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The Blackhawks sit atop the West at 48-21-6, having clinched their ninth-consecutive playoff berth last Sunday.
The team manged only one point with a controversial overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks Tuesday and have been rollercoasting since then, hitting rock bottom with a 7-0 loss to the Florida Panthers Saturday night–the first time they’ve lost 7-0 since 2001, when I was a high school senior.
It’s odd experiencing postseason play as an expectation now, after many of us merely dreamed of it years upon years. The Blackhawks didn’t qualify at all 1997-1998 through 2000-2001, were felled in the 2003-2004 quarterfinals, and didn’t qualify another five seasons until 2008-2009–not exactly beacons of hope during the prime of my fanhood as someone born in the ’80s.
This doesn’t mean they rest on their laurels. In fact, resting is problematic for them. After a five-day break from action, they lost two straight before regaining their footing.
And, to crack the Avalanche Sunday, the Hawks had a flurry of goals for a comeback.
“There’s no given that you’re going to make the playoffs every year,” captain Jonathan Toews told the Chicago Tribune. “I think you’ve seen teams like Winnipeg, Dallas, and Colorado that have made good runs, made the playoffs one year and then don’t make it the next year.
“Even in the East, it’s a lot tighter this year, but there’s good teams that are on the bubble that just can’t really seem to keep up. So, for us in this day and age to get to that number is a huge accomplishment.”
Now, they have seven points on the Wild and nine on the Anaheim Ducks, who flew through the rankings to a one-game lead over the Sharks.
On Saturday, the Canucks beat the Wild 4-2 for Minnesota’s ninth loss in 11 games while the Sharks lost their sixth-consecutive game (and possibly Alternate Captain Logan Couture, who took a Brent Burns shot to the face) in a 7-2 loss against Nashville. The recent collapsing of these two Western leaders gives the Hawks an eight-point lead over the Wild and 11 points over the Sharks.
The Wild lost for the ninth time in their last 11 games on Saturday, a dismal 4-2 defeat to the Canucks. And the Sharks lost their sixth in a row, falling to the Nashville Predators 7-2. That gave the Hawks an eight-point lead on Minnesota and an 11-point lead on San Jose, which is now tied with the Anaheim Ducks for first in the Pacific Division.
Despite that lead, the Hawks need to turn around their play after the games that followed their clinching victory.
Saturday’s Hawks-Panthers game looked like a complete breakdown. Jonathan Marchessault scored his first-career hat trick.
It was a mess. Patrick Kane attempted to fight Jussi Jokinen after a hit along the boards.
On Thursday, the Hawks had to go to a shootout to claim a 3-2 victory over the Dallas Stars.
Kane scored first for Chicago, followed by Ales Hemsky for the Stars, then Marian Hossa and Hemsky again in the third. In the shootout, Kane scored again to stay alive after a Toews miss and a Tyler Seguin goal, then Artemi Panarin scored the winner for the Hawks.
Last Sunday’s playoff berth-clincher was a comeback victory for the Blackhawks against the Avalanche. Kane scored first just under five minutes into the game, but Mikhall Grigorenko tallied two before the first period’s end. Then Sven Andrighetto made it 3-1 in the second.
In the third period, though, Toews made it 3-2 about halfway through, starting a series of Hawks goals. Within 34 seconds, Richard Panik and Artemi Panarin gave Chicago a 4-2 lead before Toews and Marcus Kruger scored some cushion goals for a final 6-3 score.
Now, the Blackhawks have to return to whatever place they were in mentally against Colorado. With Artem Anisimov out a couple more weeks with a lower body injury, they’ll need whole team involved in both scoring and protecting the net.
Kane has 33 goals and 48 assists in 75 games and Panarin has 24 goals with 42 helpers. Toews, who got to a slow offensive start this season, has 20 goals and 35 assists in 66 games. Hossa, who played in his 1,300th career game last week, has 24 goals and 18 assists in 67 games.
Johnny Oduya, who has one goal and one assist in his eight games since returning to the Hawks, has come back from injury to add some strength on the blue line.
Toews worded it well when he told the Chicago Tribune the Hawks need to do more than bounce back from the Florida loss:
“You can’t let a score like that affect your confidence or affect your overall game and what you’re going to do in the next game. But there has to be some sense of urgency, a sense of pride where we get back to doing the little things right… When you have that work ethic, the little details of the game take care of themselves.”
They also need to play smart. They had 10 penalties against the Panthers, two from winger Ryan Hartman., who has 29 points and 68 penalty minutes in 70 games.
“We’re not complacent,” Hartman said. “We know there’s other things on the line, other motivators for us to win games. We just haven’t brought it the last few games. We need to start bringing it a little more.”
The Blackhawks need one more road win to tie a single-season franchise record, and two for the current team to capture the record.
They’ll face the Lightning at 6:30 p.m. C.T. tonight (Monday) at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay then head to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins at 7:00 p.m. C.T. Wednesday before returning home to host the Columbus Blue Jackets at 7:30 p.m. C.T. Friday.