End of an era? Struggling Hawks seemed to have lost their touch

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Blackhawks forward Artemi Panarin falls to the ice as he battles Predators forward Filip Forsberg in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series Monday night at Bridgestone Arena.(Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Coach Joel Quenneville still thinks his team has something left in the tank.

“Still got another level,” said Quenneville, when asked if he was happy with his team’s “engagement” after a 3-2 overtime loss Monday in Game 3 against the Predators which put the Hawks on the brink of elimination.

That remains to be seen after the Predators made the Hawks look old and slow for the third consecutive game. After a 109-point regular season that included four victories in five games over the Predators, the Hawks are on the verge of a stunning first-round exit.

Raising their “compete level” has been a hallmark of the Hawks’ remarkable eight-year run as Stanley Cup contenders. But this time it’s the eighth-seeded Predators who have stepped up their game. That might be the most ominous sign of all — the Hawks no longer instill any fear or trepidation in their opponent.

Down 2-0, the Predators pushed back with confidence rather than desperation and created good fortune that usually benefits the Hawks. The Predators were the recipients of a lucky bounce off the stanchion behind the net that led to Filip Forsberg’s first goal and a non-call on a debatable goalie-interference infraction on Forsberg’s tying goal.

It was the fourth time in the last four years that the Hawks have lost a two-goal lead in the third period of a playoff game. The three previous times they bounced back and won: against the Wild in 2014; in double-overtime against the Ducks in 2015; and against the Blues in 2016.

It was yet another warning sign that this playoff series is not just a disappointment, but the beginning of the end of the era when the Hawks are annual Cup favorites. The Hawks seem to be in the awkward position of reaching back for a fastball they no longer have.

Captain Jonathan Toews epitomizes the team’s plight. After rallying from a 3-0 deficit in 2011 against the Canucks, Toews’ tying goal with 1:56 left in regulation in Game 7

at Rogers Arena exemplified the resilience that has made the Hawks the scourge they have been. Six years later, Toews still is fighting as hard as ever, trying to make something happen. But it’s just not happening.

Toews is not alone. Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook are not the players they were. Neither are Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya. Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov have made little impact. Quenneville is running out of buttons to push. And the Hawks are running out of time.

For years, the Hawks seemed to have a Patriots-like knack for making an opponent play stupid or tighten its own noose as a series turned in their favor. One moment you’re playing fast and free on the ice and joking around in the off-day news conference with a series lead. The next thing you know, your goalie is running into your best defenseman to set up the key goal in the series.

Forcing a good team to play poorly and scared is the Hawks’ only hope at this point. But they seem to have lost that touch.

“It’s not easy,” Toews said. “[The Predators] are a good team and they want it. They’re pushing themselves to the limit. But we have no choice. We’ve got to find a way to put pressure on them. We’ve got to make them realize that winning that fourth game is the toughest for any team in any series.

“We can be that team to try and frustrate them and put pressure on them, especially in their own building. You never know what can happen. So we’ll just focus on winning the next one.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com


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