(Photo: Sportsnet Canada Youtube)

The Chicago Blackhawks have gone from celebrating to streaking to slumping this season–and, though it would’ve been hard to guess several weeks ago, they’re in a rocking boat as playoffs approach.

Despite winning just five games of 13 in March (with two OT losses), they sit at third in the division with the Nashville Predators close behind and the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche fighting for Wild Card spots. Though they clinched a playoff berth with their March 27th 3-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks, the following 4-1 loss to the Wild March 29 set them six points away from the division lead–a spot they held a few weeks ago. They’re also only six points ahead of the Preds, who clinched Friday, and 10 points ahead of the Wild.

March Madness

Defenseman Duncan Keith will be out the remainder of the regular season and the first playoff game after an ugly retaliatory high-stick against Wild forward Charlie Coyle.

It happened about halfway through the first period in the particularly chippy March 29 game, on the heels of an uncalled hit into the boards and high-stick to the head followed by an upending “slewsticking” trip and shove that knocked Keith onto his back in the Hawks’ offensive zone.

Then, Keith responded not by standing and squaring off with Coyle, but by swinging his stick from his spot on the ice and smacking the center in the face.

He earned the team a five minute penalty and himself a game misconduct exit–putting extra pressure on an already-struggling Blackhawks defense.

And, Keith sat out Friday’s game against the Jets following his hearing with the Department of Player Safety, where he was given a six-game suspension: the rest of the regular season and one playoff game (generally considered an equivalent of two-to-three regular season games).

Keith talked to reporters Saturday, where he said he won’t be appealing the league’s punishment.

There’s no doubt the reigning Norris Trophy holder and major logger of minutes for the Blackhawks plays hard and with intensity.

“At the end of the day, I try to leave it on the ice,” Keith told media. “I’m not really focused on what I’m trying to leave out there as far as a reputation. I think everybody wants to have a reputation as a clean, honest player.

“There’s a line and a limit. It’s just being smarter and knowing that.”

He wasn’t smart. He crossed the line. He went beyond the limit. He’s aware and says he’s committed to change. Reporters asked if he could keep his temper in check for the sake of himself and his teammates.

“Well, I think I’m going to have to,” he said. “It’s just knowing that line. I’m a competitive person, but I don’t think that’s something that I can’t stop. I think I can stop that.”

Keith also clarified to media that he had, in fact, apologized to Coyle.

“I called and left a message, and he called me back, so I was appreciative of that,” Keith said. “It shows a lot on his part and the type of guy he is. That’s about it. They’ve got a good team and they’re playing well. I wished him the best after.”

Coyle responded to questions about the suspension.

“That’s for the league to decide. And like I said before, I think they do a good job of that,” he said. “So if that’s what they think, then that’s good.”

 

What’s ahead?

Just one season after Rocky Wirtz took over, giving fans television access to home games and, essentially, their team back again, the Blackhawks started what’s become an eight-year hustle–landing three Stanley Cups in the process. This year’s playoff run will start with a few challenges.

The Blackhawks face the Bruins, Coyotes, Blues, and Blue Jackets before the playoffs begin. Forward Andrew Shaw left Friday’s game early with an upper-body injury and has been listed as day-to-day. He’ll be out for Sunday’s game against the Bruins.

Marian Hossa was out due to illness following the March 29 Wild game, but is expected back in the lineup Sunday.

Goaltender Corey Crawford has been out of the lineup since an upper-body injury March 17. He started individual practice drills Saturday and Coach Joel Quenneville told media he’s hopeful the netminder will see the lineup again before playoffs.

Their first postseason game will be without defenseman Keith, but hopefully the Hawks will be able to stand strong with the rest of the lineup.

“We’ve got a lot of great defensemen and we’ve got a good team in here,” Keith said. “We’ve had experience, whether it was missing forwards, defensemen, goalies–guys pick up the slack. Whoever we play in the playoffs, it’s going to be a tough series and every game’s going to be hard-fought. I’ll be excited to come back for Game 2.”

Former Blackhawk-turned Thrasher/Jet-turned Blackhawk again Andrew Ladd has made a substantial addition to the lineup recently. He’s had nine points in the 15 games since leaving his captaincy in Winnipeg to re-join the Blackhawks.

Since he left his captaincy at Winnipeg 13 games ago, he’s had nine points–six goals and three assists. In recent wins against Calgary and Vancouver, he had three goals–one the game-winner–contributing to the valuable playoff berth-clinching points.

“Coming back here, that was the most exciting thing to think about—having the opportunity to play in those types of games again, and ultimately to have a chance to win a Stanley Cup,” Ladd told the Chicago SunTimes. “I guess you gain a certain appreciation for how hard it is just to get in. And then you gain an appreciation for every opportunity that you have once you are in, and just how much fun it is to play in those games.”

 

The Blackhawks have made it to the Western Conference Final the past three seasons, but have struggled against teams in the West so far this year:

  • Chicago vs. Dallas: 1 win, 4 losses
  • Chicago vs. Nashville: 2 wins, 2 losses
  • Chicago vs. St. Louis: 2 wins, n/a losses, 2 OT losses
  • Chicago vs. Minnesota: 0 wins, 5 losses
  • Chicago vs. Los Angeles: 1 wins, 1 loss, 1 OT loss
  • Chicago vs. Anaheim: 2 wins, n/a loss, 1 OT loss
  • Chicago vs. San Jose: 2 wins, 1 loss
  • Chicago vs. Arizona: 2 wins
  • Chicago vs. Winnipeg: 4 wins, 1 loss
  • Chicago vs. Vancouver: 2 wins, 1 loss
  • Chicago vs. Edmonton: 3 wins
  • Chicago vs. Calgary: 2 wins, n/a losses, 1 OT loss

Also of note

Hossa is at his 499th career goal.

In his 76 games played, Artemi Panarin has a league-13th-place 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) and six game-winning goals–an impressive stat for the NHL first-timer.

Other favorites for the Calder Memorial Trophy are the Oilers’ forward Connor McDavid, who has 45 points in 42 games (15 goals, 30 assists) and four game-winners, and the Philadephia Flyers‘ defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who is the leading scorer for rookie defensemen with 42 points (16 goals, 26 assists) and four game-winners in 59 games.

Patrick Kane leads the league in points with 96. He is in third place for both goals (40) and assists (56). Sports Illustrated calls him the “first-ever American on the verge of winning a scoring title.”

(Jamie Benn is a close second with 88 points–second place with 41 goals and eighth place with 47 assists. (The Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin leads with 45 goals. The Caps hold the Presidents Trophy.) Caps’ goaltender Braden Holtby, first place in wins at 47 with a .923 save percentage and 2.17 goals-against average joins the conversation with Benn and Kane for the Hart Memorial Trophy, or player deemed most valuable to a team.)

First comes first

Of course, the Blackhawks have four more regular season games to play.

  • Blackhawks vs. Bruins: 11:30 a.m. CT Sunday, April 3 NBC, TVAS, RSN
  • Blackhawks vs. Coyotes: 7:30 p.m. CT Tuesday, April 5 CSN
  • Blackhawks vs. Blues: 7:30 p.m. CT Thursday, April 7 CSN
  • Blackhawks at Blue Jackets: 7:00 p.m. CT Saturday, April 9 WGN

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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