It’s a traditional benchmark in the NHL: Christmas break.
The league shuts down every year on Dec. 24 and 25. No practice, no games. The Chicago Blackhawks were lucky. They played their final contest Wednesday night. They’ll get an extra day to celebrate their three-game winning streak.
With no games to discuss, talk reverts to the standings at this time of year. Usually, the division and conferences are taking shape and the Christmas break is a good indicator of which teams will make the playoffs.
Since the lockout in 2005, an average of six of the top eight teams in the standings at Christmas went on to make the playoffs, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Only once, in the 2006-2007 season, did less than six of the top eight teams at Christmas make the postseason. In the East that year, five of eight made it.
But never have the top eight teams at the break made the playoffs, so there is always a team or two dropping out and one or two taking their place. This year that trend might not hold up -- there might be more.
“Christmas, game 41, New Years, all-star games, you can look at all different [benchmarks],” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “To me, I look every day. Every day you’re looking at what it’s going to take and the three-point games. We are in the mix right now of a bunch of teams in a similar state. How that sorts itself out, I don’t know if there is going to be drop-off date at all.”
In other words, there are no benchmarks when the standings are so tight. Before Thursday's games, four points separated fifth to 12th in the Western Conference.
“You look at it now, and it’s just amazing how tight it is,” Fernando Pisani said. “How close everybody is in the standings. I don’t think I’ve seen it like this in a long time, you know from like second on down to 13th. Every point matters and every game matters. That’s why it’s exciting to play, and I’m sure it’s exciting for the fans to watch.”
Though the Hawks have played more games than every team in the conference save one, they sit in a much better position at 19-14-3 than they did a week ago. Two bad losses to the Colorado Avalanche began a new round of questioning in the direction of the defense.
But the ensuing three games proved the Avalanche letdown was more a blip than a major scare, though there have been more blips, obviously, this year, than a season ago. Colorado, with their speed, might simply be a bad matchup.
It doesn’t hurt the Hawks only gave the next three opponents a total of three power-play attempts in nine periods of hockey. That more than anything else has led to their current success, coming after several of those blips.
“I wouldn’t say it’s surprising,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “We knew we were going to have a tough season ahead of us. With what happened last year and every team wanting to prove themselves against us, we knew it would be a tough road. Early on, we didn’t help ourselves out. Last year we were a couple points ahead of the pack and right now we are in the middle of it so it’s tough.”
One reason to be optimistic is in net. Corey Crawford gets better and more confident with every passing day. He’s 10-1-1 over his past 12 starts. Take that in for a moment. Those are great numbers. Without acknowledging the variables -- like if he was ready from Day 1 -- it wouldn’t be a stretch to say if he was in net from the start of the season, the Hawks would have several more wins. Not seven or eight, but a few. A few makes a big difference.
The addition of veteran Ryan Johnson might prove to be a bigger pick-up than first thought. He has a defensive mind-set and doesn’t need much schooling, having played for Quenneville in St. Louis. His addition might allow Patrick Sharp to stay at wing for a lengthy period of time. The Hawks are 3-0 since he joined the team.
They’re also 3-0 with Brian Campbell leading them in minutes played in each of those games. Plenty of that has to do with the few penalties the Hawks have taken, and it’s allowed Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook a breather. And because of it, the two have played better. In fact, can you remember a 5-on-5 sequence in the last three games where Keith and Seabrook struggled? And that’s against three quality opponents. Against Colorado it seemed like all they did was struggle, but they played much bigger minutes.
It’s not about where you are at Christmas, more like Easter, especially for the defending champs.
“I don’t think we can be happy or satisfied,” Sharp said. “There are a lot of positives from what we’ve done so far this year, but we know we need to get better every week and every game.”
To that point, earlier in the season it seemed like the Hawks would take one step forward followed by two steps back. Now, it’s the other way around. And though Christmas is a benchmark, there is still plenty of time to keep improving.
Some Hawks were staying in town for the holidays, and others were headed out. Niklas Hjalmarsson is staying and has family coming in from Sweden. “They were here when I was in Rockford,” he said. “They might have a little more fun being in Chicago than Rockford.”
Some players said they’ve seen the HBO show on the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. One scene involved a prank where some Penguins took all the furniture and bedding out of a couple of younger player’s hotel rooms and set it up in the hallway. Noted Hawks prankster Sharp saw the episode and analyzed the prank. “It seems like too much effort for me, getting the whole room out there,” Sharp said. “It was pretty good. I have to give those guys credit. It was funny watching that. I never even thought about it. It just seems like way too much effort.”
The season debut of Blackhawks TV will air on Comcast SportsNet at 7 p.m. on Christmas. The episode goes behind the scenes with the Hawks, including a segment on the making of the 2010 Championship rings.