There was a time in the recent past when it was accepted knowledge that the Chicago Blackhawks were the team to fear in the NHL, the defending champions who looked just as unstoppable this season as they did during the 48-game campaign and Stanley Cup run a year ago.
Yet something has changed in Chicago; the Blackhawks have slipped to third in the Central Division and fifth in the Western Conference as a result of a second-half dip. Once a Presidents' Trophy contender, the Blackhawks find themselves in a fight to capture home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Is there a reason to be worried in Chicago? Will the Blackhawks be able to recapture the magic that made them so dominant during the 2013 calendar year?
It looks like after their 4-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday night, the Blackhawks are back.
From the start of the 2013 regular season until December of this season, playoffs included, the Chicago Blackhawks were 80-21-12; over their past 26 games since the calendar flipped to January, they are an unimpressive 11-8-7.
To understand what the Blackhawks have been going through, it's best to start by looking at a time when nothing was going wrong for them. For 113 games, the Blackhawks were murdering teams with the proficiency and gruesomeness of The Yellow King.
|Time period||Fenwick For||Fenwick Against||Fenwick %||W-L Record|
|2013 regular season||996||776||56.2||36-7-5|
ExtraSkater.com (Close 5-on-5)
As you can see in that chart, the Blackhawks haven't exactly sagged in the area of Fenwick close, a strong indicator of how well a team is playing. A Fenwick close of 54.5 percent is good for fourth in the NHL this season, yet they've only won 11 of 26 as the St. Louis Blues have pulled away in the division. When a team is playing that well and losing as often as the Blackhawks, some bad puck luck is without question a contributing factor.
Jonathan Willis delved into the problems with Patrick Kane, who has six goals in his past 25 games after scoring 23 goals in his first 42 games. Kane's struggles embody the scoring problems of the Blackhawks as a whole, as the team has 71 goals in its past 26 games. That's an average of 2.73 per game from a team that was scoring 3.69 per game before this drought began.
Teams as good as the Blackhawks don't just lose an entire goal per game for almost three months without some bad luck playing a role.
The Blackhawks' on-ice five-on-five shooting percentage in close situations over the past 25 games is 6.2 percent (30 goals on 486 shots); only four teams have a worse shooting percentage this season. That's the definition of poor puck luck for a skilled team that is controlling the play when games are close.
What about the goaltending, which many consider the weak link on a championship contender? Corey Crawford is 26-12-10 this season with a 2.26 GAA and slightly above-average .918 save percentage. But Crawford's even-strength save percentage this season has been very good; at .929, he ranks seventh among goaltenders to make at least 35 starts.
How has he done since January? He's been even better than he was during the first half of the season, as he possesses a .929 save percentage in all situations. There are times when it's OK to point at Crawford and use him as the scapegoat for the Blackhawks' shortcomings, but that would be unfair for assessing the problems over this 26-game stretch.
Numbers aside, there's also the human element to consider. The Blackhawks have one of the NHL's most revered captains in Jonathan Toews along with veteran leaders Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, two-time Stanley Cup champions all of them. But they're also human beings who can fall prey to the trappings of success, namely complacency.
In a 5-3 road win against the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 3, the Blackhawks went through the motions for 40 minutes, then flipped a switch to start the third period. Brandon Saad, Sharp and Hossa each scored goals in the first 5:34 of the final period to take a 4-1 lead before nearly giving it all back in a 5-3 victory.
It's the type of win that can breed bad habits in even the best of teams; they played well for about seven minutes out of 60 and weren't punished for it. The Blackhawks went on to lose their next three games (and four of five) and haven't really found their game consistently ever since.
How far will the Blackhawks go in the playoffs?
A small slip like the one the Blackhawks are experiencing is enough to cause problems in the highly competitive Western Conference. Since Jan. 1, the Avalanche and Sharks have gone 20-8-1, the Blues have gone 19-7-2 and the Ducks have gone 16-7-2. While the Blackhawks have taken their foot off the accelerator, the other Western powers have kept it floored and overtaken the middling defending champions.
There's some good news on the injury front for the Blackhawks, who got Marian Hossa back from an upper-body injury Sunday after a two-week absence. He should make a difference over the final month of the season, as he delivered a goal and two assists Sunday night against the Red Wings.
Things haven't been all that great in Chicago in 2014, but all signs point to them having the ability to turn it around before the start of the playoffs. It's probably too late to catch the Blues, but they should be able to secure second place in the division and a home date with the Avalanche when the playoffs begin.
The Blackhawks are having problems right now, but they're problems rich people have when a catering company has to cancel the morning of your big yacht regatta and the au pair comes down with the flu three hours later. They're the type of problems almost everyone would like to have.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.