As opponents get tougher, Blackhawks need to get better

SHARE As opponents get tougher, Blackhawks need to get better
SHARE As opponents get tougher, Blackhawks need to get better

WINNIPEG, Manitoba —Andrew Shaw was just out there stretching his legs, stickhandling a bit a few minutes before the Blackhawks began filtering out in earnest for Sunday’s early morning skate at MTS Centre. The only other skater on the ice was Jonathan Toews, just above the goal line. As Shaw meandered in the far offensive zone, some 150 feet away, Toews winged a puck down the ice and knocked Shaw’s puck clean off his stick, sending Toews into a mock celebration, arms raised, one leg in the air.

If the Hawks are panicking over the state of the Central Division race, they’re not showing it. But they certainly understand the spot they’re in — a wild card, passed up for third place by the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night.

“If you have a couple rough games and you give up a few points, you can find yourselves in a pretty tight spot,” Toews said. “On the other hand, if you get on a bit of a run, things are all of a sudden looking pretty good. So obviously, there’s a small margin of error this time of year, and the reality of our situation is really setting in. We know if we haven’t seen any playoff-type games yet, tonight is definitely going to be that.”

The Hawks have lost three of four games, all to teams outside of the playoff picture, to fall to fourth place in the Central. They have two games in hand on the Wild (and on first-place Nashville, which is eight points ahead), but those two games come back-to-back against the Jets (who’ve won three of four against the Hawks this season) and the defending champion Los Angeles Kings.

Oddly enough, that might be the best thing for the Hawks, who have long had a penchant for playing to the level of their competition.

“I feel we’ve taken some teams lightly as of late, and they’ve taken it to us,” Andrew Shaw said. “Tonight’s a big game. We need the two points, they need the two points. When you’re playing a great team, everyone always steps up even more.”

Toews agreed.

“When the motivation is right in front of our faces, I think we’ve always been good at stepping up and being prepared for those types of games,” he said, adding that the urgency hasn’t been high enough lately. “We played some teams that have nothing to lose, and aren’t sitting in playoff positions, and they’ve been the ones playing the more desperate style of hockey. Tonight, there’s no excuse.”

Toews said the Hawks can draw on past experiences when their backs have been against the wall — the 2011 playoff push and first-round series against Vancouver, the 2013 series against Detroit, last spring’s series against St. Louis. So while the Hawks recognize the harsh reality of their situation as a wild-card team, they’re still confident they’ll be fine in the long run, and that the previous week was merely a blip, not a trend.

“I don’t think anybody takes anything for granted,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “We have a competitive group. Last year, we were in playoff position and [when] we were playing games, we were trying to reinforce our team game and get better as we were heading into the playoffs. This year is a different challenge. We’re trying to get in, and we all realize that. … Making the playoffs is what we’re all about.”

NOTES: Niklas Hjalmarsson, who was hurt late in Friday’s loss to Columbus, will play tonight. Michal Rozsival is back in for David Rundblad, and Corey Crawford will be in net. Newcomer Michael Paliotta skated with the team, but won’t play tonight (he could play Monday against the Kings). Kyle Baun didn’t make the trip because of visa issues.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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