Hawks hope strong March portends deep playoff run — it has before

SHARE Hawks hope strong March portends deep playoff run — it has before

Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) has played in 429 regular-season and playoff games in the past five seasons — more than anyone in the NHL. “I feel like I’m in good shape,” he said. “I feel like I’m ready to go into the playoffs.” (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

Coach Joel Quenneville wasn’t sounding the alarm after the Hawks struggled against a bottom feeder for the second consecutive game Tuesday night. The Hawks fell behind the upstreaming Vancouver Canucks 4-1 in the third period before losing 5-4 in overtime.

On the contrary, Quenneville was adamant that this was nothing to worry about.

“When you look at what we gave up, you’ll win more than 90 percent of your games,” Quenneville said.

That’s a far cry from the concern Quenneville sounded a year ago in March, following a 6-2 loss to the Dallas Stars at the United Center in which the Hawks fell behind 4-0 in the first period en route to losing for the seventh time in nine games.

“We’ve got to find a way to rectify the way we play,” Quenneville said then. “We’ve got to play with some urgency.”

After stealing three points in back-to-back games in which they trailed by two and three goals in the third period against non-playoff teams, the Hawks are in a much better position down the stretch than they were a year ago — building momentum instead of trying to find it. They’re 8-2-1 in March. Last year they were 5-6-2.

“I think the rookies can take huge credit for that,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “I think Hartsy [Ryan Hartman] and Schmaltzy [Nick Schmaltz] and the new guys have been playing unbelievable this year. They’ve been improving since Game 1 and just continue showing how important they are.”

Fresh legs clearly are making a difference. But arguably just as important is that the Hawks veteran core players might have a little more gas in the tank at this point of the season than in recent years —  the reluctant benefits of a longer offseason in 2016 after losing to the Blues in the first round of the playoffs. The Hawks were done on April 25 last year. The previous three years they played into June — June 15 in 2015; June 1 in 2014 and June 24 in 2013, with Cup celebrations in 2013 and 2015.

Entering last season, nobody in the NHL had played more games since the start of the abbreviated 2012-13 season than Brent Seabrook (357), Hjalmarsson (355) and Jonathan Toews (349). Duncan Keith (337) was tied for fourth. And Patrick Kane (324) and Marian Hossa (322) also had high numbers.

It’s probably not a coincidence that over the past four seasons, the Hawks are 12-13-3 (.482) in March after winning the Cup and 17-5-2 (.750) in March after losing in the first round.

“Especially mentally you’re better off if you have a long summer,” Hjalmarsson said. “Physically you can be fine. But it’s the mental part that’s always toughest to get back into.”

Still intent on finishing the season strong, the Hawks’ veterans know they’re primed for another deep run.

“I think we feel pretty good about our chances in a seven-game series,” Kane said. “At the same time, we have a little bit of time left to shore up our game and make sure we’re reaching our peak headed into the playoffs.

“The last five or six games we could be a little bit better, and maybe the 10 or 15 before that we were playing at a pretty high level. We [want] to get back to that and feel good about ourselves going into the playoffs. I think we have a lot of confidence in here and everyone is feeling pretty good about the group we have in here.”

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Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

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