Blackhawks stumble into playoffs

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Duncan Keith is escorted off the ice after high sticking Wild's Charlie Coyle (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn)

The regular season has been a bumpy ride for the Chicago Blackhawks; but the last month has been their biggest struggle by far. March through early April is the worst time for NHL teams to be in a rut, but the Blackhawks are experiencing this right now.

Through the month of March, the Blackhawks have gone 5-6-2. The Blackhawks, with 97 points, trail the Dallas Stars who have 105 points and St. Louis Blues who have 101 points in the Western Conference; with the Nashville Predators only six points behind them with 91 points. The Blackhawks need to get back to their winning ways if they want to be successful in the playoffs.

Throughout the season the Blackhawks have struggled on the powerplay and penalty kill, two important facets of the game that teams need to be successful at come playoff time.

“You can’t go into the playoffs without your penalty kill,” said Eddie Olczyk, Blackhawks television analyst. “You can go in with a weak power play, but you need to be able to kill important penalties because that is how you lose games in the postseason.”

The Blackhawks powerplay this season hasn’t been the best, they sit 6th in the league with a 21.5 percentage rate for the season, according to NHL.com. The penalty kill on the other hand has had its ups and downs throughout the season, but as of late is beginning to look up. The penalty kill sits 24th in the league at a percentage of 79.5, only six spots away from the the worst penalty kill in the league which is occupied by the Calgary Flames.

One reason for the lackluster PK this year is injuries.  Back on December 17th, forward Marcus Kruger left the game against the Edmonton Oilers with a dislocated left wrist. After the successful surgery the following day, team doctor Michael Terry said, “Kruger should be able to return to hockey activities in four months.”

Kruger is a crucial part of the penalty kill; when he went down the Blackhawks lost a key piece to their PK strategy. Kruger does a lot of the little things that go unrecognized, but are still important to a successful penalty kill. After missing 41 games in the regular season, Kruger returned to game action on March 26th versus the Calgary Flames.

With playoffs only a week away, the Blackhawks have to find a way to play without one of their top defensemen. During the first period of last Tuesday’s game against the Minnesota Wild, Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith given a five-minute major a match penalty and was ejected from the game for high sticking the Wild’s Charlie Coyle. On Friday before Chicago’s match up with the Winnipeg Jets, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety released that Keith would be suspended for six games; meaning the remaining five games of the regular season and the first game of the postseason.

“It’s a challenge no doubt,” said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews to reporters after practice in Winnipeg. “But when we get those guys [Keith, Hossa, Crawford] back we’ll be a better force. We’ve always done a good job at playing without guys like that in our lineup.”

Blackhawks are also without forward Andrew Shaw who is day-to-day with an upper-body injury he sustained during last night’s 5-4 victory against the Winnipeg Jets.