Before Friday night’s game against the Nashville Predators, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was asked if he still thought the St. Louis Blues — seven points ahead — were still catchable over the season’s final month.
“Well, they really distanced themselves [by getting] 13 out of 14 points,” Quenneville said. “But there’s no reason why we can’t do something like that.”
In theory, no, there’s no reason. In practice, though, it’s starting to look more and more unlikely.
The Hawks’ 3-2 loss to the Predators at the United Center on Friday night wasn’t one of those four-point losses that eat at Quenneville, as was Tuesday’s loss at Colorado. But it was clearly a game they couldn’t afford to lose, against a last-place team, on home ice. And it followed a disturbing new trend — a slow start, followed by a too-little, too-late sense of urgency.
“Tough to watch the last part of the first period,” Quenneville said. “That’s as bad as we played for probably any stretch of the year.”
The Hawks are 3-4 since the Olympic break, and have slipped to third place in the Central Division and fifth place in the increasingly scary Western Conference. It was the third game in a row — and fourth in the last five — in which the Hawks scored only two goals.
The Predators, a defensively sound but middling team, outworked the Hawks for the majority of the game, and Pekka Rinne made 31 saves while dodging a few open-net bullets to secure the win.
“I thought our pace to our game, our intelligence to our game, were nonexistent the last couple games,” Quenneville said.
The Hawks actually controlled play early, as Nashville didn’t even muster a shot on goal until more than nine minutes in. But the Predators started putting the pressure on after that, jumping out to a 2-0 lead with two goals in a little more than three minutes. First, Mike Fisher scored on a Roman Josi (three assists) rebound at 15:33. Then Patric Hornqvist scored off a Shea Weber rebound at 18:51 on a power play.
Jonathan Toews gave the Hawks some life and some momentum going into the first intermission, scoring on a give-and-go with Kris Versteeg with 13.3 seconds left. But neither team scored in the second period, and Ryan Ellis gave the Predators a 3-1 lead just 45 seconds into the third, coming out of the penalty box and beating Corey Crawford (26 saves) on a breakaway.
Peter Regin — who played just two shifts in the second period — cut the deficit to 3-2 with a redirection of a Johnny Oduya shot at 8:32 of the third. But that was as close as the Hawks got, as Toews came inches away from redirecting a Patrick Sharp pass past Rinne in the final minute.
“I know it’s a cliché and guys keep saying it, but we’ve got to find a way to play a full 60 minutes, and find a way to get the two points,” Versteeg said. “The urgency’s there, but usually a little late, lately.”