As they battle St. Louis and Nashville for top spot in the Central Division, the Chicago Blackhawks dropped a hint of what could be terrific news over the weekend: Head coach Joel Quenneville told reporters he wouldn't rule out injured star Patrick Kane's return to action as soon as the first round of the playoffs. Now, that may turn out to be a perfect example of the garden-variety subterfuge coaches and organizations engage in from time to time close to or during the post-season. But if it's not and Kane is back in the Hawks' lineup long before doctors' initial prognosis of late May/early June, everybody getting all excited about the L.A. Kings or New York Rangers as this year's Stanley Cup champions should temper their expectations as long as Chicago is in the playoffs.
And you know what? Even if Kane can't come back from a broken clavicle suffered in late February until the second or third round, I still like this Blackhawks team as much as any other team in the league this season. They were my pick to win it all before the season began, and they're still my pick to win what would be their third championship in six seasons.
You can look at the Hawks and be deeply impressed – intimidated, even – by the winning pedigree of Chicago's on-ice personnel. However, that's not the only way they wow you.
For example, the Hawks are an astonishing 23-0-0 when leading after two periods of play. That's the sign of a veteran team with a high collective panic threshold, something that bodes well for the relentlessly pressure-packed post-season climate.
Here are a few other positives for the Hawks: their goals-for/against differential of plus-43 is second only to St. Louis (plus-45) in the Western Conference; their 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio of 1.21 is fourth-best in the league; they average more shots on net (34.1) than any other team in the league; their penalty kill efficiency (84.2) is third-best among Western Conference playoff teams; and they're the most disciplined post-season-bound squad, averaging just 7.3 penalty minutes per game.
Like every team, the Hawks have some issues to address before the playoffs begin. Their power play is a dismal 17.8 percent, but if you're going to hold that against them, you also have to do the same for the Rangers (17.1), Senators (17.0), Predators (16.3), Ducks (16.0) and Wild (15.6). Chicago also allows a whopping average of 30.4 shots per game, which would be the worst of any playoff team if the Sens (32.2) fail to qualify for a post-season berth. But even that statistic can be seen as a positive, as it means Corey Crawford – still one of the more underrated netminders in the game today, with a sparkling .924 save percentage this season – and the team around him have been doing something right on the defensive end, because Chicago went into Monday night's action tied with the Blueshirts for second in the league in goals-against average (2.27).
Then there's the Hawks' emotional and competitive center: superstar Jonathan Toews is one of the most respected NHLers alive today because of his knack for clutch play and his all-around impact, and this season is no different. He's currently second on the team in power play goals (six), first in shorthanded goals (two), and first in faceoff percentage (56.6). Chicago takes on Toews' image in that both the captain and his teammates can play you (and beat you) any way you want to play.
And remember, the Hawks have been able to continue to keep pace with the Blues and Predators despite not having Kane for the past 40 days. If he can play again in the first round, Chicago will have arguably the NHL's deepest and most talented forward corps to go along with a superb defense and a goaltender on pace to set a career high in save percentage during seasons in which he played at least 50 games.
With due respect to the Ducks, Preds, Blues, Kings, Rangers, and any other team you see as a Cup favorite, that's about as good as it gets. And that's why they're still my pick to hoist the best trophy in sports this June. They don't need a miracle to win without Kane, but if he comes back sooner than later, other teams will need a miracle to beat them.