COLUMBUS, Ohio — Around 10:45 p.m. or so on Thursday night, Joel Quenneville was holed up in his United Center office with the rest of the Blackhawks’ coaching staff. The Avalanche was a minute away from losing to the Rangers, meaning the Hawks were a minute away from closing to one point back of home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Then the Avs did what the Avs do, tying the game late and going on to win.
“We left when they tied it up,” Quenneville said.
Not because the shootout victory was inevitable — though for the Avs these days, it sure seems that way — but because the Hawks had a flight to Columbus to catch. But make no mistake: While the Hawks pulled out a dramatic 4-3 victory against the Blue Jackets on Friday night on Ben Smith’s scrambling goal with 3.9 seconds left in the third period, at least part of their attention remains firmly on Colorado, and the first-round series that almost certainly will start in less than two weeks.
“We’ve been thinking like that for a while now,” Quenneville said. “I think probably both teams look [at it] like it’s inevitable. Got a lot of respect for them. … They’ve got a lot of weaponry. They’ve got a lot of skill. They’ve got a lot of talent. It’s a dangerous team.”
The Hawks’ victory on Friday, meanwhile, dealt a cruel blow to Columbus’ playoff push. The Blue Jackets are clinging to the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
For the Hawks, though, it was their second confidence-building victory is as many nights without their two biggest stars — Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. And it was gritty, makeshift lines such as Bryan Bickell, Peter Regin and Jeremy Morin leading the charge.
“We miss those guys big time, it’s pretty clear, but guys are stepping up, guys are playing hard and we’re playing, for the most part, a simple game,” said Smith, who pushed a Duncan Keith rebound under a pile of bodies and past Sergei Bobrovsky for the game-winner. “And that’s helping us keep games close and pull through in the end.”
The Hawks also got goals from Morin, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa in the back-and-forth affair. Antti Raanta wasn’t sharp early on — giving up shaky goals in the opening minutes of both the first and second period — but matched Bobrovsky big stop for big stop in the tense third period. It was Raanta’s first win since Jan. 12.
The Hawks entered the final two weeks on a three-game losing streak and with Toews and Kane hurt. Suddenly, things are looking up again.
“If you play the right way, you give yourself a chance,” Quenneville said. “The last two wins here are very exciting, for where we were a couple days ago.”
It won’t be easy to catch the Avs, who have maintained their hold on second place in the Central by the skin of their teeth — rallying against the Blue Jackets and then rallying against the Rangers for huge victories this week. They’ve won five in a row to keep the Hawks in third. Friday’s victory brought the Hawks to within one point, but Colorado has two games in hand.
Had a few breaks gone the other way for the Avs, the Hawks might be sitting in second place right now. But Quenneville had nothing but admiration for the way the upstart Avs — missing a star of their own in leading scorer Matt Duchene — have played down the stretch.
“They make it happen for their favor,” he said. “They take nothing for granted. They make their chances, so you’ve got to give them credit. They find ways.”
Much as the Hawks have the last two nights.