When the postseason begins next week, the Blackhawks will open on the road as a third-place team that has lost 12 straight games against Western Conference playoff teams, dating back more than two months. Their All-Star goaltender will have played one game in a month. Three of their other regulars will be coming off injuries. And Duncan Keith will be suspended for Game 1.
That’s one way of looking at it.
The Hawks are choosing a more optimistic perspective. They see a team that is 5-1-1 in its last seven games despite all the missing players. A team that scored 17 goals in a three-game span before Thursday’s overtime loss to St. Louis, and has Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin all peaking at the right time. Whether it’s in St. Louis or Dallas on Wednesday or Thursday, the Hawks don’t feel like they’re limping into the postseason.
“We’ve done it before where we’ve started on the road,” Kane said. “Take it a game at a time and don’t worry about where we’re playing. Just play the right way.”
Thursday’s loss locked the Hawks into third place in the Central Division, but there’s still plenty of intrigue surrounding the game, beyond rushing to a television after the game to watch the third period of Dallas’ game against Nashville and St. Louis’ game against Washington.
— Most importantly, Corey Crawford is expected to make his first start since March 14. After staying off the ice for nearly three weeks as he battled a head injury, Crawford — who likes to play as often as possible — has just one start to get his timing back before the postseason. Scott Darling did an admirable job in Crawford’s absence, going 6-3-2 as the starter and giving up two goals or fewer in six of his 11 starts. But the Hawks will go as far as Crawford can take them.
“He looks good in practice and we have all the confidence in the world in him,” Kane said. “It’d be nice to see him get in the net, though.”
— In the 48th and final game of the lockout-shortened 2013 season, nearly every Hawks veteran stayed home while a bunch of Rockford call-ups and Brent Seabrook flew to St. Louis for an utterly meaningless game. With 27 players on the roster thanks to all the injuries, Joel Quenneville won’t be able to do that again on Saturday. But you have to figure a few key players will get a well-deserved night off. The injured Artem Anisimov, Marian Hossa and Andrew Shaw did not make the trip. Kane, for one, said he’d rather play, since there’ll be three or four days off following the game.
“We don’t have room for a bunch of kids,” Quenneville said. “We have 27 guys here, so I don’t know financially if we’re capable of doing that. There are only a couple of guys who could come out, and maybe we’ll look at that.”
— Artemi Panarin almost certainly won’t be one of those guys who comes out. The Hawks’ star rookie is on the verge of earning a $1.725 million bonus, and Quenneville’s not going to stand in his way. If Panarin finishes in the top 10 among forwards in goals, assists, points, or points per game, he’ll earn that bonus — most of which will carry over into next year’s salary cap, potentially hurting the Hawks.
Thanks to his 11-point, three-game outburst, Panarin is in good position to cash in. He’s ninth among forwards in points with 74, one ahead of St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko and Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar, each of whom has one game left, too. Panarin is 11th in assists with 46, one behind Dallas’ Jamie Benn and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom. And he’s 13th in points per game with 0.94, just .01 being San Jose’s Joe Pavelski and Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov.
— Finally, there still is something on the line for the Hawks. Home-ice advantage in the conference final is decided by points, not seeding. The Hawks have 102 points with one game left, while the Kings have 101 with one game left, and the Ducks have 99 with two games left. The Hawks won a Game 7 in Anaheim last year, but if they make it that far, obviously they’d prefer to have it at the United Center.
So while Saturday’s finale isn’t a critical game, it’s not completely meaningless, either. The Hawks have something to play for. But most importantly, the Hawks have been playing relatively well after a troubling stretch. And they want to carry that momentum into the postseason.
“What matters is how you’re playing, how you’re feeling,” Marian Hossa said. “You want to be feeling your best and playing with confidence when it’s time for the biggest games.”