course of an entire season. Over the course of the year, teams face each other and establish a number of statistical measures by which fans can predict, to an extent, the performance of one team against another.
But in the case of the Blackhawks and the teams they might face from the Pacific Division, circumstances have changed enough since the teams last met that the numbers established during regular season games need to be taken with a measure of understanding.
This, of course, is living under the assumption that the Hawks don’t win in regulation on Saturday in Detroit and face Nashville. But I digress…