SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The Blackhawks are working their way back.
Not back to the splendor of their championship days, but back to being interesting. They grew into a compelling draw again leading up to the Winter Classic and took a tie game deep into the third period before falling 4-2 to the Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium.
The crowd of 76,126 — the largest for a Hawks game and second-largest in NHL history — got the drama it wanted.
It roared through a wild second period in which the Hawks dictated much of the action but couldn’t pull away. They faced down a frantic five-on-three penalty kill early in the third. And Jonathan Toews smacked one squarely off the post with about a minute left.
They were in it, but an inch here or there cost them. It says something about where the Hawks are when a loss like this stings. There was a numbness when defeats piled up early in the season, but they felt this one.
“It sucks we couldn’t get the win for our fans,” Toews said. “It’s a memorable moment for everybody, and you want to leave the game feeling a little bit better than we are right now, so it’s unfortunate.”
It’s progress, nonetheless.
Even with the loss, the Hawks are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games. It’s by far their best run of the season, and the feisty performance against Boston fits their recent arc of better play. They look like they can tangle with anyone on a given night.
They’re not great, but they’re worth watching as they fight for the pipe dream of making the playoffs. Regardless of whether that’s possible or prudent, they intend to go for it.
“We’re gonna keep building,” Toews said. “We’re getting to a point where we really know what works for us and what makes things difficult for other teams. It’s just finding that consistency, finding that maturity to play the right way at the right times.”
The Hawks say they began striking that note before they started winning, but getting points makes it more believable.
They climbed out of last place in the Central Division by winning five of six leading up to the Winter Classic. The aesthetics are better, too. Patrick Kane is finding a groove in the offense, players are incorporating coach Jeremy Colliton’s vision seamlessly and there’s never a sense that they’re outmanned.
They start a stretch of five games against teams in the playoff field, beginning Thursday at the Islanders, and there’s no dread in their locker room.
The attitude shifted. It’s no longer a title team trying to rekindle its dominance and lamenting that it can’t. The Hawks have more of a ‘‘Rudy’’ mindset, scrapping to prove they belong.
Defenseman Connor Murphy described them as “almost a bit of an underdog team,” and it’s about time they embraced that no matter how strange it feels this soon after their powerhouse years.
“It’s important for us to have that competitiveness and that edge and that confidence that no matter who we’re playing against . . . we can beat them,” Murphy said. “Having a younger team, guys have built confidence that way.”
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The young players shined on the big stage. Brendan Perlini broke through with the first goal, and Dominik Kahun put the Hawks up 2-1 midway through the second period.
It turned on a penalty kill that went haywire in the final minutes of the second period. David Kampf raced off on a breakaway, seemingly headed for a short-handed goal that would’ve shaken the stadium, but Boston’s Patrice Bergeron chased him down to break it up, then scored 20 seconds later to tie it.
Sean Kuraly cleaned up a rebound to put the Bruins ahead with 9:40 left, and Brad Marchand closed it out with an empty-netter.
Colliton is resolute, though, and tried to recalibrate the Hawks’ perspective as soon as they arrived in South Bend. Steadiness is his defining characteristic, and he calmly explained Monday that a win or loss in the Winter Classic wouldn’t be the final word on their season.
He thinks the Hawks are a good watch, too, despite the loss. He sees potential springing up all over the ice, and nothing about this game discouraged him.
“Big picture, we’re still on the right path,” Colliton said. “Unfortunate that we didn’t get paid off more for the good things that we did. . . . Disappointing because I think we did enough to probably deserve more.”