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Chicago Blackhawks overcoming flaws to remain NHL's top team

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Corey Crawford hasn't been great, but the Blackhawks are still in first. (USATSI)
Corey Crawford hasn't been great so far this season, but the Blackhawks are still in first. (NHL)

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The Chicago Blackhawks remained atop the league standings despite suffering the back-to-back losses this week. When a team is tops in the league, especially one that is coming off the Stanley Cup, there's usually not a lot of scrutiny to deal with, but Chicago has been getting by this season despite some obvious cracks in the armor.

The sky is not falling in Chicago despite losses to divisional foes Dallas and Minnesota this week, but the warts were showing a little bit. That the Blackhawks are able to keep winning the way they have been despite these flaws makes them all the more intriguing.

Chicago is the top team in the standings with a 20-6-4 record, but the team ranks 22nd in goals allowed overall and 18th in goals against per game. This is despite the fact that the Hawks are allowing an average of 27 shots per game, sixth fewest in the league.

Most of the teams trailing Chicago in goals-against statistics, with the exception of Phoenix, are league bottom feeders.

No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford leads the league in wins but has posted a paltry .906 save percentage. Among goalies with nine or more appearances this season, Crawford ranks 33rd in the NHL in that category. His 2.49 goals-against average puts Crawford 23rd in the league among eligible goalies. That's stunningly low for a first-place team's goaltender.

Crawford and the Blackhawks as a whole have been struggling mightily on the penalty kill. The defending champs rank second to last in the league with a 72.6 percent kill rate. Crawford's save percentage when the Blackhawks are killing is .784.

It's more than a little surprising that the Blackhawks' PK has been so bad when it was third best in the NHL last season. It appears they haven't found adequate replacements for Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik, though.

You can't put all of the PK blame on Crawford's shoulders. He hasn't gotten the help he needs.

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that the Blackhawks haven't taken a ton of penalties. They've been short-handed 84 times this season, fourth fewest in the league. So things could be worse, perhaps.

It's hard to see Crawford maintaining such a low save percentage throughout the year, at even strength or otherwise, but he's also getting more work than ever before. He has played in 26 of Chicago's 30 games this season and is on pace to make 78 appearances this year, 22 more than his previous career high.

The Blackhawks took a gamble in signing 40-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin as Crawford's backup. The seasoned veteran only managed to make four appearances and couldn't stop a thing with an .811 save percentage before going down with an injury. That has made way for the younger, perhaps more capable rookie Antti Raanta to spell Crawford a bit more.

Crawford gets credit for his solid performance in 30 appearances last season and helping Chicago win the Stanley Cup in the summer, but the way he has playing this year makes the six-year, $36 million extension he signed this offseason look a little premature. The deal kicks in next season with an annual cap hit of $6 million.

With looming free agents Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to lock up, Crawford's deal looks all the more precarious.

There's the bad PK. The below average-play from the goaltender. But the Blackhawks' lack of depth at center is just beginning to become an issue. The team has been in perpetual need of a second-line center for years, it seems, and has been walking a bit of a tightrope at the position all year.

Michal Handzus has been out of the lineup off and on, while Andrew Shaw was the most recent center to miss time as he sat out Thursday night's game in Minnesota. Rookie Brandon Pirri doesn't seem to have gained the trust of coach Joel Quenneville as he was sent down to the AHL to make way for fellow rookie Joakim Nordstrom.

With Toews solid at the top of the lineup and Marcus Kruger doing a bang-up job at the bottom, the Blackhawks may need to find a way to address the middle of the center lineup and the void left primarily by Bolland, which apparently is bigger than previously believed when you look at the penalty kill in particular.

The amazing thing about this team, however, is it just continues to score and score often. No team has scored more than Chicago's 104 goals this season and the Blackhawks' average of 3.47 goals per game is also tops in the NHL.

Kane is third in the league with 16 goals and 33 points, proving he really is better than ever. The Hawks have also gotten exceptional play from their captain Toews and the typical productivity from Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.

Not only that, but whether you subscribe to the eye test or the underlying numbers, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have been among the league's best defensemen this year. Keith has even improved his productivity with 25 points so far this season, good for second in the league among defensemen.

The Blackhawks haven't needed Crawford to even be average this year, they haven't needed a traditional second-line scoring center, have overcome a disastrous penalty kill and look no worse for the wear when you look at the standings.

That has been true so far, but it remains to be seen how long the Blackhawks can keep this up. They're coming off a deep and challenging playoff run to the Stanley Cup last season and could have more than 10 players competing in the Olympics in February. Add that to the regular 82-game grind of an NHL season and it's not hard to wonder how long they can keep this kind of pace going with some of the deficiencies in their game.

Even if there is a wall to be hit at some point, based on what the Blackhawks have accomplished so far, it's hard not to marvel at them, warts and all.

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