The All-Star break is a perfect time to assess how the NHL season has played out, and what the rest of the season could look like. Some things are already clear, as far as teams that will be heading to the playoffs, and who will be making tee-times in early April. For example, barring a huge turnaround, fans of the Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, and Columbus Blue Jackets don’t really have a lot to look forward to after the regular season ends on April 9th.
But instead of dwelling on the negatives, we’re going to look at the winners – specifically, last year’s Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Building off that success, the Blackhawks look like the favorites to repeat this season as champions.
The Blackhawks lead the Western Conference with 70 points. They have played 53 games, most in the league, and have won an impressive 33 of them, good for a .623 winning percentage. The high number of games played means the Blackhawks will have the most rest down the stretch, as every other team has to play as many as six more games than the Blackhawks in the last two-plus months.
This puts the Blackhawks at an advantage, as they will be better rested for the playoffs. The NHL season is a grind, and teams with fresher legs generally have an advantage late in the year.
The NHL’s leading scorer plays for the Blackhawks. Left-handed right-winger Patrick Kane has compiled 30 goals and 43 assists, and his 73 points is 15 more than his closest competition, the Dallas Stars’ Jamie Benn. In fact, Benn is closer to fifteenth place on the points list than he is to first. This makes Kane’s dominance even more astounding. Kane leads the league in goals, assists, goals created and power play goals.
Kane had a hat-trick on January 15, and it seems like every time Kane touches the puck, magical things happen. He’s having a season for the ages so far and shows no sign of letting up. Kane is on pace for 112 points, which hasn’t been accomplished since 2009-10 when Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks hit that exact number. Seriously, just watch this and try to say he isn’t a wizard.
It’s not as if Kane is doing it all by himself. Left-wing Artemi Panarin and centers Jonathan Toews and Artem Anisimov have also scored at least 17 goals, and ten different Blackhawks have double-digit assists. This is a team that scores a lot: they’ve scored 2.78 goals per game, and 147 total, third-best in the league.
But the Blackhawks are also elite on defense: they’re among the league leaders in goals against, and goalie Corey Crawford has a 2.14 Goals Against Average, (ninth-best in the NHL). This is a team that plays all facets of the game very well; when you score more than you give up, you’re going to win a lot of games.
Can Anyone Beat Them?
There are three other NHL teams with at least 30 wins, and these are probably the most likely to be able to unseat the defending champs. These teams are the Washington Capitals, the Dallas Stars, and the Los Angeles Kings.
Of these teams, the Capitals are probably the best team in the NHL right now, with 35 wins and 74 points. Alex Ovechkin is a superstar and leads the league in goals per game, at 0.61 compared to Kane’s 0.57. As the Capitals are in the Eastern conference, they won’t meet the Blackhawks in the playoffs unless both teams make it to the Finals.
The other two top contenders come from the West: the Stars are just three points behind the Blackhawks despite playing three fewer games and feature the second and third-leading scorers in Benn and Tyler Seguin. The Kings lead the Pacific Division with 63 points and have one of the top defenses in the NHL.
In the Eastern Conference, the Capitals pose the biggest threat. Including the Stars and the Kings (and the Blackhawks of course), at least six teams in the Western conference have the talent and ability to go all the way. The Western conference playoffs especially are going to be a battle.
But the defending champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, have to be considered the favorite.
Statistics provided by: NHL.com and hockey-reference.com
Images from Sports Talk: Chicago, CLTV, USA Today, Washington Times