With November in the rear view mirror for the Chicago Blackhawks, we can look back at the first two months of the season and begin to make some more specific statements about this team.
What have we learned about the 2011-12 Blackhawks through two months? Enough that there are more questions now than there were when October began.
First, what’s important: the Blackhawks have 31 points. That’s good enough for first place in the Central Division entering December (Detroit hosts Tampa on Wednesday night and can tie the Hawks with a win).
But thost 31 points, and their place on top of the division, are deceiving on face value. The Hawks have won 12 games in regulation, which is fewer than second place St. Louis and (as of Wednesday morning) third place Detroit. Chicago has played one game more than St. Louis, and could be tied with Detroit with two more games played than the Wings when the dust settles tonight.
The Central is up for grabs, with the exception being the pathetic Blue Jackets. They got off to a biblically bad start, and yet they aren’t one of three teams to make a change behind the bench so far. Can’t imagine Scott Arniel is very far behind.
Looking around the Central, a lot of intriguing trends pop up though. Look at the division’s scoring:
Obviously the Blackhawks have been carried by their top six (well, four). Detroit’s elite players got off to a terrible start, but have been playing their usual incredible hockey of later; there are no longer concerns that Zetterberg and Datsyuk are awake. I think most people would have pegged the teams in the division around where they are from an offensive perspective.
But what about the goals being allowed by the teams in the Central?
Wow. I’m not sure if Nashville or Chicago is more underwhelming at this point, considering the king’s ransom the Preds just handed Pekka Rinne.
The one asterisk I will add to these goals against numbers is that scoring around the league is up this year. When the 2010-11 season ended, only five teams in the league had allowed more than 3.00 goals per game. So far this year, ten teams are allowing over that number, including the Hawks.
What’s more, while the assumption would be that special teams would be the game-changer impacting the league-wide goals against trend, it hasn’t been. Last year, six teams had a penalty kill below 80 percent; so far this year, the number of teams under 80 percent is still six. Here are the PK numbers so far in the Central:
To put it mildly, this stat is shocking considering some of the best defensemen in the game skating in the Central. Indeed, looking at the goals against numbers in the division, and the NHL rankings of the teams, it’s hard to explain four of the five teams in the Central being in the lower third of the league in penalty killing.
Is it a case of improved power plays in the Central dragging the numbers down? No. Here are the PP numbers to date in the division:
This time, four of the five teams in the Central are in the league’s lower half. Kudos to the Blackhawks for climbing to 15th by the end of November when so many fans had them written off three weeks ago; in November, the Hawks PP scored on 12 of 50 opportunities (24 percent).
The trouble for the Blackhawks moving forward will continue to be their 5-on-5 play. St. Louis (1.59) and Detroit (1.45) have two of the three best 5-on-5 goals for/against ratios in the NHL so far; Chicago ranks 20th (0.96).
Last night’s game against a vanilla, grinding Phoenix team exposed a lot about what’s wrong with these Blackhawks. After the game on WGN radio, Sean O’Donnell admitted that there are still chemistry issues and that there could be problems with this team being emotionally invested in regular season games.
And it shows on paper. The Blackhawks were 7-6-1 in November. Detroit is 9-3-1 in November (with the result of Wednesday night still pending), and St. Louis finished November with a 9-2-2 record.
We have seen that these Blackhawks can be good enough to be a candidate for the top seed in the Western Conference. We have also seen that they could be fighting for a spot in the postseason when April gets here. With nine of 13 games at the United Center in December, the Blackhawks must bring a winning effort (read: better than Tuesday) on a nightly basis.