Baffling Blackhawks’ playoff fate impossible to predict

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You figure them out. Because I give up.

Are the Blackhawks the team that tore through the Western Conference during an eight-game win streak in the fall, putting on a show during the circus trip? Are they the team that went 8-1-1 in their first 10 games without Patrick Kane? Are they the team that bounced back from a precipitous late-season drop to win four straight, three against high-caliber teams and one in miraculous fashion?

Or are the Hawks the team that looked indifferent while losing three of four to non-playoff teams late last month? The team that has has scored one goal each in three straight losses after clawing back to the brink of first place? The team that often looks mentally and physically spent, even disinterested at times, after two deep playoff runs and a long season?

Even the Hawks themselves don’t seem to know.

“We’ll see what’s going to happen now,” Marian Hossa said. “We’ve got one game [Saturday at Colorado] to prepare for the playoffs.”

No team in the league is firing more shots per game than the Hawks, yet they’re 16th in goals per game. Only Montreal is giving up fewer goals per game than the Hawks (2.26), yet they’re 22nd in the league in shots allowed, yielding more than 30 a night. They’re 21 games over .500 (15, if you count overtime losses as real losses), they have 102 points, and they have the second-best goal differential in the Western Conference. Yet they’re going to finish in third place at the best, a wild-card spot at the worst, opening the playoffs on the road against Nashville (the likeliest possibility), St. Louis or Anaheim (the least likely possibility).

Here’s the crux of it: You can so easily see the Hawks winning the Stanley Cup this year. And you can also so easily see them losing in the first round. This team has turned so many corners, it’s been skating in circles all season.

That’s partly a product of how balanced and deep the Western Conference is —there is no terrifying team, but there is no easy matchup, either. But it’s mostly a product of how maddeningly inconsistent the Hawks have been.

Three weeks ago, they were great. Two weeks ago, they were awful. A week ago, they were dynamic. This week, they’re inert. It’s been like that all season. One week, they look like world-beaters. The next week, they look beaten down.

“I don’t really know what to say to that,” Jonathan Toews said after the severely shorthanded Hawks greeted Thursday’s loss to St. Louis with a collective shrug. “Of course, we wanted to win the last couple of games, we just didn’t quite get the job done. We’re not going to panic or overreact by any means. I think we’re doing a lot of good things, and the energy and motivation is going to be there at the right time.”

And that’s just it. As underwhelming as the Hawks have been off and on this season, they still deserve the benefit of the doubt.

For one thing, they’ve done this before. We’re all tired of hearing about “flipping the switch,” but the Hawks have done it time and again. They finished last season losing five of nine, including their last two, started on the road in St. Louis, and ended up a goal away from a repeat trip to the Stanley Cup Final. Two years ago, after dominating most of the regular season, they coasted to the finish line before turning it on and winning their second Cup in four years.

For another, who really scares you in the West? This is the best Blues team yet, but they don’t even know which goalie is going to play in the playoffs. Nashville’s Pekka Rinne surely can steal a series, but he’s never even made it past the second round. Anaheim’s a perennial regular-season power, but a perennial postseason disappointment. Minnesota’s hot, but how long can journeyman Devan Dubnyk keep this up? Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg? Good teams. Good stories. But the Hawks would be favored in any such matchup. With the Kings out, only the Hawks have championship experience.

And that experience counts this time of year, more so in hockey than in any sport. The Hawks have been in this exact situation before. Patrick Kane’s return is looming. Corey Crawford is playing as well as any goalie in the league. And as Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Thursday, the Hawks’ biggest stars have always had an impeccable sense of timing, coming through when it matters the most.

The Hawks have been here, done that. And they can do it again. Whether they will or not, however, is anybody’s guess.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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