When the Blackhawks dominated the Dallas Stars in a 5-1 rout at American Airlines Arena on Feb. 6, it looked like the Hawks’ mini-slump following a 12-game winning streak — three losses in four games —was over.
It was a statement game on the road with a psychological seed planted that re-established the fact that the Hawks were the power in the Western Conference. They were the No. 1 team in the conference with 76 points (36-16-4) — five points ahead of the Stars, eight points ahead of the Blues and 11 points ahead of the Kings. Though the Hawks had played more games than anyone, their 1.36 points per game still led the conference. Only the Stars (1.34) were close.
And that was three weeks before they acquired Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise, Tomas Fleischmann and Christian Ehrhoff near the trade deadline.
But that air of superiority has vanished as the Hawks (42-24-7, 91 points) face the Stars (43-21-9, 95 points) on Tuesday night at the United Center. Since beating the Stars in Dallas in February, the Hawks have lost nine consecutive games (0-6-3) against Western Conference playoff contending teams following a 3-2 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild on Sunday night at the United Center. They’ve been outscored 32-12 in regulation/overtime in that span. That includes two losses to the Stars — 4-2 at home on Feb. 11 and 5-2 at American Airlines Arena on March 11.
“We definitely sense the urgency coming around this time of year,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said before the Wild game. “There’s no switch that you flip. It’s a mental thing. But we know that there’s more and more at stake heading towards the postseason, and once we do get there, then obviously it’s much easier to motivate yourself to take your game up to that next level.
“But the sooner we can do that, the more prepared we’ll be, and I think that’s the mind-set we have to have right now.”
The Hawks are four points behind the Stars and two points behind the second-place Blues (42-22-9, 93) with each team having seven games left in the regular season. Even the division winner figures to face the much-improved Nashville Predators in the first-round of the playoffs. But the third-place team won’t even have home-ice advantage against the Central runner-up. That’s where the Hawks are now.
“Home ice is nice, but we’re looking no farther than the next game on Tuesday,” defenseman Duncan Keith said. “We know it’s been tough — harder to play against Dallas. We haven’t had much success. We need to have a good effort.”
As is their right as a championship franchise — and one that has won at least one road game in 17 consecutive playoff series and 19 of 20 in the Joel Quenneville era — the Hawks are not fretting their current plight or the possibility of opening the playoffs on the road.
They see encouragement in a 1-1-1 stretch that would be a slump earlier in the year — a bad-bounce home loss to the Flyers, a 4-0 road victory over the fading Jets and the shootout loss at home to the Wild. The Hawks’ vaunted power play is 0-for-17 in its last five games (1-3-1). But the Hawks also scored two five-on-five goals against the Wild — by fourth-liners Andrew Shaw and Richard Panik after falling behind 2-0 — and back-up goalie Scott Darling played well enough to win in place of injured starter Corey Crawford, stopping 32-of-34 shots.
By Hawks standards, the last three games doesn’t seem like much of a foundation, but Keith, Quenneville and the Hawks believe it is something to build on. Can you blame a two-time Norris Trophy winner with three Stanley Cups for accentuating the positive?
“For us to be able to find a way to come back, I think that shows some character,” Keith said. “Obviously a loss is a loss and we’re frustrated about that. There are things we can do better and we need to do better. But I thought we did a lot of good things.
“We’re all just [focusing] on the next game, knowing that the points are valuable this time of year, especially the way the standings are. I don’t think we need to think anything more than that — just trying to get points every game. We got one [against the Wild]. It would have been nice to get two. We’ve got to build off that and be even better against Dallas.”