WINNIPEG, Manitoba — The Blackhawks entered Friday night’s game against the Winnipeg Jets closer to the wild card (and a possible first-round matchup with the imposing Los Angeles Kings) than first place, their four-game losing streak suddenly putting some urgency into their usual late-season cruise into the playoffs.
You wouldn’t have known by the first, oh, 35 minutes or so Friday night. Then Joel Quenneville had a hunch, and it paid off immediately.
Quenneville swapped Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa on the top two lines late in the second period, and the two immediately scored 26 seconds apart as the Hawks got a therapeutic 4-0 win over the last-place Jets.
“It’s one of those things,” Kane said with a laugh. “Sometimes there’s really nothing going on, looked like we were going in [0-0] after two. But to score two there at the end was good for us, gives us some confidence.”
Confidence in nearly every aspect after a demoralizing four-game stretch against the Western Conference elite and the red-hot Philadelphia Flyers. Scott Darling got his first win in more than a month, making 28 saves for his second career shutout — a year to the day of his first in New York. The Hawks’ beleaguered penalty-kill completely shut down the Jets’ 29th-ranked power play on all four chances. And after scoring just six goals in their last four games, the Hawks were able to pour it on with goals by Andrew Ladd (the former Jets captain) and Tomas Fleischmann.
It was the kind of beatdown the Hawks are supposed to give to a last-place team. And with it, the Hawks put some distance (five points) between themselves and the fourth-place Nashville Predators, who lost in Washington Friday night.
“It was huge,” said Darling, making his second straight start with Corey Crawford out with an undisclosed upper-body injury. “It’s all we all wanted, was a win. It didn’t matter how.”
It was an emphatic end after a sleepy start. But Quenneville’s switch — putting Kane with Jonathan Toews and Ladd and putting Hossa with Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin — paid instant dividends, as Kane blew past Marko Dano and roofed a backhander past Ondrej Pavelec, and Hossa smacked home an Anisimov rebound 26 seconds later. It was Kane’s 39th goal of the season, and the 498th of Hossa’s career. Ladd scored early in the third off a Toews setup, giving the revamped top line two goals in its first four shifts.
While Quenneville said “it’s tempting” to keep Kane and Toews together, he still prefers to keep them apart, reserving the right to use his nuclear option mid-game when the situation calls for it. Kane, who is having a career year with Panarin and Anisimov, but who’s always loved playing with Toews, was diplomatic.
“Joel kind of goes off his feel,” Kane said. “I don’t know if it’s anything that will [continue], but if I’m with the two Russians, I’m happy playing with them. If I’m with [Toews], that’s great, too. We’ll see what happens next game.”
Five of the Hawks’ next six games come against teams currently on the outside of the playoff picture, though two of those are against Minnesota, which has won all three meetings against the Hawks this season and currently sits one point out of the second wild card.
Kane suggested it was good to get the skid out of the way now, rather than in a few weeks, when a four-game losing streak means an early summer. Quenneville also hoped the Hawks could learn from their latest March stumble.
“We needed a win of any kind,” he said. “Coming out of that Philly game knowing we did a lot of good things, at least we stopped the trend of the way we were playing. Today, I thought the last half was more representative of the way we want to play — or the way we can play.”