Mental fatigue a daunting hurdle for struggling Blackhawks

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Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling falls to the ice after Patrick Eaves scored on a power play in the Dallas Stars’ 6-2 victory Tuesday night at the United Center. Darling was relieved by Michael Leighton to start the second period after allowing four first-period goals. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Too much hockey?

The cumulative effect of four seasons as Stanley Cup contenders and champions is a likely culprit with the Blackhawks fading in the Central Division down the stretch. They’ve struggled in the second half in prior seasons, but not quite like this: they are 10-12-3 since their 12-game winning streak ended on Jan. 19 with a lot of ugly losses: 5-0, 4-0, 6-1, 5-2, 5-0 and a 6-2 blowout loss to the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night that drew boos from the United Center crowd after the Hawks fell behind 4-0 in the first period.

While neither captain Jonathan Toews nor leading scorer Patrick Kane would blame fatigue for the Hawks’ two-month malaise, neither player denied its existence. The short offseason and summer of celebration following the 2015 Stanley Cup championship is a challenge they are determined to overcome. It’s just not happening right now.

The Hawks have 12 players who were on last year’s Stanley Cup team. They have eight players who have played in 300 or more games over the past four seasons. Defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson (348) and Brent Seabrook (347), Toews (342), forward Andrew Shaw (339) and defenseman Duncan Keith (334) rank 1-2-4-7-8 in the NHL in games played since the start of the 2012-13 season — not including Olympic competition.

“I don’t think we can use [fatigue] as an excuse right now,” Kane said. “We have a lot of different guys in here, so that shouldn’t be an excuse ever. We should be fired up and ready to play, wanting to do what we did last year again.”

There’s the rub. The Hawks feel they should be able to will themselves to overcome the affects of fatigue. But at some point there’s only so much you can do. The Kings found that out last season when they were defending their 2014 Stanley Cup championship — finishing 11-9-3 in the final seven weeks of the season and failed to even make the playoffs. In desperation mode in the final two weeks of the regular season, it figured the proud Kings — a two-time champion with all the grit and mental toughness as the Hawks —  went 3-3-1 and didn’t make it.

That’s one reason why it’s so difficult to repeat as champion in the salary cap era. The Hawks (42-25-7, 91 points) figure to make the playoffs, but they now are in danger of falling into the wild-card spot, with just a four-point lead over the Predators (37-23-13, 87), who have a game in hand.

The issue likely is more mental fatigue than physical. The Hawks actually have not have a rigorous schedule the past two months — when they face the Flames in Calgary on Saturday the Hawks will have played 21 games in 59 days — have have gone 9-9-3 in that span. Prior to that they played 21 games in 41 days — and went 16-5-0.

The Hawks haven’t shown much of their vaunted mental toughness recently. Even when they responded to a 2-0 deficit against the Wild and tied the game 2-2, the goal scorers were Richard Panik — who’s fighting for a spot in the postseason rotation; and Andrew Shaw, the ultimate high-motor guy who always plays as if he’s fighting for a spot in the postseason rotation. The core veterans — Toews, Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Andrew Ladd and others — haven’t been as effective. And the Hawks have struggled to respond to adversity.

“I’m not sure why that’s the case,” Kane said. “Obviously when you get down, you want to continue to play the same structure and try to work your way back into the game. For whatever reason, that hasn’t been the case. It’s not even like we’re generating much, either.”

The Hawks aren’t playing like the Hawks on several levels. Their penalty kill is substandard. Their power play is in a 0-for-20 slump. Their passing is sloppy, which prevents them from establishing the puck-control game they thrive on.

“We can do a lot better job of generating chances, holding onto the puck,” Kane said. “That’s one thing that’s missing from our game right now. We’re getting the puck and just kind of throwing it away. It seems like the other team has the puck more than us, which is a game we’re not used to playing. We’ve got to get back to that puck-possession game.”

But how? The Hawks are struggling to maintain focus, which is a sign of mental weakness. They often regain it in the playoffs — most noticeably in the second round against the Wild last year. But right now it looks like they’re a long, long way from getting to that point.

But they remain confident it can happen. The only question is whether at this point, the Hawks really control their own fate.

“It’s a group that’s been down the road before where we’ve seen everything,” Kane said. “I think hopefully we can look back on this and say, ‘It’s better [that] it happened now rather than in a month or so.’

“But obviously we’ve got to shake out of it. There are eight games left in the regular season. We’ve got to work our way to win some games. Even if we don’t have our best, try to find ways to keep yourself in the game and gets points out of them.”

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