When the NHL put its season on pause March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Blackhawks were six points out of the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference but had four teams to jump to get there. Three teams above them also had one game in hand.
The Blackhawks' playoff hopes were slipping away, but they were given new life when the league announced a 24-team Return to Play plan if and when hockey returns, subject to an overall agreement by the NHL and NHL Players' Association and provided medical and safety conditions allow. It may not be until August before we actually get hockey, which would mean players would go more than three and a half months without participating in any sort of game action.
The 24-team format certainly favors a team like the Blackhawks, who have championship pedigree with players like Corey Crawford, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews. But the layoff could also play to their favor because of their youth, which includes players like Adam Boqvist, Kirby Dach and Alex DeBrincat, among others, not to mention the fact they could be getting some key players like Calvin de Haan back from injury.
"With the layoff, I think it benefits us," said head coach Jeremy Colliton, who noted the Blackhawks had eight players on entry-level contracts who played in 20-plus games, five of whom finished top-10 on the team in scoring. "We have some older guys, but I'd say overall we're a young team. ... A lot of guys got a lot of opportunity this year and they developed as the season went on. They're going to be a few months older now and they've had a chance to kind of settle into their year and reflect on it and I think they're going to come back with even more motivation and jam to take that next step in their development and that's only going to help our team."
The Blackhawks, over the last few years, have found themselves trying to bridge the gap between the older players and younger players. Although the atmosphere will be different without fans, the postseason experience will be crucial for the development of those younger players, which could pay dividends in the long run.
In the short term, the Blackhawks still want to take advantage of this newfound opportunity. They're being put on an equal playing field with eight other teams in the West when they probably didn't deserve it.
And the hunger will be evident in players like Crawford, Kane, Keith and Toews, who haven't tasted the postseason in three years after being accustomed to going on deep runs since the start of their NHL careers.
"We do have some older guys, they've got that experience of winning and what it takes, and I think they're going to be reenergized being this close, being in this atmosphere of playing games that really mean something," Colliton said. "And I expect they're going to find a different level to their game and that's going to be a benefit to us as well, so there's a bunch of positives that we're going to take out of this time."
Why Blackhawks believe long layoff could play in their favor originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago