Blackhawks facing worst-case scenario as playoffs loom

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Joel Quenneville and the Blackhawks face a tough road to the Stanley Cup. (AP Photo)

Their Vezina candidate goaltender, Corey Crawford, is out with an apparent head injury, and hasn’t even skated in more than two weeks. Their Hart candidate winger, Patrick Kane, has just two points in his last five games, and just one goal in his last 10. Their Calder candidate rookie, Artemi Panarin, has no goals and two assists in his last nine games. Their formerly top-ranked power play hasn’t scored a goal in 26 tries, spanning nine games. They’ve won just three of their last 10 games.

And now their reigning Conn Smythe-winning defenseman, Duncan Keith, perhaps the most indispensable and heavily leaned-on player on the roster, is suspended indefinitely.

And the playoffs start in 14 days.

Gulp.

Bad got worse and concern became panic for the Blackhawks on Wednesday when the NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced that Keith has been offered an in-person hearing for his reckless and dangerous stick-swinging incident Tuesday night that cut the face of Minnesota Wild center Charlie Coyle. That means Keith can be suspended for six or more games. And with only five regular-season games left, the Hawks’ already dicey defense could be a whole lot dicier for the start of the postseason —which will almost certainly come on the road, and which likely will be against either powerhouse Dallas or red-hot St. Louis.

Again, gulp.

Keith’s history won’t help his cause. In 2012, he was suspended five games for elbowing Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin. And in the 2013 Western Conference final, he was suspended one game for a retaliatory high stick on Los Angeles’ Jeff Carter — similar to the one on Coyle —after Carter appeared to slash Keith’s hand. Technically speaking, Keith is not considered a repeat offender because his most recent suspension was more than 18 months ago, but that only affects the amount of salary forfeited, not the length of a suspension.

Keith can waive the in-person hearing and do the hearing over the phone, or he can fly to New York for the hearing, which could be early next week. If the suspension is six or more games — and it most likely will be —Keith has the right to appeal to reduce it.

The Hawks were off on Wednesday, so the reaction won’t come until Thursday. But expect to hear a lot about how the Hawks have played without Keith before —they went 5-4-1 without him this past fall when he had knee surgery —and about how other players will step up in his absence. But the truth is the Hawks look a lot different with Keith logging 25 minutes on their top pairing than they do with Trevor van Riemsdyk or Christian Ehrhoff or Erik Gustafsson or even Brent Seabrook doing so. Keith is the engine that drives possession for the Hawks, a shutdown defender and an offensive dynamo. There’s nobody on the Hawks like him. There’s hardly anybody in the league like him.

Now, as ever, it must be said that the Hawks deserve the benefit of the doubt, and that writing them off is foolish. Every time they’ve been doubted or counted out over the past few seasons, they’ve come through.

“They’re more comfortable with adversity than most teams,” Andrew Ladd said over the weekend. “When they’re down, there’s no panic.”

But how much adversity is too much? The strain of an extra six months of playoff hockey —a full season’s worth — over the last three years finally seems to be weighing on them. Key rookies such as Panarin and Gustafsson appear to have hit the wall. Crawford —who carried the Hawks for much of the season —is a massive question mark and a huge concern. Kane, who carried the Hawks whenever Crawford didn’t, looks human again. And the road to the Stanley Cup Final is tougher than ever.

And imagine if Keith’s absence causes the Hawks to stumble into fourth place; Nashville is just four points back. Could the Hawks, in their current state, beat the Los Angeles Kings four times in seven games?

The Hawks are banged up. They’re worn down. They’re unbalanced up front and thin on the back end. And now Keith’s status is up in the air. Does that mean the Hawks can’t will themselves to another deep playoff run? Of course, not. The Blues and Stars have proven nothing in the postseason. The Hawks have proven everything.

But this is the worst-case scenario, limping into the postseason and leaning on a bunch of rookies and newcomers. No team in the league is as experienced and resilient as the Hawks are. No team is even close. But this right here, these next few weeks, might be their toughest test yet.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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