(Photo: NHL YouTube)

The Chicago Blackhawks clinched a playoff berth last Thursday, but much like that tough win, the team doesn’t look like one on a postseason mission.

Instead of playing with fervor, they often seem to scrape by when they do find ways to win. Sure, the February loss of then-league-points-leader Patrick Kane was a major blow to the team. With or without him, though, the Hawks haven’t been an authoritative leader this season. Earning a 48-25-6 record, to be fair, they haven’t exactly been a disappointment, either.

Somehow, over the past few years, we fans have become spoiled by the team’s ability to dominate in what’s become an increasingly competitive conference. In 2013, a streak meant a record-breaking number of games without a regulation loss–24. This season, the best streak was eight consecutive wins at the end of November and early December. (So, pardon us if we got our hopes up again.)

Players, however, have been streaky. They were able to rely pretty heavily on Kane, with his 64 points in 61 games pre-injury–especially in his line with Brad Richards (37 points in 76 games with a dry spell in March) and Kris Versteeg (34 points in 58 games, but also coming off a 16-game scoring drought). Richards will miss the final three games of the regular season with an upper-body injury.

Fortunately, Marian Hossa has been an offensive force since February 8–with 26 points in those 27 games. Captain Jonathan Toews now has 66 points in 79 games, with 24 points in the last 27 games. Brandon Saad has 18 points during that time.

And, Patrick Sharp has nine points in the 12 games since March 14. He has 41 points in the 65 games he’s played this season. Young forward Teuvo Teravainen has had three points in the last five games.

Even more fortunately, goaltenders Corey Crawford and Scott Darling have been beyond impressive. Starting netminder Crawford has a .924 save percentage and a 2.28 goals-against average in 55 games. Darling has a .939 save percentage and 1.86 goals-against average in 13 games this season including a shutout March 18.

And then there’s the ebbs to the flows.

Goaltending has had to be exceptional because defense has not been particularly consistent or productive. The team lets an average of 30.4 shots per game by and defense is lacking depth with no consistently solid pairings. While defensive star Duncan Keith is a plus-13 with 45 points in 78 games, Brent Seabrook is a minus-four in 79 games. He has, however, contributed 31 points. Niklas Hjalmarsson is an impressive plus-27 with 18 points in 79 games and Johnny Oduya is a plus-five with 10 points in 73 outings.

On the contrary, Michal Rozsival has 11 points and is a minus-one in 62 games. He’s seen far more playing time than David Rundblad, who has 14 points and is a plus-16 in the 46 games he’s hit the ice. Kimmo Timonen, who is day-to-day with an upper body injury suffered against the St. Louis Blues Sunday, is a minus-three with zero points in 16 games since he was traded. The newly-signed Michael Paliota is yet to hit the ice.

The Blackhawks also have a disappointing power play at only 17.8 percent. Surprisingly, though, they’re not alone among top teams with that problem–the first place Rangers‘ PP percentage is at 17.1, the Predators are 16.3 and the Ducks are at 16 percent.

Clinching versus the Canucks

In a 3-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks April 2, the Blackhawks clinched their seventh-consecutive playoff berth. The team hasn’t had such a run since 1991-1997.

The Hawks led in shots 38-36.

Teravainen (helped by Marcus Kruger and Andrew Desjardins), Toews (with assists from Hossa and Oduya), and Kruger scored for Chicago, while Derek Dorsett tallied the lone goal for Vancouver.

Crawford made 36 saves while Eddie Lack made 35.

Barely Beating Buffalo

Toews’ last-minute heroics edged the Hawks over the last-place Sabres in Buffalo last Friday.

Chicago came out hot–with two goals in the first period before their bothersome trend of second period slumping.

Keith delivered the first blow 2:16 after puck-drop with a shot set up by Saad and Shaw.

A little over six minutes later, Sharp skirted a check and scored from the middle after Richards brought the puck to the zone and Rundblad pushed it back to the shooter.

In the Hawks’ slow second period, Buffalo took the lead in shots, 16-12.

Marcus Foligno (assisted by Rasmus Ristolainen) scored with just under seven minutes left in the second by rebounding the puck in a busy net-front.

In the third, Johan Larsson scored a power play goal to tie the game at 5:29 into the third with a tic-tac-tip-in-goal from Tyler Ennis to a shot by Ristolainen and Larsson’s deflection.

About seven minutes later, Foligno gave the Sabres the lead by sticking with a bouncing puck and getting it past the goal line. Brian Gionta and Ristolainen were credited with the assists.

In the last two minutes of the game, Toews tallied two goals for the win.

Shaw pushed a rebound over to Toews to tie the score with 1:43 remaining.

With 56 seconds remaining, Hossa pushed the puck up the boards, Saad deked it at the hash marks and dropped it back to Toews who fired it in the net for the win.

The shots favored the Sabres 38-36, as did hits, 20-7.

Beaten by the Blues

The St. Louis Blues out-everything’d Chicago Sunday, except for shots–which the Hawks led by a 39-33 margin. Counting the 24 shots St. Louis blocked versus eight Hawks’ blocks–that’s a lot of attempts not making it in the net.

The Blues won 2-1 going one-for-three in the power play (Chicago was 0/2), winning 29 faceoffs to the Hawks’ 26 and outhitting Chicago 50 to 27.

It was a gritty, physical game as these matchups tend to be.

Versteeg tallied first, a little over five minutes after puck-drop, when Hossa skated deep in to the net then dished the puck across the front for Versteeg to slap it in.

But, the second period would haunt the Hawks, when first a bad penalty by Rozsival led to a power play goal.

Captain David Backes pushed the puck behind Crawford on the man-advantage after Jaden Schwartz and Kevin Shattenkirk set up a chaotic scene in front of the net.

Then, Olli Jokinen sealed the deal screening the net and tapping in the goal set up by Ty Rattie and Alex Pietrangelo.

Neither team scored in the third.

Rather than sticking to their game of finesse, Chicago tried to match the force of St. Louis and failed miserably. The Blues are ranked sixth in minor penalties and ninth in majors, while the Blackhawks are 28th and 26th, respectively.

Not only did the Blackhawks lose the game, they also lost Richards and Timonen.

What’s next?

On the bright side, Kane has been practicing and the team is optimistic he could make a return before the projected May-June date.

The Blackhawks have three more games before playoffs begin. Their last home game is at 7:30 p.m.  CT tonight hosting the Minnesota Wild. The Wild would clinch a playoff spot with a win.

Kyle Baun will debut in Richards’ absence.

“I think it’s always fun to see a young guy like that get a chance and be excited to play,” Toews said. “It’s just a couple of games–good preparation for whatever might be to come for those young guys. Obviously they’ve had great careers and deserve a chance to be here.”

On Thursday, the Blackhawks head to St. Louis for a 7:00 p.m. CT game. Then they’ll finish the regular season with an 8:00 p.m. CT start in Colorado against the Avalanche Saturday.

Carly Mullady grew up needing to know more about icing than its deliciousness on cupcakes. She's the lone daughter of four children, with a father who was among the last cut from the Midwest tryouts for the 1980 Miracle on Ice Olympic team. And she knows very little matches the thrill that happens from puck-drop to handshakes. A rink didn’t return to her hometown until she was gone, but she’s been able to see two younger brothers on the ice. She's their feistiest fan. Her other hockey loyalty lies with the Blackhawks--whether it's meant seeing games for $8 with student IDs when the Madhouse didn’t have much of a temper at all, or dancing to Chelsea Dagger at standing room only--there’s something magical about a roaring anthem, the Indianhead sweater, and the Original Six. A former journalist and current editor, she carries a penchant for excitement (and maybe even fighting) with a resume that includes working for Chicago-area newspapers, and television, including The Jerry Springer Show, as well as NBCUniversal in New York. After East Coast living and a return to the Chicago area, the new Mrs. is giving Graceland a go with her Southern Gent, who now shares her adoration of the game, and their rescue dog, Doc Holliday. Other interests include Cubs, Bears, Illini, Crimson Tide, Pumpkin Spice Lattes, baking a mean pineapple upside-down cake, Kate Spade accessories, and a properly coordinated cardigan for every ensemble.


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