It was less than one month ago, on Jan. 17, that the Blackhawks were at the bottom of the NHL standings staring up at the rest of the pack. A 4-3 loss at the hands of the New York Rangers had seen Chicago drop its fifth straight, and with the trade deadline little more than one month in the offing, the conversation circulating throughout the United Center and on the streets of the Windy City was whether Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko would look better in red, white and black.
Funny how a few weeks and a few wins can change things.
Heading into the all-star break, the Blackhawks snapped out of their slump with wins over the top two teams in the Metropolitan Division, handing the Washington Capitals an 8-5 defeat before eking out a 3-2 shootout victory over the New York Islanders. Out of the break, Chicago kept rolling, too, rattling off another five consecutive victories to stretch their win streak, almost inexplicably, to seven games. And leading the way for the Blackhawks on this incredibly unforeseen run back into Western Conference wild-card contention has been Patrick Kane, who has somehow inserted himself into legitimate Hart Trophy contention over the past few weeks.
It should come as no surprise, of course, that in a campaign in which scoring has picked up and the game has seemingly opened up further that Kane, one of the premier offensive talents in the NHL, has excelled. There’s a difference, however, between Kane excelling and the out-and-out dominance he has shown of late.
Looking at the Art Ross Trophy race Monday morning, one will notice that Nikita Kucherov and Connor McDavid have some company. Between the two is Kane, who added to his already impressive point total with a goal and an assist in Chicago’s win over the Detroit Red Wings Sunday afternoon. Kane’s two points pushed his season-to-date totals to 33 goals and 81 points in 55 games, both of which rank second in the NHL. And this ascent into the Art Ross and Rocket Richard territory began in late-November and into early-December.
On Nov. 21 and Nov. 23, a pair of Blackhawks losses, Kane was held off the scoresheet entirely. On Nov. 24, however, he notched a goal and an assist, followed that up with points in his next two games and has since embarked on a run in which he has only failed to register a point in three of his past 33 games. Altogether, Kane has scored an eye-popping 21 goals and 56 points since that Nov. 24 contest, which is the best point total over that span, two more than Kucherov, seven points clear of Johnny Gaudreau, eight ahead of McDavid and a dozen or more better than the rest of the field. It’s been arguably the most brilliant run of Kane’s career, possibly even besting his 26-game point streak during the 2015-16 season. Kane registered 16 goals and 40 points, or 1.54 points per game, over that stretch. He’s scored at a 1.70 points-per-game clip over his past 33 games.
It’s in scoring the way he has, too, that Kane has not only entered the Art Ross race, but stands to dip his toes into Hart contention, as well. It’s undeniable the impact Kane has had on the Blackhawks’ success. In the time since Nov. 24, Kane has registered a point on 46.3 percent of all of Chicago’s goals, and his 81 points give him a contribution on 44.8 percent of all Blackhawks goals this season. That’s the second-best total in the NHL, better than all but McDavid’s ludicrous 51.3 percent contribution to the Edmonton Oilers’ offense. And Kane’s percentages remain up there with the very best across the board. His 33 goals account for 18.2 percent of Chicago’s goal total, the seventh-best mark in the NHL. His 65 primary points mean he’s been the main contributor on 35.9 percent of the Blackhawks’ offense, second in the NHL behind only McDavid’s 42.3 percent.
If you harken back to last season’s MVP debate, however, it’s evident that there’s only one way Kane gets true consideration for the Hart, and that’s if Chicago can continue to piece together victories and earn its way into the post-season. No doubt helping the Blackhawks’ — and in turn Kane’s — cause is that Chicago has found a certain level of depth to their offense over the past several weeks. All the while Kane has been piling up points, so, too, have Alex DeBrincat and Jonathan Toews, who each have 36 points to their name since Nov. 24. Likewise, the stunning swap that brought Dylan Strome, once considered among the league’s top prospects, to Chicago in exchange for Nick Schmaltz has paid sizeable dividends for the Blackhawks. Acquired by Chicago on Nov. 27, Strome has 11 goals and 30 points in 32 games since his arrival. He was named the NHL’s third star for his two-goal, seven-point performance across three games last week.
It helps, as well, that the Blackhawks’ goaltending has come through in recent weeks. To wit, during the current seven-game win streak, Chicago’s .927 save percentage at 5-on-5 is the 10th-best mark in the NHL. Cam Ward and Collin Delia, who was rewarded with a three-year, $3-million contract extension Monday, have been more than serviceable over that span. Their play has incredibly welcome in the wake of Corey Crawford’s latest battle with concussion issues and the uncertainty surrounding a possible return date for the two-time Stanley Cup-winning netminder.
It’s evident, as well, that Kane’s candidacy is going to benefit from a club that isn’t about to sell all its pieces heading towards the deadline as it pursues a return to the post-season. Chicago doesn’t seem destined to be among the big sellers come the trade freeze, in part because it doesn’t have many major chips to sell. Chris Kunitz and Marcus Kruger are the lone rental targets on the roster, and neither will be top targets come deadline day. Other than that, the Blackhawks’ best bits of retooling will have to come in the off-season when teams are more willing to take on salary and term.
That’s not to say everything is pointing in the direction of true Hart candidacy for Kane, nor the Blackhawks continuing this flirtation with the Western Conference wild card. Chicago has been among the league’s worst possession teams — and worst across most underlying metrics — at 5-on-5 under coach Jeremy Colliton, better than only the Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators and the Anaheim Ducks, who sacked Randy Carlyle over the weekend. The Blackhawks have been kept afloat by the offensive output of Kane and Co., as well as mid-level goaltending from the current crease tandem. If either falters down the stretch, and there’s a reasonable expectation at least one of the two will, Chicago could fall out of wild-card contention as quickly as they’ve entered back in.
For the moment, though, the Blackhawks can turn their eye towards the post-season and start dreaming up a post-season return after last season’s miss. And if they can climb further and hang on, Kane might be able to etch his name onto the Hart for a second time in his career.