by PuckStopsHere on 03/09/13 at 03:17 AM ET
The Chicago Blackhawks impressive streak of 24 games without a regulation loss is over. This is exactly half of the lockout shortened season. During the streak they had 21 wins and 3 losses but each loss was not in regulation. This is basically equivalent to an undefeated streak in the days before overtime and shootouts. Those games were recorded as ties in those days. Today they are regulation tie losses.
Thus the comparison for the Blackhawks for the longest such streak is the 1979/80 Philadelphia Flyers. They had a 35 game undefeated streak. During that streak they had 25 wins and 10 ties. Today those ties would be regulation tie losses, overtime wins and shootout wins.
Chicago's streak ending loss was not particularly impressive. It was a 6-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. The win moved the Avs out of a tie for last place in the West Conference. It's neither the close game nor the tough opponent that one might expect to end such an impressive streak.
This streak clearly puts Chicago in first place in the NHL. So the obvious question to ask is just how impressive is this team. We can learn a bit from history to answer that question. The 1980 Philadelphia Flyers did not win the Stanley Cup. They went to the finals that year and lost to the New York Islanders. The team never did win the cup. They had last won five years earlier but the franchise has not won again since. Thus having an even longer undefeated streak than Chicago had did not give them a cup win, so it does not guarantee one for the Hawks.
I would pick Chicago as the best team in the West Conference - in fact I did before the season began. That makes them the most likely team to represent the West Conference in the Stanley Cup finals but nothing is certain. Given the unbalanced travel between conferences this season where the West Conference represents four time zones among which the teams play and the East Conference, aside from Winnipeg, is entirely based in the Eastern time zone do not meet until the Stanley Cup finals, the East Conference has an edge in the Stanley Cup finals. In 1995 when this format was last used, the travel-rested New Jersey Devils swept the superior Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals. Thus if I had to pick one team as the most likely club to win the Stanley Cup this year it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins. I see them as the most talented East Conference team. That said, I don't see Pittsburgh as being close to an odds on (50% or better) favorite.
I don't see Chicago as an elite team this year. While they do have a good core with four Hall of Fame track talents in Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa they do not have reliable elite goaltending. Corey Crawford is not one of the top goalies in the NHL. I say that despite the fact he would be in the Vezina Trophy race if the season ended right now. I love picking award leaders based on limited play (and 24 games is a small sample size) but I know that it is a spurious pursuit that leads to picking a lot of people as award leaders who do not come close to winning that award after a full season is completed. In fact part of the reason I make these picks is to have a dataset to see just how soon eventual award winners emerge and how long into the season pretender candidates can still look like leaders.
If I had to pick the top five or so goalies in the NHL today Corey Crawford would not get serious consideration. In fact despite the fact Canada has a weak group of goalies with no clear leaders poised for the 2014 Olympic Team I wouldn't seriously consider Crawford to be a candidate to be one of the three goalies on the team. Goaltending is terribly important to a team and Chicago doesn't have it. When push comes to shove it is a weakness for the team that has looked above average (and even makes Crawford a name in the Vezina race) because of a strong core in front of him.
More than likely the second half for Chicago won't be as strong as the first half as it is hard to be that good. They have taken a hit as Patrick Sharp, a core forward, could miss a month with a shoulder injury.
The Chicago Blackhawks are clearly a good team. Their 24 game undefeated streak shows that. It isn't enough to convince me that they are the best team in the league. Streaks happen. They take a lot of luck and a lot of skill to last as long as this one. Likely there will be several losses in regulation before the season is through. A Stanley Cup win is certainly not a given. This isn't an elite team. There probably isn't one in the league. It will be interesting to see how strong the Hawks end to the season is. Their start was outstanding. I think it's a first act that will be extremely hard to match.
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