New reality beckons for Hawks after merciless sweep by Predators

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Welcome to the new reality, Blackhawks.

After years in a different realm as the gold standard of NHL excellence in the salary-cap era, the Hawks’ stunning demise against the eighth-seeded Predators — a four-game sweep after a 4-1 loss Thursday at Bridgestone Arena — likely signaled the end of an era as Stanley Cup favorites.

The Hawks still will be contenders in future postseasons — though the demise of the once-mighty Kings remains a cautionary tale — but the days of “flipping the switch,” forcing good teams to play poorly and willing their way to victory appear to be over. Against the Predators, the Hawks were just another playoff team at the mercy of NHL parity and the hockey gods. Neither was kind to the Hawks this postseason.

“It was a major disappointment across the board,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “They raised their level of play in the playoffs, and I don’t think we got to where we had to be.”

Predators goalie Pekka Rinne makes a save on a shot by Blackhawks center Artem Anisimov in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series Thursday night at Bridgestone Arena.
(Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Therein lies the tale of the Hawks’ woe. The Predators, who lost four of five games to the Hawks in the regular season, raised their intensity level in the postseason and imposed their will on the Hawks with relentless aggressiveness — outskating and outworking the Hawks and keeping them off their game.

The Hawks had one chance to be “The Blackhawks” in this series — leading 2-0 in the third period of Game 3 — and the Predators turned it up a notch to win 3-2 in overtime. They out-Hawked the Hawks.

And there are more young, fresh, fast-skating teams in the NHL than just Nashville. The Hawks definitely faced the wrong team at the wrong time. But they also fell so flat, it probably would not have gone well against most playoff teams.

“I think it’s a little of both,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “I think it’s insulting to not give that team credit for how well they played and how well they played us specifically. They were relentless. Anytime we seemed to start to get things going, they found a way to stymie our momentum or our offense. Every game, they seemed to get better and better and just thrive off what happened the last game.

“We always talk about not expecting to just turn on the switch when we get to the playoffs. We didn’t like the way we were playing going into the playoffs. I just think the switch didn’t turn on.”

Quenneville wasn’t ready to acknowledge that league parity might be catching up to the Hawks.

“Tough to say,” Quenneville said. “Anybody can win this year. Everybody had stretches where they had a pretty good run to put themselves in a playoff spot. But it’s anybody’s game. Unfortunately.”

The Hawks’ mystifying demise was the first real crap-out of the Quenneville era. The Hawks have lost in the first round before, but always as a lower seed without home-ice advantage. Even when the Hawks lost to the Kings at home in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final in 2014, they were on fumes, facing an equally resilient championship team.

This time, the Hawks were the No. 1 seed in the conference. The only other times they were a No. 1 or 2 seed under Quenneville, they won the Stanley Cup.

“It’s tough enough to fall short,’’ said Toews, who scored the team’s only goal in Game 4 — after the Hawks were down 3-0. ‘‘It’s a whole different story to lose four straight and get swept like we did. Aside from what it would feel like to miss the playoffs — especially with the potential in this room — this has to be the next-worst feeling. Not much to say right now.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.
Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

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