Six Flags could have sponsored the Chicago Blackhawks month of March, but now that the dust has settled there is reason for hope.
The Hawks ended March with a 6-7-2 record that, at times, felt more like a 0-15-0 tailspin. Cristobal Huet formally lost the gig as the Hawks top netminder to rookie Antti Niemi, Duncan Keith staggered to a -9 month, and Tomas Kopecky scored more goals, five, than Patrick Kane, three, despite playing four fewer games.
The cause for concern? There’s plenty.
The Blackhawks allowed 3.20 goals per game, which ranks in the bottom third of the NHL in March. The Hawks also scored only eight goals on 56 power plays of their own, a miserable 14.2 percent converted. That number ranked in the bottom seven in the league for the month.
A total of 65 players appeared between the pipes for NHL teams in March. Huet’s 4.24 goals against ranked 63rd overall. He was bad. Really bad.
Only four players in the NHL had a worse plus-minus rating in March than Keith. Kris Versteeg, who picked up a +1 on Wednesday night, ended the month at -8 overall. Jonathan Toews was -4 and Kane was -5 on the month as well.
Brian Campbell was lost on March 14 to a broken collarbone and isn’t expected back until, at best, the second round of the playoffs (if at all this season). Including the Washington game in which Campbell was hurt, the Blackhawks are 3-4-2 since Campbell’s injury.
Brent Seabrook also missed two full games after being hit by James Wisniewski on March 17 as well. Because the Hawks were dealing with losing two of their top four blue liners in one week, Nick Boynton was recalled and Dustin Byfuglien was moved back to defense for the first time in almost two full seasons. Byfuglien performed admirably on defense, but suffered a -8 rating in March as well.
Call in your life insurance! Sell the house! The world is ending!
Not so fast, fans. Looking deeper into the numbers, there is some reason to hope.
Niemi, despite a couple rough games, ended the month with strong overall numbers. He would post three shutouts in 11 games (nine starts), earn a .906 save percentage and a 2.42 goals against average with a 4-3-2 record. His goals against ranked in the top third of the NHL, and his three shutouts ranked second in the league behind only Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, who had four.
By comparison, San Jose’s netminder, Evgeni Nabokov, was 6-7-0 with a .889 save percentage and a 3.24 goals against average with only one shutout.
In 15 games in the month, the Blackhawks scored as many goals as they allowed: 48. The 3.20 goals per game the Blackhawks scored in March ranked sixth in the NHL. The Blackhawks also ranked in the top 10 in the league in penalty kills, allowing only five goals on 38 power plays in the month (86.8% PK).
Despite the patches of misery, the Hawks haven’t been nearly as streaky as the conference-leading Sharks. San Jose had streaks of three wins, six losses, and four wins in a row in March; the Blackhawks ended their longest losing streak of the season on Wednesday night at three games.
After a month that raised more questions than an elite team should have to answer in April, the Blackhawks still stand with the second-most points in the Western Conference (101) and trail the Sharks for the top spot by just three with a game in-hand. The Hawks are also five points ahead of the Vancouver Canucks for the third spot in the conference.
With Nashville and Detroit streaking into the fifth and sixth playoff spots (as it stands after March 31), respectively, the Blackhawks could face the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, or Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs.