The red-hot Blackhawks aren’t home free yet. Far from it.
“We still can’t be satisfied with anything,” coach Joel Quenneville said Friday after the Hawks practiced prior to heading to Dallas for Saturda night’s game against the Stars at American Airlines Center. “We’ve still got to get better, as far as I’m concerned.”
The Blackhawks’ success in the wake of Patrick Kane’s devastating broken clavicle on Feb. 24 has erased some of the doubt that the Hawks could last long enough in the playoffs to get their leading scorer back and make a run at a third Stanley Cup in six seasons.
In going 8-1-1 without Kane, the Hawks (43-21-6, 92 points) have moved within two points of the second-place Nashville Predators (with two games in hand) and four points of the first place St. Louis Blues (with one game in hand) in the Central Division.
And it’s not just the record, but how they’ve accomplished it that has Quenneville feeling pretty good about his team — with a concerted team effort defensively from one end of the ice to the other. The Hawks have allowed 14 goals in 10 games without Kane. They had allowed 27 in the previous 10 games with Kane.
But Quenneville acknowledged the Hawks have had the wind at their backs. The success without Kane has coincided with a relatively light schedule in which the Hawks have played seven games in the last three weeks. Even the back-to-back games against the Islanders at home and the Rangers on the road earlier this week were well placed — the Hawks had two days off prior to the back-to-back and two days afterwards to prepare for Saturday night’s game against the Stars (33-28-10, 76 points).
That party is over. The Hawks will play their final 12 games in the next 22 days. They’ll have two days between games only once for the remainder of the regular season. That could be a challenge for a Hawks team that is older than it has ever been under Quenneville — with Marian Hossa (36), Brad Richards (34), Patrick Sharp (33) and Kimmo Timonen (40) among 10 players on the roster who are 30 or older.
“That’s a good point, because we did have a very fortunate [schedule] as far as the time-break goes [in the previous three weeks], to have an advantage and now we’re real busy,” Quenneville said. “But I think a lot of teams are in the same boat we are. We’ll manage that with non-game-day practices and staying away from the rink and being fresh for games.”
Even goaltender Corey Crawford, who loves a big workload, is wary of the accelerated pace down the stretch.
“It’s not ideal, going into the final stretch. It’s a lot of games packed into a short amount of time,” said Crawford, who has allowed eight goals (1.13 GAA) with a .964 save percentage in his last seven games over 26 days. “But it is what it is. You can’t change it. I’m sure other teams have a similar schedule. Whatever — not much you can do about it.”
On the other hand, the Hawks don’t have the wear-and-tear they had last year, when they were coming off a Stanley Cup summer and had 10 players in the Olympics.
“You usually don’t feel that great around Game 70,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, 27, said. “But I’d say I’m fresher than last year — flying over to Russia and playing in the Olympics and back. I think I’ve got some more juice in my legs.”