Wow, what a run the Chicago Blackhawks are on right now.
They have won eight straight games, have gone 12-2-2 since the All-Star break, have sole ownership of the fourth spot in the Western Conference and are the NHL's second-highest scoring team with 218 goals, one behind the Detroit Red Wings' 219.
Simply put, the Blackhawks are the NHL's best team right now. They have found their form and are finally playing like the defending Stanley Cup champions.
It's about time.
Two months ago, none of this seemed possible. Two months ago, the Blackhawks were doubting whether or not they could even make it to the postseason. Two months ago, fans were praying their team would stop talking about playing better and actually start playing better.
Now it looks like the Blackhawks could have home-ice advantage in the first round.
The Blackhawks currently sit fourth in the Western Conference with 80 points and 16 games remaining.
A few months ago, coach Joel Quenneville estimated that the Blackhawks would need 95 points to get into the playoffs. That means, theoretically, the Blackhawks could go 8-8 in their last 16 games and still be in the playoffs.
But I think the Blackhawks will do a bit better than just 8-8.
Considering how guys like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford have all elevated their games, it's hard to imagine the Blackhawks finishing the season with only 96 points.
I don't want to appear overly optimistic, but I think the Blackhawks should break the 100-point mark.
The big question is: Can fans stop worrying about the Blackhawks not being in the playoffs? For most of the season, fans have been pulling out their hair with worry, not wanting to be one of the few teams in recent history to not make the playoffs the year after winning the Stanley Cup.
My answer for fans would be: To an extent, you can stop worrying.
No team below the Blackhawks in the standings has a significant games-in-hand advantage or are playing well enough to make me worry about the Blackhawks' position.
At this point, I don't see the Blackhawks falling out of playoff contention unless they absolutely tank (knock on wood), but I don't think that's very likely, considering how much confidence they must have right now.
The Blackhawks have been simply dominant since February began and have done nothing but improve. They have arguably the best offense in the league right now, averaging almost four goals per game in their previous 16 games.
How many of their remaining sixteen games do the Blackhawks need to win in order to safely secure a playoff spot?
However, the Blackhawks still need to be wary. They haven't captured anything yet. They need to sustain the effort and strong play that has given them eight straight wins and make sure they give 60-minute efforts on a nightly basis, which has still been a concern for the Blackhawks even during this stretch.
But fans, no longer do you need to be checking the NHL scoreboard hoping that this team won or that team lost in order to help the Blackhawks in the standings, which I know a lot of you did. As of right now, they're in the playoffs and that shouldn't change.
The Blackhawks shouldn't necessarily clinch a playoff spot until perhaps the last week or two of the season, but how many wins do they need in their last 16 to secure a spot and remain safely in the top eight?
I don't think the Blackhawks need to remain hot to stay in the top eight, but they can't play below .500, which they shouldn't. They should start giving Marty Turco more starts to help his confidence and rest Corey Crawford for the playoffs, as well as roll four lines every game and spread out the ice time as best as possible.
My prediction is the Blackhawks will go 10-4-2 in their last 16 games to finish with 104 points, good enough for fourth in the Western Conference.