Since the Olympic Break, a great deal has been written about how much the Blackhawks have struggled. In 16 games since the break, the Hawks have only a 7-7-2 record.
Similarly, a lot has been said about how well the Detroit Red Wings are playing. Detroit has also played 16 games since the break, but have a 13-2-1 record in that stretch.
So how much better are the Red Wings playing than the Blackhawks? You might be surprised.
The Red Wings have dominated both playoff and non-playoff opponents alike. Against teams currently in the playoffs (which, for now, includes Colorado), Detroit has gone 7-1-0 since the break. Against teams not currently in the playoffs (which, for now, includes Calgary), Detroit has a 6-1-1 record.
This is where the greatest difference has been between the Blackhawks and Red Wings. Against teams currently in the playoffs, the Hawks have a 5-2-2 record since the break. However, against teams not currently in the playoffs, the Hawks have struggled to a maddening 2-5-0 record. Whether or not this is a case of the Hawks taking opponents for granted is something only the players can honestly answer, but there have certainly been a number of trap games on the calendar to which the Hawks have fallen victim (back-to-back against Columbus after a tough home-and-home against Phoenix, for example).
Looking deeper inside the numbers, though, you will find that records, while providing the ultimate meaning of performance, fail to describe the performances individually. The biggest difference between the Blackhawks and Red Wings since the break has been a simple case of timing.
In their eight games against playoff teams, the Red Wings have scored 27 goals, or 3.38 per game. Detroit has allowed 20 goals in those eight games, an average of 2.50 per game.
In the nine games the Blackhawks have played against playoff teams, they have scored 29 goals, or 3.22 per game. The Hawks have allowed 23 goals in those nine games, an average of 2.55 per contest.
Consider the following: if the Red Wings lose their next game against a playoff team, Saturday night in Nashville, by a tally of 3-2, the chalk will be identical. And yet the Red Wings, assuming that loss, would be 7-2-0 while the Hawks are just 5-2-2 with the same gross performance.
The moral of this story is simple. It’s not how many goals you score, or how many you give up, but when the goals are scored that makes the difference. Timing is what determines the wins and losses over an 82-game schedule. In March, the Blackhawks had a stretch where they had poor timing.
But there’s more to this comparison between the Red Wings and Blackhawks than simply comparing their numbers against playoff teams. Let’s look at the two rookie netminders: Jimmy Howard for Detroit and Antti Niemi for the Blackhawks.
Howard has started every game since the break for Detroit and, thanks to the timing of his offense, has been rewarded with a stellar 13-2-1 record in that span. He has skyrocketed to at, or at least near, the top of most Calder Trophy lists because of the perception that he’s played exceptional hockey. That perception is well based in reality, but the skaters in front of him have helped a great deal.
Niemi, on the other hand, has continued to fight his way to the top of the Blackhawks depth chart between the pipes and, not until recently, was clearly the Number One netminder for the division-leading Hawks. Because he’s roughly seven weeks too old to be considered for the Calder, and because of his limited action because of Cristobal Huet wasting games and $5.6 million this year, Niemi isn’t often spoken about in the same contest as Howard.
After all, Niemi has “struggled” to only a 5-3-2 record since the Olympics. Clearly, with a record like that, Niemi isn’t playing very well.
Remove the wins, regulation and overtime/shootout losses from the discussion for a moment. What is the difference between Howard and Niemi? Since the break, again using the most recent statistics, the difference is… almost nothing.
Howard has a 2.23 goals against average; Niemi’s GAA is 2.27. Howard has a .917 save percentage; Niemi’s is .914. The biggest difference, though, is in shutouts. Howard has held Detroit’s opponent off the scoreboard just once in his 16 games since the break. Niemi, on the other hand, has shutout the Hawks’ opponent three times in only ten starts, two of which were against playoff competition (Los Angeles and Phoenix).
Clearly, again, it’s about timing. If everything was even, Niemi would (in theory) have a similar record to Howard since the break. But because the Blackhawks’ offense failed him on a number of occasions, his record is just .500 despite the effort.
So when you look at the standings, and see the Red Wings are 9-0-1 in their last ten and have won seven in a row, take a deep breath before freaking out. Yes, the Blackhawks are just 4-4-2 in their last ten, but they have won two in a row. Niemi has been strong in net all season, and the offense showed against New Jersey that they have found their timing.
In two weeks, when the playoffs are upon us (and Huet is an afterthought), Blackhawks fans can have confidence that, while numbers don’t always tell the entire story, they never lie. And the Blackhawks are a good team.