There is no such thing as consistency during an 82-game season in the NHL. At least as it relates to results on the ice. The season itself is a six-and-a-half month grind that has high points and low points for both teams and individual players. Good teams will go on stretches where they lose a lot, bad teams will find ways to go on winning streaks.
Individual players, from superstars to third-line depth will score goals in bunches and then go cold for a couple of weeks. Nobody is immune to it.
When those streaks, good or bad, happen at certain points in the season they tend to stand out a little more easily. When a team like the Anaheim Ducks won just one of their first 10 games, everybody noticed it and freaked out about it because there was no other body of work around it to hide it. The same thing happens at the end of the season when everybody starts paying more attention to the playoff teams.
That brings us to the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions, a modern NHL dynasty, and a team that should once again be a contender to win the whole thing. But they don't seem to be playing like it at the moment.
After their shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild on Sunday night, the Blackhawks have now won just six of their past 17 games and have dropped to third place in the Central Division, four points back of the first place Dallas Stars with only nine games to play. What's worse is the fact they simply do not look quite right.
Sometimes too much can be made out of these late season slumps, because, again, it is a reality for every team in the NHL at some point. You're not going to win every night, and sometimes enough things are going to work against you that you're going to lose a few games in a row. Keep in mind, when the Blackhawks went into the playoffs last season they won just five of their final 13 games of the regular season and ended the year on a four-game losing streak. Then they won 16 of their 23 playoff games and won their third Stanley Cup in six years.
For teams like the Blackhawks whose playoff spot has been secure for most of the season, it's not necessarily about the results in the standings at this point in the regular season. It is more about the process and the way they are playing. Sometimes you can still play well, do all of the right things, and simply not get the result on the scoreboard. Sometimes you can play like garbage and find a way to steal a few wins. Teams and coaches are usually smart enough to know that while the latter result looks good in the short-term, it probably won't last in the long-run and they have some things they need to fix (Unless, of course, you're the 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs and you think you stumbled onto some kind of magic formula).
When the Blackhawks cooled off down the stretch last season they fell into the former group.
Once you went a little deeper below the surface than just their wins and losses at that point, you could easily see their actual performance was pretty similar to what they had done all season before that. Their possession game was still among the NHL's elite, they weren't giving up a ton of chances and were still creating a lot of their own. Nearly every major number across the board was nearly identical to what they did in the months prior to that stretch.
|Blackhawks 2014-15 Season|
|Category||First 70 Games||The Slump|
|Shot Attempt Percentage (5-on-5)||53.6||53.4|
|Total Shot Attempts Per Game (5-on-5)||60.0||58.3|
|Total Shot Attempts Against Per Game (5-on-5)||52.3||52.0|
|Goals Per Game||2.7||2.0|
|Goals Against Per Game||2.2||2.3|
They were still playing well, and other than a slight drop in shooting percentage (which directly related to the drop in goals) there was virtually no difference in their performance.
They just happened to run into a little cold streak shooting the puck and lost a bunch of close, low-scoring, one-goal games. It happens. The results were not what they wanted on the scoreboard, but the process was sound.
Let's fast forward to this season and their recent stretch of games where things are a little bit different. Since Feb. 9, when this current slump started, the Blackhawks have been a middle of the pack team across the board, especially in several of the key areas they usually dominate in, from shots attempts for and against, to goal prevention, to the penalty kill. Those are the key areas Cup winning teams tend to excel, and in recent years, the Blackhawks have.
Right now, they are not. What should be a concern isn't just how they are playing at the moment, but how much they have dropped off from the start of the year.
Look at the table above and look at how similar each number is. Now, compare it to this season and how they have dropped off with their late season slump.
|Blackhawks 2015-16 Season|
|Category||First 56 Games||The Slump|
|Shot Attempt Percentage (5-on-5)||52.3||49.3|
|Total Shot Attempts Per Game (5-on-5)||56.5||53.3|
|Total Shot Attempts Against Per Game (5-on-5)||53.6||54.8|
|Goals Per Game||2.8||2.5|
|Goals Against Per Game||2.2||2.8|
Where the Blackhawks mostly remained the same last season, other than a drop in shooting percentage, this year's team has slid in some important areas, going from a top possession team (shot attempts percentage) to a bad one but giving up more total shots than we've seen from them in the past and not creating anywhere near as many of their own.
The shots against numbers on their own aren't overly alarming, and a lot of their recent goal prevention problems have come from a slump in goaltending (which should rebound), but they are still giving up more chances and opportunities than we have seen from Blackhawks teams in the past. And this doesn't even get into their struggles on the penalty kill where they have been a bottom-10 team in the league for the season, and have only successfully killed off 62 percent of their penalties during this late-season slump. Those trends simply cannot continue in the playoffs.
I have had the Blackhawks as a top contender for most of the season, and expected them to take a big step forward after the trade deadline when they added Andrew Ladd, Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise. It obviously has not happened yet.
The good news for them is they still have what should be one of the most talented rosters in the league and time in the regular to correct these recent problems. But if they don't correct them, this Blackhawks team might have more concerns going into the postseason than any other Blackhawks team during this championship run.
Losing games right now should not be a major concern. Their playoff spot is secure, and at this point is simply a matter of what type of path they will have to take in the postseason. What should be a concern is simply the way they are playing.