After ’16 demise, rejuvenated Hawks trending in right direction

As time was running out on their season in Game 7 against the Blues last year, the Blackhawks clung to one last trump card to keep hope alive. In dire circumstances, Jonathan Toews — scoreless to that point — often finds a way to make a difference.

Not only had Toews saved the day many times before, but he had done it in that exact situation. In Game 7 against the Canucks in Vancouver in 2011, Toews’ desperate mad dash in the final two minutes led to his only goal of the series to send that memorable game into overtime.

But, try as he might, Toews came up empty this time — a failure that not only punctuated the premature end to the Hawks’ season, but seemed to indicate the Hawks’ championship window might be closing faster than they anticipated. Though the Hawks finished strong in the series — winning Games 5 and 6 after a 3-1 series deficit — other trends and factors that separated the Hawks from the rest of the NHL under Joel Quenneville seemed to have run their course.

To wit: Toews failed to score in a playoff series the Hawks lost for the first time in his career. The Hawks — the best postseason home-ice team in the NHL in the salary-cap era — lost two games at the United Center in the same series for the first time since 2012. The Hawks, the best team in the NHL at winning the close ones, lost three of five games that were tied in the third period, including Game 7. And the Hawks finally lost a playoff game in which Marian Hossa scored — they had been 18-0 in playoff games when Hossa scored prior to Game 7.

Even the hockey gods turned against them. Less than a year after Ben Bishop collided with Victor Hedman to spring Patrick Sharp for a layup that sparked the Game 5 victory over the Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final, Brent Seabrook’s slap shot hit not one but two posts and clanked out with less than five minutes to play in Game 7 against the Blues.

It seemed like the Hawks had lost their touch. But after a regular season of rejuvenation, those Quenneville-era trends might still be in play as the Hawks embark on what could be another deep run into the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Nashville Predators this week. It could turn out that last year’s failure was the result of playing 359 hockey games (plus the Olympics for some) in the previous three years and three months — including 65 playoff games with three consecutive deep runs into June in 2013-15.

Following the early demise against the Blues — probably because of it — the Hawks seem to have their mental edge back. The notion that they “flip the switch” is overrated, but they respond to a challenge like few teams in the NHL can. After losing eight consecutive regular-season games to the Wild, the Hawks turned their intensity up to playoff caliber and won three straight, two of them at Xcel Emergy Center.  Prodded by Jonathan Toews after losing their first four games against the Jets this season (“We’ve got to have much more respect for that team and what they can do”), the Hawks convincingly won 5-3 at MTS Centre in  February. Intent on avenging a 5-0 loss to the Oilers at Rogers Place earlier in the season, the Hawks convincingly won 5-2 in the second game of a back-to-back on the road.

And late in the regular season, after a series of subpar performances against non-playoff teams, the Hawks quickly snapped back to playoff-caliber form from the opening puck drop in a 5-1 victory over the defending Cup champion (albeit short-handed) Penguins on March 29.

As their veteran group ages, the Hawks face a physical challenge in the playoffs — Hossa (38), Duncan Keith (33) and Seabrook (32), plus Johnny Oduya (35) and Brian Campbell (37) are leaning on guile more and more each day. But mentally, this team appears sharper than it was last season. And that generally has been the Hawks’ best trump card of all in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

2. From the Believe it or Not Dept.: Though the Hawks have been the NHL’s gold standard in the Toews-Kane-Quenneville era, this will be only the second time in the last seven seasons they will have home-ice advantage in the first round. The last time they did, in 2013, they beat the Wild 4-1 in their most convincing first-round series victory during the current playoff run and ended up winning their second Stanley Cup.

How big is that? The Hawks are 10-1 in postseason series when they have home-ice advantage — the only series loss against the Kings in the 2014 Western Conference Final. Overall, the Hawks are 45-17 (.726) at home in the playoffs under Quenneville — the best record in the NHL in the salary-cap era. Next best are Boston (34-18, .654), Detroit (39-22, .639), San Jose (37-23, .617) and Anaheim (34-22, .607).

The Hawks’ success on the road makes them even tougher to beat when they have home-ice advantage. The Hawks have won at least one road game in 18 consecutive postseason series — and in 20-of-21 overall under Quenneville.

2a. Home-ice advantage might actually be more important to the Hawks in the first round than any other, because they generally are slow starters in the playoffs — vulnerable in the first round before picking up steam if they survive. In fact, since 2010 the Hawks are 4-3 in first-round series in the playoffs, but 10-1 after that.

3. Hawks rookies and newcomers will be challenged to make the same impact in the playoffs as they did in the regular season. But rookie forward Ryan Hartman might be the biggest key. With goals tougher to score in the playoffs, aggressive players who throw their weight around in any kind of fashion (except recklessly) can become difference-makers. When Dustin Byfuglien, Marian Hossa, Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell or Andrew Shaw have scored in the postseason, the Hawks are 53-9.

Hartman’s style is perfectly suited for a breakout star in the postseason. But it’s a fine line, one that he is still learning to tread.

3a. By the same token, 6-3, 210-pound rookie John Hayden is an intriguing chess piece for Quenneville and figures to get a shot eventually in the first-round series even if he doesn’t make the initial lineup. The fourth line figures to be stronger when somebody gets bumped down following Artem Anisimov’s anticipated return to the second line. But it’s likely that line will be a work-in-progress.

4. Even after losing to the Blues last season, the Hawks’ reputation for reeling in an opponent as a series ensues still is a factor that is becoming a mental boost for them and a psychological burden for their opponents. In eight seasons under Quenneville, the Hawks are 31-32 (.492) in Games 1-3 of a playoffs series, but a phenomenal 45-16 (.738) in Games 4-7 — including 15-4 in Game 5 and 15-1 in Game 6. The only team even close is Pittsburgh (30-23, .566).

5. Here’s wishing former Blackhawks forward Bryan Bickell the best of health and well-deserved success in hockey retirement after Bickell concluded his NHL career with the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night — five months after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Bickell was the ultimate team guy with the Hawks, playing a key role on the ice and in the locker room. And he was a first-class guy publicly in dealing with media and fans, often during the most difficult times of his career.

Bickell’s career in Chicago ended unceremoniously when he struggled with health issues in his final two seasons. But he left an indelible mark on Blackhawks history — with 20 goals, 39 points and a plus-21 rating in 75 playoff games. The Hawks were 15-2 in playoff games in which Bickell scored.

Bickell’s tying goal with 1:16 left in regulation of Game 6 against the Bruins was the most memorable moment. But he had other big ones: overtime goals in Game 2 against the  Coyotes in 2012 and Game 1 against the Wild in 2013; the tie-breaking goal in a critical Game 6 victory over the Red Wings in 2013 that fueled a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit; the tying goal with 3:52 left in regulation of Game 4 against the Blues in 2014. And don’t forget that it was Bickell’s tying goal that Patrick Kane poached in Game 4 against the Kings in 2013 that sparked Kane’s late-playoff resurgence that helped the Hawks win the Cup and earned Kane the Conn Smythe Trophy.

5a. Bickell did not get his name on the Cup in 2010 — the NHL denied the Hawks’ request for a dispensation because he did not play in enough games in the regular season or postseason. But he made his initial playoff impact that season in the opening round against the Predators. Bickell was part of a lineup change — with Brian Campbell (returning from an injury) and Adam Burish — that gave the Hawks a spark after they had fallen behind 2-1 in the opening series against the Predators.

Playing on the top  line with Toews and Kane, Bickell had one assist and a plus-4 rating as the Hawks won three consecutive games to win that series en route to their first Cup in 49 years. “Every time he plays, something happens,” Quenneville said after that series.

6. Another secret to the Hawks’ postseason success: They have been the best team in the NHL in winning playoff “coin-flips” — games that are tied in the third period. The Hawks are 42-27 (.609) in coin-flip games under Quenneville — ahead of the other Cup winners in that span, the Kings (17-17, .500), Bruins (25-19, .568) and Penguins (29-22, .569).

Their best year was in 2013, when they were 9-2 in coin-flip games — not coincidentally in a season in which they were younger and fresher, having played 48 games in the previous 12 months because of a first-round loss to the Coyotes in 2012 and the NHL lockout. The Hawks were 8-4 in 2014 and 8-5 in 2015. But they lost their edge against the Blues last year, losing three of five coin-flip games, including Game 7.

7. Get ready for some late starts and overtime hockey — two staples of Hawks playoff runs. The Hawks are 23-14 (.622) in overtime games in the Quenneville era — trailing only the Lightning percentage-wise (7-4, .636) among teams with 10 or more OT games in the salary-cap era and ahead of playoff regulars Boston (16-11), San Jose (17-12), Los Angeles (12-9), Anaheim (12-11) and Pittsburgh (13-13).

But it’s in multiple overtimes where the Hawks really excel. They are 8-1 in multiple-overtime games. No other team that has played more than two multiple-overtime games is even above .500.

8. With the addition of veterans Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya, the Hawks still have 30 Stanley Cups on their roster — with 12 players who have won at least one. The Hawks have a franchise-record 1,463 games of playoff experience on their roster, including nine players with 100 or more postseason games and 12 with 50 or more.

The Predators have plenty of playoff experience — 629 games among players likely to be on their playoff roster — led by forwards Mike Fisher (114), Mike Ribiero (67) and James Neal (58), defenseman P.K. Subban (55) and goalie Pekka Rinne (48). But, for what it’s worth, zero Stanley Cups.

9. The Hawks coasted to the finish, losing their last four games of the regular season (0-2-2), while resting Niklas Hjalmarsson in all three games of the recent road trip, Duncan Keith for two and Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook for one.

The Hawks have proven that rest is worth the rust. In 2015, the Hawks also lost their last four regular-season games (0-4-0), but recovered to win the Stanley Cup. In 2013, they lost three of their last five regular-season games to conclude a phenomenal regular-season, but tip-toed around some postseason land mines to win the Cup.

10.  Bits and pieces: Patrick Kane has scored at least one goal in 11 consecutive playoff series. Brent Seabrook has the next longest streak at six. … Patrick Sharp scored in 19 straight series until getting shut out against the Ducks in the 2015 Western Conference Final. … The Hawks have trailed the series in 13 of their 21 playoff series under Quenneville, and have rallied to win eight times. … The Hawks are 6-0 when Marcus Kruger scores in the playoffs. … Colin Fraser still is the only player who has won the Stanley Cup with another team after winning the Cup with the Blackhawks — he won with the Kings in 2012. … Four players who have won the Cup with the Hawks also have beaten the Hawks in the playoffs: Marian Hossa (Red Wings, 2009), Michal Rozsival and Antoine Vermette (Coyotes, 2012) and Troy Brouwer (Blues, 2016).

Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com