With 64 games left, Blackhawks’ path to playoff contention looks plausible but difficultBen Popeon November 22, 2021 at 9:35 pm

The Blackhawks have won five of their last six games, but need to keep winning for months to have a chance. | AP Photos

The Hawks’ recent upswing has lifted them out of the NHL’s basement, but they’d need to consistently play like a top-10 team for months to climb into the playoffs.

CALGARY, Alberta — The Blackhawks are only 18 games into their 82-game schedule.

Considering all that has happened already — the sexual assault scandal and coaching change and franchise-worst start and recent upswing — seeing those numbers written down almost boggles the mind. But indeed, the Hawks are less than a quarter of the way through the 2021-22 season.

The remainder of it, however, should be more limited to typical on-ice highs and lows. The overwhelming off-ice tumult that has headlined the Hawks’ fall, literally and figuratively, has hopefully eased for the time being.

And that raises a crucial question, the answer to which will determine just how monotonous the 64 remaining games prove to be: Can the Hawks still make the playoffs?

Of course, the mathematical solution is yes, easily. The Predators entered Monday holding the Western Conference’s final wild-card spot with 19 points; the Hawks entered Monday, an off-day before Tuesday’s matchup against the Flames, with 14 points. Looking at it that way, the five-point deficit seems extremely surmountable.

But history shows it won’t be an easy task. Over the last six full seasons, 37 teams have entered Nov. 22 of a given year five or more points out of a playoff spot. Only four eventually made the playoffs.

Besides, the standings are largely irrelevant this early on. With so many months to go, pacing matters more.

The final playoff cutoff line in the West has been, on average, 93 points over those past six full seasons. Although the West’s current projected cutoff this season is 96.5 points — set by the Blues, the eighth-place team based on points percentage — that’ll likely regress over time.

For the Hawks to reach 93 points, they’d need to earn 79 points in their remaining 64 games. That’d require a record of roughly 36-21-7 — give or take a few wins and overtime losses — the rest of the way.

That’s certainly doable, but it’d require the Hawks to play like a well-above-average team. Last season, 12 teams finished their 56-game season at or above that pace. In 2019-20, when the league had more parity, only nine teams hit 79 points through their first 64 games (and only five exceeded 81 points). Some very talented rosters, including the Golden Knights, did not.

So can the Hawks play like a top-10 team consistently from now through April? They wouldn’t need to exactly keep up their 5-1-0 record under interim coach Derek King, but they’d need to keep winning more than losing for a very long time.

They’d also need to actually improve quite a bit. Strong goaltending has predominantly fueled their recent success, and should remain a strength all season, but the Hawks are doomed if their 44.9% even-strength scoring chance ratio — fourth-worst in the NHL — continues. Even in six games under King, their ratio is 46.8%, barely an improvement.

At least there’s belief in the Hawks’ dressing room now, though. That’s prerequisite ingredient No. 1 for this theoretical season-long rally.

“You can break it down to each zone and how we’re playing with all our systems and all that,” King said Sunday. “But these guys are just feeling good about themselves. They’re getting their confidence back. They’re not as fragile as when I got here. It’s nice, but it’s still a journey. We’re just going to keep picking away, day by day.”

The Hawks’ stingy third period — after two horrendous periods — in Sunday’s 1-0 win excellently demonstrated that resilience.

“They’re gradually getting out of that sense of, when things go wrong, it’s depressing,” King said. “Now it’s, ‘Things go wrong. We’re OK. Hold the fort and we’ll get out of it.’ That’s that confidence coming back.”

If the Hawks can somehow maintain that confidence — in spite of hockey’s inevitable volatility — for 64 games, it might give them an outside shot. But that won’t be easy.

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