Can you believe it? The Chicago Blackhawks are now 2-0 without captain Jonathan Toews, who will sit out the remainder of the regular season to rest up for the playoffs. Of course, this is one of those times where you roll your eyes and say to yourself: “Yeah… but it’s a small sample size.”
The two wins came back-to-back, but the Hawks needed a shootout to beat Minnesota and squeaked by Columbus thanks to Ben Smith’s game-winning goal with 3.7 seconds left in the game. Neither performance was considered to be championship-winning caliber. Losing Patrick Kane and his offensive wizardry hurt – the Hawks were shut out twice during his eight-game absence – but losing Toews hurts multiple levels. If losing Patrick Kane is like the brilliant Joaquin Phoenix getting less screen time in Gladiator, then losing Toews is like not having Russell Crowe in the film at all. Without Toews, the Blackhawks feel like an emotionless, rudderless ship.
Chicago is obviously playing the long game here by resting Toews and Kane, and there’s no incentive for them to return early since the Blues have all but clinched the Central Division title with an eight-point lead and two games in hand. So, the question becomes whether or not the Blackhawks will have Kane and Toews at 100 percent for the playoffs. If they do, they’ll have a fighting chance to win the Stanley Cup, but if they don’t, a long playoff run is unlikely to happen. It’s a bad bet to pick a team that employs Andrew Shaw as one of its top centers to win the Cup, especially when most of the other teams – specifically the Blues, Sharks, Kings – have so much more depth down the middle.
On one hand, it’s unfortunate that the normally exciting Blackhawks will enter the playoffs as a relatively weaker squad than in past years. On the other hand, this felt like a long time coming. The Blackhawks’ rebuild is quite a story – after winning 46 games combined in the seasons prior and immediately after the 2004-05 lockout, in just three years, the team managed to win 46 games in a single season and go all the way to the Conference Finals. They’ve won two Stanley Cups over the past decade, which may as well be good enough to be considered a dynasty in the cap era. From 2008 to 2013, the Hawks have played in 13 playoff series, nine of which have gone at least six games, and won ten of them. That’s remarkable. (Meanwhile, the Oilers will miss the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season – an embarrassing feat, given their previous playoff appearance saw Chris Pronger carry them to the finals.)
During that five-year span, Toews has played 420 regular season games (including this season), 75 playoff games and 13 Olympic games. Assuming the Blackhawks advance past the first round, that’s six seasons with an average of around 90 games played per season. Given how hard Toews plays and what sort of matchups he sees, even the world’s most capable and resilient athletes would find it difficult to maintain that kind of pace. Toews and the Blackhawks seem to be tiring.
Offense: Success will obviously hinge on Toews and Kane’s health and production, but Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp are two of the best wingers in the game. The Hawks have plenty of youth and talent to bring up as part of their Black Aces, but the hole remains at center with Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger serving as the only options after Toews. Dave Bolland may not have been very effective in the dot, but at least he was able to shoulder some of the load, and whose 200 faceoffs taken in last year’s playoffs ranked third behind Toews (505) and Michal Handzus (336). Scoring will be particularly difficult away from their home crowd without Toews driving the train, since the Blackhawks are a pedestrian 19-12-8 on the road and rank only 19th in the league in winning percentage when trailing after the first period. Unlike in previous years, the Blackhawks offense may be forced to be a little more conservative and lean more on their defense.
Defense: Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are turning in Norris-caliber seasons and the added production and maturation from Nick Leddy and Niklas Hjalmarsson are very good signs. Joel Quenneville still doesn’t quite trust Leddy and usually limits the youngster to the third pairing and the power play, but he certainly possesses the potential to be the team’s breakout star in the playoffs. The Blackhawks’ depth on defense isn’t as strong as their offense, but with Keith and Seabrook both expected to log close to 30 minutes a night in the playoffs, it shouldn’t be a big problem. It will be a problem, however, if a key player misses time due to injury. Beyond Johnny Oduya, the Hawks will be forced to rely on Michal Rozsival or Sheldon Brookbank, and both of those options seem nightmarish.
Goaltending: Like Marc-Andre Fleury, Corey Crawford is good, but not great. Both reap humungous rewards from playing on such good teams, but neither have the ability to steal games like Carey Price. Crawford’s 5-on-5 save percentage this season is .928, which is slightly above league average (usually around .920), but he’s not surrounded by elite company, ranking just ahead of Mike Smith and Braden Holtby, and behind Kari Lehtonen and an uncharacteristically poor Henrik Lundqvist. Crawford was excellent in last year’s playoffs, but it’s hard to replicate a .932 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average, both of which were much better marks than his career averages. Nikolai Khabibulin is no longer an impact player, but surely he breeds more confidence than Antti Raanta as the team’s backup.
Outlook: Assuming the Blues take the division crown, the Blackhawks will face the Avalanche in the opening round. It’s certainly a matchup the Hawks can emerge triumphant, but the Avs can’t be overlooked with their exuberant youth, and though his play hasn’t made headlines like it should, Semyon Varlamov has been one of the best goalies this season. It’s unlikely that the winner of this series will advance past the second round. The Hawks’ chances aren’t as dangerous as they used to be. The smart money's still on the Blues.
Projected Goalie Starters (all times Eastern)
For updates on the projected goalies later in the day, check our Projected Goalies Grid
Philadelphia Flyers (Ray Emery*) at Boston Bruins (Tuukka Rask), 1:00 PM
Colorado Avalanche (Semyon Varlamov*) at St. Louis Blues (Ryan Miller*), 2:00 PM
Washington Capitals (Jaroslav Halak) at New York Islanders (Evgeni Nabokov), 5:00 PM
Winnipeg Jets (Ondrej Pavelec) at Toronto Maple Leafs (James Reimer), 7:00 PM
Detroit Red Wings (Jonas Gustavsson*) at Montreal Canadiens (Carey Price), 7:00 PM
Dallas Stars (Kari Lehtonen) at Tampa Bay Lightning (Ben Bishop), 7:00 PM
Ottawa Senators (Robin Lehner) at New York Rangers (Henrik Lundqvist), 7:00 PM
New Jersey Devils (Cory Schneider) at Carolina Hurricanes (Anton Khudobin), 7:00 PM
Pittsburgh Penguins (Marc-Andre Fleury) at Minnesota Wild (Ilya Bryzgalov), 8:00 PM
Los Angeles Kings (Jonathan Quick) at Vancouver Canucks (Eddie Lack), 10:00 PM
Nashville Predators (Pekka Rinne) at San Jose Sharks (Antti Niemi), 10:30 PM
* = confirmed
Injury News For Teams Playing Saturday
Adam McQuaid, D - (quad) no return date set.
Dennis Seidenberg, D – (torn ACL/MCL) out for the regular season.
Alex Tanguay, LW – (hip surgery) out for the season.
P.A. Parenteau, RW - (knee) will not play Saturday, no return date set.
Cody McLeod, LW – (ankle) game-time decision.
Matt Duchene, C – (knee) out 3-4 weeks.
St. Louis Blues
Vladimir Tarasenko, RW - (hand) no return date set.
Alexander Steen, LW - (upper body) will not play Saturday.
Brooks Laich, C - (groin) no return date set.
Jack Hillen, D - (head) will miss the rest of the road trip.
Aaron Volpatti, LW - (left shoulder) no return date set.
New York Islanders
Brian Strait, D – (broken hand) no return date set.
Kyle Okposo, RW - (lower body) did not play Wednesday, doubtful for Saturday.
Michael Grabner, RW – (concussion) no timetable for return.
John Tavares, C – (torn MCL) out for the season.
Lubomir Visnovsky, D – (concussion) out indefinitely.
Keaton Ellerby, D - (lower body) no return date set.
Zach Bogosian, D - (upper body) did not play Thursday, doubtful for Saturday.
James Wright, C – (ankle sprain) out indefinitely.
Grant Clitsome, D – (back surgery) out for the season.
Mark Scheifele, C - (knee) no return date set.
Al Montoya, G - (lower body) did not dress Thursday, doubtful for Saturday.
Chris Thorburn, RW – (fractured foot) out indefinitely.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Jonathan Bernier, G – (MCL) out 3 weeks.
Joffrey Lupul, LW – (lower body) doubtful for Saturday.
Detroit Red Wings
Mikael Samuelsson, RW - (shoulder) no return date set.
Dan Cleary, RW - (knee) no timetable for return.
Stephen Weiss, C – (hernia) out for the season.
Henrik Zetterberg, C - (back) no return date set.
Jonathan Ericsson, D - (finger) no return date set.
Brandon Prust, LW - (upper body) out for the season.
Dale Weise, RW – (wrist) no return date set.
Travis Moen, LW - (concussion) no return date set.
Douglas Murray, D – (suspension) will not play Saturday.
Josh Gorges, D - (hand) return will be next week.
Ray Whitney, LW – (lower body) will not play Saturday.
Erik Cole, RW - (upper body) questionable for Saturday.
Aaron Rome, D – (lower body) day-to-day, doubtful for Saturday.
Rich Peverley, RW – (heart) no timetable for return.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Mike Kostka, D – (concussion) out indefinitely.
Brian Lee, D - (knee) out for the season.
Colin Greening, LW – (lower body) no return date set.
Jared Cowen, D - (undisclosed) will not play Saturday.
Ales Hemsky, RW – (upper body) doubtful for Saturday.
Bobby Ryan, RW – (hernia) out for the season.
New York Rangers
Ryan McDonagh, D – (arm) game-time decision Saturday.
Chris Kreider, LW - (hand) out indefinitely.
New Jersey Devils
Patrik Elias, LW – (head) no return date set.
Bryce Salvador, D - (lower body) no return date set.
Ryane Clowe, LW - Clwe (head) no timetable for return.
Tim Sestito, LW - (head) did not play Thursday, doubtful for Saturday.
Jacob Josefson, C – (undisclosed) no return date set.
Jon Merrill, D - (face) did not play Friday, doubtful for Saturday.
Adam Henrique, C – (undisclosed) doubtful for Saturday.
Stephen Gionta, LW - (lower body) did not play Friday, doubtful for Saturday.
Jiri Tlusty, LW – (upper body) no return date set, day-to-day.
Andrej Sekera, D – (lower body) missed Thursday’s game, doubtful for Saturday.
Drayson Bowman, LW - (illness) questionable for Saturday.
Joni Pitkanen, D - (heel) out for the season.
Alexander Semin, LW - (illness) did not play Thursday, doubtful for Saturday.
Tomas Vokoun, G - (pelvis) no return date set.
Pascal Dupuis, RW – (knee) out for the season.
Marcel Goc, C – (foot) no return date set.
Evgeni Malkin, C – (foot) no return date set.
Kris Letang, D - (heart) no timetable for return.
Chris Conner, RW - (broken foot) no return date set.
Nino Niederreiter, LW - (upper body) did not play Thursday, doubtful for Saturday.
Mikael Granlund, C – (head) out indefinitely.
Jason Zucker, LW – (quad) out indefinitely.
Darcy Kuemper, G - (upper body) did not play Thursday, doubtful for Saturday.
Clayton Stoner, D – (lower body) no return date set.
Niklas Backstrom, G - (abdomen) out for the season.
Keith Ballard, D - (groin) no return date set.
Zach Parise, LW – (head) finished Thursday’s game, expected to play Saturday.
Josh Harding, G - (illness) no timetable for return.
Los Angeles Kings
Colin Fraser, C – (broken hand) no return date set.
Drew Doughty, D – (upper body) game-time decision Saturday.
Dwight King, LW - (undisclosed) no return date set.
Mike Santorelli, C - (shoulder) out for the season.
Zack Kassian, RW – (knee) doubtful for Saturday.
Chris Tanev, D – (finger) out for the season.
Andrew Alberts, D - (concussion) no timetable for return.
Seth Jones, D - (head) did not play Friday, doubtful for Saturday.
Paul Gaustad, C - (concussion) did not play Friday, doubtful for Saturday.
Patrick Eaves, RW - (upper body) did not play Friday, doubtful for Saturday.
San Jose Sharks
Adam Burish, RW - (hand) out for the regular season.
Tomas Hertl, LW – (knee) no return date set.
Raffi Torres, RW - (soreness) will not play.
Brent Burns, RW, SJ – Burns’ goal in a 2-1 win over the Kings on Thursday gave him 23 on the year and three in his past four games. The big former defensemen is healthy and reaping the benefits of playing on a deep team. Since becoming a power forward, Burns has been shooting the puck a lot more and averaging four shots a game in his past five contests.
Mats Zuccarello, LW, NYR – The Norwegian playmaker notched an assist against Colorado on Thursday, giving him five points in his past three games. The Rangers’ have been scoring by committee all season and Zuccarello currently leads the team with 55 points. Even under Alain Vigneault, the Rangers haven’t had an easy time scoring this season, but Zuccarello has been one of the team’s more consistent performers.
Ondrej Palat, LW, TB – He’s been playing well for the past month or so, but the rookie winger isn’t showing any signs of slowing time after scoring 16 points in games in March. He scored the Lightning’s lone goal in their 4-1 loss to Calgary, giving him three points in his past two games.
P.K. Subban, D, MTL – It’s been over a month since Subban last scored on March 3 against the Kings. He’s in the middle of a slump and Friday against Ottawa posted a minus-3 rating, the third time he’s done so this season. He’s an offensive dynamo who has the biggest impact on defense, so when he’s not scoring, it’s a bit of a concern for the Habs.
Jason Garrison, D, VAN – Like Subban, the hard-shooting Garrison is mired in a slump and has scored just three goals since January. After making a name for himself with his 16-goal season as a Florida Panther, Garrison hasn’t provided much offense for the faltering Canucks. One of the league’s hardest shooters, Garrison isn’t getting his shots on net, firing just six shots on goal in his past six games.
Eddie Lack, G, VAN – He’s struggled since Roberto Luongo was traded, but the “Stork” has gone winless in his three starts and allowed 11 goals in that span. Despite being the number one goalie in Vancouver, he’s not playing like one, and with each passing day the Canucks’ playoff hopes get slimmer and slimmer. Lack’s not exactly keeping the Canucks in contention at the moment.
Josh Bailey, LW, NYI – To win in fantasy, sometimes you have to give equal consideration to picking up the right player and picking up the right player at the right time. The ninth overall pick from 2008, Bailey’s had trouble adjusting to life in the NHL, but with five points in his past three games, he’s finally managed to put string together some offensive performances. It’s tough to say if Bailey is just on a hot streak or if he’s actually improved significantly (it’s likely the former), but teams that need a little hot streak for the final stretch drive can consider him as a temporary solution.