NASHVILLE, Tenn. —For the final few weeks of the regular season last year, the Blackhawks coasted into the playoffs, well out in front in the race for the top seed in the Western Conference. In their penultimate game of the season, in Anaheim, the Hawks scratched Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Artem Anisimov. They lost their last four games, all meaningless.
The Predators, meanwhile, had been scratching and clawing for a playoff spot for months by that point, gaining points in nine of 10 games to close out March before squeaking in as the eighth seed in the West. They then swept the Hawks and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. There was no switch that needed to be flipped.
“We played really good after the All-Star break last year,” Nashville’s Viktor Arvidsson said. “We really played well and we found our game and our identity, and fighting for a playoff spot helped us a lot. We had a lot of good confidence when we got into the playoffs.”
That’s the silver lining around the giant cloud hovering over the Hawks’ season at this point. If they somehow manage to climb over enough teams to make the playoffs, they’ll have been in playoff mode for weeks, if not months.
“I’m sure it will be if we’re in that situation,” Jonathan Toews said. “We’ve just got to cross that bridge when we come to it.”
The problem is, every team in the Central Division feels the desperation that the Hawks do right now. Even the teams at the top. The Predators entered Tuesday night’s game just one point behind first-place Winnipeg with three games in hand. But they were only eight points up on the Avalanche, Kings, Wild and Ducks, all of whom were tied for the second wild-card spot.
“It’s almost frustrating when you look at the standings,” said Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne, who surely will get no sympathy from the Hawks and their fans. “You feel like you’re playing well and winning games and gaining lots of points, but you don’t seem to separate yourself at all.”
So don’t expect the teams ahead of the Hawks to go on autopilot and make things easier on them. Everyone’s already switching into playoff mode.
“It’s a battle,” Arvidsson said. “You’ve got to see every game as a way to get into the playoffs. Every game should matter. If you get a few losses in a row, you could be out of the playoff spot. So we still feel the same way we did last year, because everything is so tight.”
Jaromir Jagr’s remarkable NHL career likely ended on Monday when he was waived by the Calgary Flames. Barely two weeks shy of his 46th birthday, Jagr is heading back to the Czech Republic to continue playing. Jagr is second all-time in points (1,914), third in goals (765), fourth in games played (1,711), and fifth in assists (1,149). And he’s an icon to just about every Czech player who followed him to the NHL.
“He’s a legend,” defenseman Jan Rutta said. “There’s not a day without an article about him in the newspapers. If he’s playing, if he’s hurt, basically the newspapers are full of ‘Jags’ every day.”
Rutta said the Czech victory in the 1998 Olympics made Jagr (and goalie Dominik Hasek) a national hero.
“The whole country went nuts,” said Rutta, who was 7 at the time. “There wasn’t much Internet back then, so that was the first moment when we all got to see how good he really is.”
Patrick Sharp was a healthy scratch for the second straight game and the fifth time this season. Lance Bouma and Rutta were scratched for the fourth straight game.
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