The Chicago Blackhawks sit second in the Central Division, tied for first in points but having played three more games than the St. Louis Blues. The standings, however, are not necessarily an issue — Chicago is perfectly capable of topping St. Louis in a seven-game playoff series with or without home-ice advantage.
No, the problem with the Blackhawks heading into the Olympic break is the team’s dreadful performance on special teams in 2013-14. The power play ranks fourth in the NHL in percentage but has dipped into and remained in mediocrity for an extended stretch beginning in early January. Meanwhile, Chicago’s penalty kill has floundered badly all season — sans a short-lived strong stretch in January — and presently slots in as the league’s 27th best.
I would be remiss not to note that having difficulty scoring on the power play alone generally does not preclude NHL teams from making a genuine run to the Stanley Cup Final — indeed, each of the last six Cup winners produced at a clip outside of the top 15 with the extra man. Fans will undoubtedly remember last year’s Blackhawks, a team with a rather terrible power play that nevertheless dominated its competition all season long en route to a title.
The problem, then, lies in the fact that Chicago’s penalty kill has also been underwhelming. Five out of those six Cup champions that I referenced slotted in the upper half of the league in terms of PK percentage during their respective championship years, and the one team that didn’t (Boston) was 16th. Evidently, a good penalty kill has been a requirement for postseason success in the post-2004 NHL, and if a team doesn’t have one it better be able to make up for it on the power play.
The Blackhawks certainly do not fit such a description. Becoming the league’s first repeat champion since 1998 is no more than a pipe dream until this negative special teams trend is reversed.