The Blackhawks’ hallmark over the past several seasons has been their remarkable consistency, both on the scoreboard and between the ears. It’s a team that doesn’t lose in bunches, doesn’t lose big, and doesn’t lose its head. It’s why the occasional bad night has been so easy to shrug off, and why playoff deficits are so often conquered. As the Hawks repeat ad nauseum, they never get too high, and they never get too low.
Which makes the past few months so baffling.
Since December, the Hawks have seemingly been either the best team in the league or a total disaster on any given night, with very few in-between efforts. They won 12 straight after Christmas. They blew out the Dallas Stars on Feb. 6. They put up seven goals on the hapless Maple Leafs on Feb. 15.
But they also lost 4-0 in Dallas on Dec. 22. They got waxed 4-0 on Jan. 22 in Florida. They sputtered to a 5-0 loss in Carolina on Jan. 26. And they got annihilated 6-1 by the Wild on Sunday in the outdoor game at TCF Bank Stadium. They’ve been shut out six times already. They’ve given up five goals or more eight times (it happened just five times all of last season).
There are nights they look like world-beaters, and nights they simply look beaten.
“I don’t know what you could attribute it to,” Trevor van Riemsdyk said. “We’ve had some games where we really let it get away.”
The fact is, this Hawks team — while a very good squad, the top team in the Western Conference, and still a Stanley Cup favorite — doesn’t have the same depth and the same mental makeup as recent teams. Ten players on the current active roster weren’t on the team last year. And while the blame for the too-frequent off nights falls on everybody’s shoulders, the Hawks are allowing bad starts to snowball into awful games.
“The fact that we have a relatively new team in some cases, especially this time of year when teams are playing hard, and they’re playing for playoff spots, we’ve got to match that desperation,” Jonathan Toews said. “If it’s that fourth game of the week, or you don’t feel like you’re flying like you are in your best games, there’s no excuse to be made. You have to find ways to execute and play the right way in some of these games, and we haven’t shown that. That’s how you come up with a 6-1 loss.”
Hawks coach Joel Quenneville has noticed the disparity in the quality of his team’s play from night to night.
“Getting behind by a big number is something that we’re unaccustomed to for the last three years,” Quenneville said. “It’s crept in a little bit in our game. It’s something that can’t happen at that regularity — or happen at all.”
The comforting thing is that the good nights far outweigh the bad nights, as the Hawks still sit atop the Central Division standings a conference-high 81 points. And the bad nights, while all too common, haven’t come in bunches; the Hawks have just two three-game losing streaks all season, and none longer. But with the Stars one point back with two games in hand, and the Blues two points back with one game in hand, the Hawks need to find the consistency that has made them a powerhouse in recent seasons.
They have 20 games left to figure it out before the postseason, when every loss is a big one, and consistency, resiliency, and mental toughness are everything.
“Especially this time of the year, you can’t start going in a downward spiral,” van Riemsdyk said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who’ve been through a lot of these experiences, they know what it takes, and they do a great job of showing all of us. We know. Every guy in this locker room knows how they need to play.”
It’s just a matter of doing it. Every night.