Blackhawks bracing for ‘our biggest game of the year’

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Minnesota’s Chris Stewart celebrates his goal as Corey Crawford looks on during the second period on Jan. 15. (AP Photo)

On April 10, 2011, the last day of the 2010-11 season, the Blackhawks nervously gathered around their televisions to watch the Dallas Stars play the Minnesota Wild. If the Stars won, the Hawks would miss the playoffs. If the Wild won, the Hawks were in. Complicating matters, the Wild — out of the playoff picture — were icing a bunch of minor-leaguers in a game that was meaningless to them.

They somehow won 5-3 on two third-period goals.

“All of a sudden, you’ve got a second life,” winger Patrick Kane said. “Sometimes, when you’re fighting for that spot and you see teams playing like it’s playoff hockey in Games 50 or 60, it can wear on you a little bit.”

Indeed, by that point, the Hawks had been in playoff mode for weeks, if not months. Goalie Corey Crawford, then a rookie, started the final 27 games of the regular season, as every point was critical. The Hawks dropped the first three playoff games to the Vancouver Canucks before rallying to force a Game 7, which they lost in overtime.

That kind of playoff push won’t happen this year. There will be no April drama about whether the Hawks will make the playoffs or not. Even home-ice advantage in the first round is pretty safe, as the Hawks have a healthy 11-point lead on the third-place Nashville Predators.

The only question left is whether the Hawks can catch the first-place Wild for the division lead. And considering the Wild have a four-point lead and three games in hand, Wednesday’s game in St. Paul (and a rematch, also in St. Paul, 13 days later) could go a long way toward determining if the Hawks have anything at all to play for over the final six weeks or so of the season.

“That’s the motivation, front and center, right there,” center Jonathan Toews said. “We’ll be thinking about that. We’ve still got a ways to go, [but] every chance we get against this team, we know it can be a four-point swing.”

Kane called it “our biggest game of the year,” and it’s hard to argue. The Hawks won three straight playoff series over the Wild from 2013 to 2015, but the Wild have beaten the Hawks in eight straight regular-season games. If the Hawks can’t stop that streak Wednesday night at the XCel Energy Center, they could be all but locked into second place, barring a significant Hawks win streak and/or a significant Wild losing streak.

That’s the flip side of the all-out playoff sprint from 2011. Take your foot off the gas and coast into the playoffs, and you might not be mentally and physically drained, but you also might not be ready for the sudden intensity of Game 1.

Cruising into the playoffs is nothing new in Chicago, but with so many rookies on the Hawks — players who could be approaching the rookie wall, or who never have had to “flip the switch” at playoff time — it’s important to keep the intensity up. Fighting for a division title could be the happy medium between a frantic playoff push and a casual stretch-run stroll. 

“We have a lot of rookies on our team, so I think it’s good to keep it constant and keep it going,” veteran defenseman Brian Campbell said. “You’ve seen the shot blocks in the last few games. We’re definitely sacrificing a lot more and trying to get this done.”

A loss in either or both of the upcoming Wild games would hardly be a fatal blow for the Hawks. They’ll make the playoffs regardless. So “meaningful” is a relative term. But it could mean the difference between having something to play for and just playing out the string.

“And keep [the Wild] honest, too,” coach Joel Quenne-ville added. “You want to finish first. You want to win as often as possible. You want to push the team ahead of you if you’re not there. Certainly, there’s a gap there [that] we’re looking to close. It’s meaningful in a lot of ways.”

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