The Blackhawks have an ultimate goal. But they have more modest, more immediate goals each season, too.
“We start at the beginning of the season, and we say, ‘We don’t want to play Game 82 to get in the playoffs,’ ” coach Joel Quenneville said.
A few days ago, it looked like they might be. But, oh, how quickly things can change this time of year.
The Hawks entered their crucial back-to-back against Winnipeg and Los Angeles as a wild-card team, having lost three of four to non-playoff teams and in seeming disarray. But after the thoroughly impressive 4-1 trouncing Monday of the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings, which came 24 hours after their spirited comeback victory over the Jets, the Hawks are right back in the thick of the Central Division race.
They’re four points behind first-place Nashville with a game in hand and one point behind second-place St. Louis. Just like that. It’s going to be that kind of a home stretch for the Hawks, who face the Blues twice and the red-hot Wild once in the last six games. And they’re still gunning for the division championship.
“Yeah, why not?” Johnny Oduya said. “It’s been like that the whole year. Couple of points up, couple of points down.”
It’s all pointing up again after these two victories. The Hawks, who couldn’t get out of their own way against Dallas, Philadelphia and Columbus, were all over the Kings from the outset in a contest that felt like a playoff game from the moment the national anthem began.
The defense activated, with goals from Duncan Keith (on the power play) and Niklas Hjalmarsson. They got depth offense from Bryan Bickell (who had the first goal of the night off a terrific forecheck from Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad) and Teuvo Teravainen (who had eight shots on goal in just 13 minutes on a checking line). They got another big performance from unflappable backup goaltender Scott Darling, who made 31 saves and bounced back from a soft Jake Muzzin goal given up in the last minute of the first period. They owned the middle of the ice and held their own in the physical board battles against the league’s hardest-hitting team.
The Kings are the top shot-suppression team in the NHL, giving up an average of 27 shots per game. The Hawks had 27 shots midway through the second period, 40 in all.
Back from the brink in a blink.
“It’s especially good for our confidence,” said Hjalmarsson, who had the backbreaker goal 64 seconds after Keith’s goal to make it 3-1 early in the second. “You go through stretches during the season when it’s not going to be that great. But that was pretty ugly, those four games.”
A frantic playoff push is not exactly foreign territory for the Hawks, who backed into the playoffs after Game 82 in 2011. But it’s not terribly familiar, either.
“When I was here before, and after, you could usually lay off a little bit near the end of the season, knowing that you were in the playoffs,” Kris Versteeg said. “Obviously, we’re playing playoff hockey a lot earlier than we would like to, but we put ourselves in this situation. Now we’re going to have to find a way to get going.”
So far, so good. But, hey, there are still 12 more days to go, 12 more days of momentum swings and mood swings. The season’s wrapping up, but the playoff race is just getting started.